Mitt Romney has taken a large lead as the first returns started coming in from the Nevada Republican presidential caucuses tonight.
With 3% of the results in, Romney had about 52% of the vote in while Rep. Ron Paul and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich trailed far behind with 20% and 19% respectively. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who had largely bypassed the state, had 9% of the vote. Those numbers were gathered from vote counters at caucus sites across the state.
With a win in Nevada, Romney will be the first GOP candidate in this cycle to score back-to-back wins. The former Massachusetts governor appeared to win in the Iowa caucuses but the contest was later awarded to Santorum when the vote was certified. Romney scored a big win in New Hampshire but was then stunned in South Carolina by Gingrich. Romney scored a 14-point victory over Gingrich and the rest of the field in Tuesday’s Florida primary and entered Saturday’s contest with a sizable lead in polls.
The caucuses started at different times — some started Saturday morning and more opened their doors in the afternoon. All caucuses were expected to be completed around 3 p.m. (6 p.m. ET), except for one site in Las Vegas, which will start after sundown to accommodate Orthodox Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, and others who can’t vote until after their Sabbath is over.
The caucuses are open only to the state’s more than 470,000 registered Republicans. Nevada’s 28 delegates will be awarded proportionately based on the statewide vote.
How Nevada’s caucuses work
The Silver State could almost be considered home-field advantage for Romney. He won the caucuses here four years ago in his first bid for the GOP nomination, grabbing 51% of the vote, far ahead of Paul, who was in second place at 14%.
According to exit polls from the 2008 caucus, Mormons made up a quarter of the electorate, and Romney, who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, won 95% of their vote.
Romney eventually lost the nomination to Arizona Sen. John McCain.
This time around, polls indicate Romney is again far ahead of his competition for the nomination. According to a Las Vegas Review-Journal/8 News Now poll released Thursday, 45% of likely caucus-goers said they were supporting Romney, with Gingrich at 25%, Santorum at 11% and Paul at 9%, with another 9% unsure.
The poll was conducted before Romney’s big win in Florida. Other surveys suggest Romney had an even larger lead. Plus, the candidate has a stronger operation in the state than his rivals.
“Nevada is a tough state for Gingrich and Santorum. They have three strikes against them before they even go to the plate,” says Alex Castellanos, a GOP strategist and CNN contributor. “One, 11,000 of the 44,000 GOP caucus-goers four years ago were LDS and will go again for Romney. Two, Nevada also has a strong ‘leave me alone’ libertarian contingent that will vote for Paul, and three, Clark County, around Las Vegas, is dominated by establishment Republicans, not ideological conservatives.”
Around two-thirds of the GOP electorate lives in Clark County.
Romney won big in New Hampshire, but his momentum didn’t last, and Gingrich carried the day in South Carolina. His momentum obviously fizzled in Florida. Romney hopes to break the streak of a different winner each week.
“I just came back from Florida! We had a good showing there!” Romney told a crowd in Reno on Thursday. “That was a good start, although it would really be helpful if Nevada did the same thing Florida did and gave me a real boost going on, so get out there and caucus.”
Earlier Thursday, Romney was in Las Vegas, standing next to Donald Trump as he received the real estate mogul and reality TV star’s endorsement. Trump, who last year flirted with his own bid for the White House, is a well-known figure in Las Vegas and his outspoken criticism of President Barack Obama has made him popular with some tea party activists and grassroots conservatives.
The state’s strong tea party movement should be Gingrich’s trump card in Nevada, but supporters seem divided between Gingrich, Paul and Santorum, who just landed the endorsement of Sharron Angle, the tea party-supported Republican Senate nominee who came close to unseating Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the 2010 midterm elections. The division of tea party supporters only helps Romney.
Gingrich started up his operations in Nevada much later than Romney and has been playing catch-up since. He does have some major allies in the state, including billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who along with his family has contributed millions of dollars to an independent pro-Gingrich super PAC.
But Nevada, along with the rest of the February primary and caucus calendar, does not appear to be too friendly to Gingrich.
A defeat in Nevada, especially if it’s by double digits, could be damaging to the former House Speaker’s bid for the nomination.
“One double-digit loss in Florida was devastating for Gingrich, but a second shellacking Saturday in Nevada will dry up his money,” said Castellanos, who was a top media adviser for Romney’s 2008 nomination bid but who is not taking sides this cycle. “Newt’s campaign is already over a million dollars in debt. Even if his super PAC can find some coins under the sofa cushions, soon his campaign committee won’t be able to afford travel or staff. All Newt will be able to do is throw long bombs. He will be frozen in place.”
Gingrich has vowed to stay in the race all the way to the Republican National Convention in August. If he can last through an unfriendly February, he could find friendlier voters in March 6 Super Tuesday contests in Georgia, which he represented in Congress, neighboring Tennessee and Oklahoma.
Both Romney and Gingrich will spend caucus night in Nevada. As they did on primary night in Florida, both Paul and Santorum are looking ahead to Tuesday caucus states — Paul in Minnesota and Santorum in Colorado.
The Silver State won’t be in the rearview mirror of presidential politics for too long. Nevada is a battleground state in the general election, having voted for the winning presidential candidate 10 out of the last 11 elections. President Barack Obama beat McCain by 12 points in 2008.