By Niall Stanage - 02-21-16 00:10 AM EST
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Saturday was a night of political drama from Charleston to Caesar’s Palace, as results rolled in from the Republican primary in South Carolina and the Democratic caucuses in Las Vegas.
As the dust settles, who’s on the up, and who is left licking their wounds?
Businessman Donald Trump (R)
It was a massive night — “huge,” as he might put it himself — for the business mogul. Trump trounced the field in South Carolina, his closest rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz trailing 10 points in his wake.
Trump has won two out of the three Republican contests to date and is the undeniable favorite to claim the nomination.
As of midnight, it seemed very plausible that Trump would win every one of the 50 delegates up for grabs in South Carolina. That result — which is yet to be confirmed and is dependent upon Trump winning all seven of the Palmetto State’s congressional districts as well as the overall contest — would leave him with about six times as many delegates as Cruz, who would be in second place.
Trump now heads to Tuesday’s Nevada caucuses with the wind at his back. More importantly, Super Tuesday, when Republicans in eleven states vote, is only 10 days away.
For Trump’s rivals, the hour is getting very, very late.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D)
Clinton’s win in the Nevada caucuses provided her with some much-needed stability after she was rocked by a heavy defeat at the hands of Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire.
Sanders’s supporters must now realize just how steep a climb they face if their candidate is to wrest the nomination away from the longtime front-runner.
Clinton won Nevada’s black Democratic caucus-goers by more than 50 points, according to the CNN entrance poll, a demographic advantage which will be even more telling in the contests ahead. In the Democrats’ South Carolina primary on Feb. 27 about half the electorate is expected to be black. Then it’s on to Super Tuesday, when Deep South states such as Alabama and Georgia vote.
Clinton’s victory was far from a landslide but, at around five percentage points, it wasn’t a nail-biter either.
After the Granite State scare, Clinton will be more than happy with that.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)
Rubio scored a moral victory — though hardly an emphatic one — by edging ahead of Cruz in a dogfight for second place.
For the Florida senator, unlike his Texas counterpart, that was at the higher end of expectations. Rubio’s more centrist appeal seemed a less compelling fit for the Palmetto State than the socially conservative Cruz.
Jeb Bush’s exit from the race is equally important for Rubio. The GOP establishment now seems virtually certain to coalesce behind him, despite Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s best efforts to prevent that scenario.
There are still very large questions around Rubio’s candidacy, the most pressing of which is where, exactly, he is going to win? In the three contests to date, he has finished third, fifth and, at best, second here — hardly a record that suggests formidable prospects of ultimate victory.
Still, South Carolina moves Rubio closer to the scenario he wants — a battle for the nomination in which he is the principal alternative to Trump.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R)
The popular South Carolina governor endorsed Rubio on the Wednesday preceding the primary and barnstormed the state with him in the closing days. An ad featuring her endorsement of the Florida senator was also in heavy rotation, even on primary day itself.
Haley’s “winner” status does not come without asterisks: her response to President Obama’s State of the Union address earlier this year, in which she urged Republicans to resist “the siren call of the angriest voices,” was widely seen as a rebuke to Trump. The scale of his victory here must give Haley pause for thought.
Still, the governor is already getting some credit for Rubio’s stronger than expected showing. That means she emerges with her political capital enhanced, not depleted.
The same is also true for Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy, two South Carolina lawmakers who joined Rubio and Haley on the campaign trail.
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook
Perhaps no one breathed a bigger sigh of relief on Saturday than Clinton's baby-faced campaign manager. After all, Clinton's win in Nevada had Mook's fingerprints all over it.
He ran Clinton’s campaign in Nevada during her 2008 battle with President Obama, and he clearly applied the lessons learned this year.
Mook was responsible for opening offices on the ground in Nevada last April and focusing on the states's organizing efforts.
Had the former secretary of State lost Saturday, Mook would have suffered the consequences. Instead, aides cheered the campaign manager inside Brooklyn headquarters Saturday evening as Clinton won.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
Reid’s reputation as a cunning tactician hardly needs any enhancement, but he got it anyhow with Clinton’s win. Reid has not officially endorsed anyone in the Democratic primary but he was instrumental in encouraging a high turnout in the Las Vegas casinos, which proved crucial for Clinton.
With polls tightening in recent days, Reid intervened in the caucuses in his native state via a conversation with the head of the powerful Culinary Workers Union. The union did not endorse anyone but its workers were ultimately allowed to caucus during their working day, without losing pay. The head of the union, Reid told the New York Times, had been “extremely cooperative.”
Clinton owes Reid a debt of gratitude for Saturday’s result.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R)
Bush had nowhere to go except home.
“Thank you for the opportunity to run for the greatest office on the face of the earth,” he said wistfully in an emotional speech announcing he was leaving the race.
Bush’s fourth-place finish, only just holding off Ohio Gov. John Kasich, was a dismal result for the man who entered the race as the front-runner, and who brought his brother, former President George W. Bush, to South Carolina to try to resuscitate his flagging bid.
Last fall Bush was insisting, “I’m going to win South Carolina, take it to the bank.”
The voters disagreed, and that was no big surprise to on-the-ground observers. The lack of enthusiasm for Bush was tangible even down to simple things such as the dearth of lawn signs expressing support for him.
The dismay inside BushWorld about Haley’s decision to endorse Rubio in the final week was palpable, but that was only one final humiliation in a campaign that had many of them.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
Sanders might have settled for a 5-percentage point loss in Nevada a month ago, but that’s hardly the key takeaway from Saturday.
The left-wing Vermonter had been coming on strong in the Silver State but he lost in the end, and that’s what matters.
It was a sobering moment after his big win in New Hampshire. The long odds that he faces in his quest for the nomination are in much sharper focus now than they were 24 hours ago.
Deepening Sanders’ difficulty is the fact that the next contest is in South Carolina, where he has had much less success in reeling in Clinton’s lead. Her significant advantage with black voters could also be crucial on March 1.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)
Of the big three Republican candidates — Trump, Rubio and Cruz — it was Cruz who fared the worst.
Cruz had once seemed a strong bet in the Palmetto State given its socially conservative character and the high proportion of evangelicals among its GOP primary voters.
But his esteemed organization was not as valuable here as it had been in Iowa, where the vagaries of the caucus system make infrastructure especially vital. Cruz and his allies also got into some good, old-fashioned South Carolina mudslinging here in the final days — hitting Trump and Rubio, both of whom hit back hard. It didn’t do him any good.
Cruz had hoped for a strong finish here to propel him toward Super Tuesday. The reality is very different. His chances are far from dead but he is losing altitude at just the wrong time.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)
Graham’s own presidential bid went nowhere and was memorable mainly for his feuds with Trump. Graham then endorsed Bush — and that didn’t turn out so well.
Graham was there till the very end, introducing Bush’s end-of-campaign speech Saturday night. But when his image popped up on large TV screens at Trump’s election-night HQ, he was lustily booed by the business mogul’s supporters.
The primary result is both disappointing and discomforting for the state’s senior senator.
Amie Parnes contributed.