Saturday’s Nevada Democratic caucus and South Carolina Republican primary will either be looked back on as aberrations or the night Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump solidified their holds on their parties’ presidential nominations.
Time will tell, but in the meantime, here are five top takeaways:
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Trump is seemingly untouchable
A week ago at a fractious Republican debate, Donald Trump scolded a crowd of South Carolinians for booing him, saying they were all Bush supporters and big donors. He attacked George W. Bush, saying he lied about weapons of mass destruction to drag America into the Iraq War. Earlier this week, he took on the pope — really, the pope! — saying it was “disgraceful” for the pontiff to question his faith.
And did the New York billionaire ultimately pay a price at the polls? Not at all. Trump rolled to a victory in the state that prides itself in picking Republican nominees, defeating his next closest competitor by 10 points.
The victory Saturday night came just 11 days after a 20-point win in New Hampshire. Yes, Ted Cruz punctured his dominance in the opening Iowa caucuses, but after three contests, Trump has validated what polls had shown for months leading up to the first votes being cast: he is the GOP front-runner, and there’s no sign that is changing anytime soon.
Clinton rights the ship
Nevada gave Hillary Clinton the gift she desperately needed: a win. A clean, undisputed win. Not a big enough win to wash away the stain of the 22-point rout Sanders pulled off in New Hampshire, but a win all the same — and with it momentum.
And the path ahead now looks favorable for her. She leads in the polls in South Carolina — a state Sanders appeared to be looking past when he said “I believe that on Super Tuesday we’ve got an excellent chance to win many of those states.”
Sanders may be proven right. After all, states like Vermont, his home state, and neighboring Massachusetts, vote on March 1, and he figures to fare strongly in those and possibly others. But a Nevada win Saturday by the Vermont senator would have raised considerable doubts about Clinton’s strength and possibly punctured her support in some of the Southern states where she’s now favored.
Now, she enters South Carolina as a clear favorite, where a win would give her three victories out of four in the February contests heading into Super Tuesday.
Perhaps this isn’t the place she expected she’d be in last April when she entered the Democratic race as the prohibitive front-runner, but after New Hampshire, it’s safe to assume she’ll happily take it.
Winning is for losers
Tonight, Bernie Sanders, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz all proclaimed their non-victories to be launching pads to the nomination. To be sure, primaries are about exceeding expectations and demonstrating momentum — at least for a while. But as the early contests of February turn to March, winning becomes paramount.
For Sanders, he’ll have to demonstrate he can win in states where the electorates aren’t predominately white.
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For Rubio, he needs to show he can win period — not just beat expectations or finish higher than other candidates in his ideological lane.
And for Cruz, the challenge will be proving he’s not just 2016’s Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum — a candidate who proved able to master the ground game of Iowa with strong evangelical support but unable to translate that win into the kind of widespread backing needed to win the nomination.
Super Tuesday, which includes Cruz’s home state of Texas, will be critical for Cruz, as he tries to knock off Trump as 2016’s favored Republican insurgent.
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Rubio: The establishment’s last, best hope?
Nominations aren’t won by simply beating expectations or emerging as favored alternatives to front-runners. They’re won by winning primaries, which Rubio has, thus far, proven unable to do. But, after his disastrous fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, Rubio accomplished what he needed to do Saturday night.
He finished well behind Trump, but well ahead of Jeb Bush, who dropped out of the race, and John Kasich, giving the Florida senator a stronger claim than ever to the mantle of establishment alternative to Trump and Cruz.
Now, the question will be whether Rubio can consolidate the support of Bush’s backers — and perhaps most importantly, his donors.
Rubio said Saturday night the GOP campaign had “become a three-person race.” Assuming so, he’s the only one of those three without a win, which, for Rubio, needs to change soon or else it will become a two-person race.
Jeb Bush says farewell
In Bush’s defense, when he announced in December 2014 that he would “actively explore” a presidential bid, no one could have predicted what ultimately transpired in the 2016 GOP presidential race. While he entered the race having not run for office since 2002 and with the baggage that his last name brought, he had considerable advantages — namely, money and establishment support.
While that may have been enough to prevail in previous campaigns, the 2016 campaign could not have been less favorable to Jeb Bush. A party that has in past cycles chosen whoever was seen as next in line, wanted anything but a candidate who carried the blessing of the party’s establishment.
What’s more, he found himself vilified as “low energy” by the GOP hopeful who quickly emerged as front-runner. While Bush seemed to find his footing in the most recent debates, it was far too late to change the trajectory of a candidacy that had been fading for months.
(Paul Singer and Cooper Allen wrote this analysis for USA Today)