Don’t bet against Mitt Romney in Las Vegas – or in Reno or just about anywhere else in Nevada today as he appears poised to easily win the Republican presidential caucuses. Despite a rocky couple of days in which he was pummeled for an insensitive comment about not being concerned about the very poor, the former Massachusetts governor can expect to have a very good showing in the Silver State.
Romney won the Nevada caucuses four years ago with 51 percent of the GOP vote and is likely to match or improve upon that performance today against former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. Although polling for results in caucuses can be tricky business, Romney is leading the pack with 50 percent of the vote, according to the latest Public Policy Polling survey, followed by Gingrich with 25 percent, Paul with 15 percent and Santorum with eight percent. Romney finished well ahead of Gingrich in Florida last week with 46 percent of the Republican vote, and in the process outperformed the former speaker among every demographic and political group except “very conservative” Republicans and Tea Party members. But the new PPP poll in Nevada shows Romney with a double-digit lead over Gingrich even among voters who describe themselves as very conservative.
“Mitt Romney was here four years ago and he’s a known commodity,” said Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada at Reno. “He’s a business-oriented Republican, which is what the Nevada Republican party is about.” He added, “This is not a social conservative stronghold. We are not Iowa, we are not South Carolina. Our economy is built on gambling. Having worked for Bain Capital and being rich doesn’t hurt Mitt Romney with the Nevada Republican rank and file.”
While the outcome of the caucuses will likely be the same, things are much different in Nevada than they were four years ago, when Romney made his first bid for the presidency. Mainly, the economy has gotten much worse and state Republican politics have gotten more divisive amid the rise of the Tea Party. Romney can pretty much concede the Tea Party vote to Gingrich and his other more conservative rivals. But his resume as a successful businessman, solid family man, and devout Mormon will play well with the rest of the GOP electorate, which is looking for someone who can beat President Obama and manage the economy.
The economy, obviously, is the overarching issue in the state – and it far eclipses other hot-button issues like abortion and immigration that resonated in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. Coming off the mega-victory in Florida that enabled him to reclaim the mantle of GOP frontrunner, Romney must keep up the momentum with victories in Nevada and next week in Colorado and Minnesota.
An angry Gingrich has vowed to stay in the race through the national convention this summer, and the Georgian’s best hope is to bide his time until a rash of primaries in southern states, beginning with Super Tuesday on March 6, when he can begin to whittle away at Romney’s lead. But a poor second or third-place showing in the Nevada caucuses won’t help matters.
“In a sense, the question now is how big will Romney’s margin of victory be and can Gingrich keep the margin small enough, where he’s not explaining a major loss,” Herzik told The Fiscal Times.
Here are five reasons why Nevada should bring another very good day for Romney:
It’s the Economy, Stupid. Nevada is ground zero for the worst aspects of the economic crisis, which makes it ripe for the campaign of a successful businessman who derides the economic and management skills of the current occupant of the White House. Four years ago, Nevada’s unemployment rate was 5.5 percent; now it’s at 13 percent, the highest in the nation. Foreclosures are a nightmare, with one in every 175 homes in foreclosure in Nevada. The once-booming construction industry is in the dumps, especially along the Las Vegas Strip. And a once can-do spirit of residents has given way to a sense of despair – and a strong desire for change.
Romney has tried to keep his campaign focused on attacking Obama’s economic policies and competence – although he spent much of his time in South Carolina and Florida engaged in an ugly mud fight with Newt Gingrich. Polls suggest that Republican Nevadans believe that Romney, far and away, is best equipped to deal with the economy. In his victory speech in Florida Tuesday night, Romney declared: “My leadership helped build businesses from scratch. My leadership helped save the [winter] Olympics from scandal and give our athletes the chance to make us all proud. My leadership [as governor] cut taxes 19 times and cast over 800 vetoes. We balanced every budget, and we kept our schools first among fifty states. My leadership will end the Obama era and begin a new era of American prosperity.”
The Mormon Factor. Romney typically plays down his Mormon faith, in part because of widespread suspicions and misunderstandings about his church. But that’s not the case in Nevada, where about seven percent of the state’s population belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- the second largest concentration of Mormons outside of Utah. Many prominent business leaders and politicians (including Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid) are Mormons, and they play an outsized role in Republican state politics.
Four years ago, Mormons made up one quarter of the Republicans who took part in GOP caucuses, and entrance polls showed Romney winning a stunning 95 percent of their vote. In effect, close to half of Romney’s vote in Nevada came from fellow Mormons. But Romney worked the state hard in 2008 – as he’s done again this year – and his political support was wide and deep. He is counting on an equally impressive showing among Mormons today, although Ron Paul, who finished second four years ago, is attempting to cut into Romney’s Mormon base.
Tea Party Chaos. Two years ago, it looked as if the Tea Party was a political force to be reckoned with, as it pushed aside more traditional Republicans to nominate Sharron Angle to challenge Harry Reid for his Senate post. But the movement splintered and Reid won reelection. And now the Tea Party forces seem no more unified than before to influence the presidential contest. That has to be music to Romney’s ears. The former Massachusetts chief executive is far too moderate for the taste of Tea Party members, who favor more radical cuts to government spending and dismembering the tax code. Tea Party operative Chuck Muth is beating the bushes for Gingrich. Paul has won the allegiance of a swarm of Tea Party activists and organizers. And Angle has endorsed Santorum. Bottom line: A highly fragmented political movement won’t be able to stop arguably the one GOP candidate they dislike the most.
Organization Counts – and Newt Doesn’t Have It. It is a tenet of politics that it takes a lot of hard work, good organization and dedication to prevail at party l caucuses, and that a big name and a lot of dough aren’t enough. .Just recall how Santorum’s woefully underfunded campaign barely beat Romney in the Iowa caucuses early last month. Santorum did it with relentless appearances around the state and with a network of dedicated caucus organizers. Romney’s organization excels at this type of political drudgery, and has poured plenty of time and resources into lining up GOP supporters to invest two or three hours on Saturday morning to help him win. Paul skipped most campaigning in Florida to focus on the Nevada caucuses, and he is hoping that will pay off with a strong second place finish. Gingrich has little in the way of a visible organization, and he has put off some Republicans for repeatedly running behind schedule or canceling important events – including a meeting with GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval for a photo op that Gingrich had requested.
Donald Trump’s Endorsement. Okay, let’s be honest, the Donald’s endorsement won’t do much for Romney. A Pew Research Center survey last month found that only 13 percent of likely Republican voters would be more likely to vote for a candidate who was blessed by Trump; 20 percent said they would be less likely to support such a candidate. Some wags were betting that Trump would endorse Gingrich, who after all made a pilgrimage to New York early this year to woo Trump and eagerly agreed to participate in a Trump-sponsored debate that never came off after Romney refused to go near it. Romney looked slightly ill at ease as he received Trump’s blessing in the billionaire’s Las Vegas hotel on Thursday. And with all the criticism of Romney’s great wealth, his business tactics that destroyed some jobs, and general tone-deafness on the issue of the poor, it’s hard to believe that the multi-millionaire Romney will be making many joint appearances with a billionaire real estate mogul and reality TV star who likes to fire people.
Yet setting all that aside, Trump’s decision to embrace Romney was an embarrassment for Gingrich – who clearly wanted the endorsement. And it denied the former House Speaker a day or two of high visibility heading into the Nevada contest. And one more thing: It pretty much foreclosed the possibility that Gingrich can persuade another fabulously wealthy businessman to join Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson in sinking millions of dollars in his campaign.