WTF Happened in the Nevada Caucus and South Carolina Primary, Explained

Jeb! exits the race, Trump triumphs, and Bernie’s revolution hits a road bump

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nevada clinton
Hillary Clinton, pictured here campaigning in Nevada Saturday, beat her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders in that state's caucus. Justin Sullivan/Getty

The 2016 Republican primary election in South Carolina may be remembered as the moment the Bush Dynasty died.

Having squandered nearly $100 million in super PAC spending on his behalf, Jeb Bush took less than eight percent of the vote in South Carolina, finishing fourth. He'd previously taken fifth in Iowa, and fourth in New Hampshire.

The reality that he would not follow in his father and brother's footsteps into the Oval Office hit Jeb hard as he dropped out Saturday night: "The people of Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina have spoken, and I really respect their decision," Bush said, choking back tears. "So tonight I am suspending my campaign."

He finishes with four GOP convention delegates.

Here's everything else you need to know from Saturday's Democratic caucus in Nevada, and Republican primary in South Carolina.

Mission accomplished, I guess. But wasn't South Carolina supposed to fuel Jeb's comeback?
Jeb's exit comes on the heels of a stark reversal in strategy for his campaign; he had embraced his Bush family name in South Carolina and even campaigned with his brother, George W. Bush. The Jeb campaign had hoped to rekindle some of the love that South Carolina had shown the family in 2000, when the state propelled Dubya past John McCain.

But the decision to campaign on the family legacy also opened the door for the GOP frontrunner, Donald Trump, to wound Jeb by blasting the 43rd president — accusing George W. of lying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and of negligence in failing to stop the 9/11 attacks.

GOP voters didn't punish Trump for sounding like Michael Moore?
And they didn't seem to object to anything else he said in the last week, either. Trump had used the final days of the South Carolina campaign to variously and incongruously: praise Planned Parenthood, defend the individual mandate of Obamacare, pick a fight with the pope, promise to renew waterboarding of terror suspects because "torture works," and repeat, approvingly, an apocryphal tale of a general who slaughtered dozens of Muslim prisoners in the Philippines with bullets dipped in pig's blood.

Instead, South Carolina voters rewarded Trump with nearly a third of the popular vote — and all 50 of the state's GOP convention delegates. Trump won big despite not being the first choice of voters seeking the most electable candidate, or the candidate who shares their values (Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz won those cohorts, respectively). Trump was the big winner among voters looking for a candidate who "can bring needed change" and those just looking for a politician who "tells it like it is."

So is Trump now cruising to the nomination?
In a normal year, Trump would be a lock. Every Republican who has won both the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries has gone on to secure the party's nomination. Trump's ability to attract significant segments of both moderate and evangelical GOP voters puts him in a formidable position.

Do we have a "not-Trump" candidate yet? Who came in second?
The rest of the GOP remains a house divided. In a squeaker, Marco Rubio edged Ted Cruz for South Carolina's choice of not-Trump, but each took about 22 percent of the vote. Fuse them together and "Tarco Crubio" would have won Saturday night. But with Rubio and Cruz essentially tied for second, and with both giving quasi-victory speeches, neither seems soon destined for the exits.

Of the two, Rubio is most likely to benefit from Jeb Bush's departure. But even here the math is not so simple. Jeb's modest base of support could be split by Ohio Gov. John Kasich — who took more than seven percent of the vote Saturday night — and now seems determined to hang around, at least until the delegate-rich battles in Michigan and Ohio are decided. 

Let's turn to the Democrats. Hillary won the Nevada caucus, huh?
Clinton had her best showing of the 2016 campaign, winning a clear victory over Bernie Sanders, whose late surge fell short. Clinton won by more than five percentage points and took the delegate battle 19-15, according to the AP. 

Does Clinton have her groove back?
Clinton's sharp victory speech had some of the clearest message framing of her campaign. This line — mixing a bit of Kennedyesque ask-not-what-your-country-can-do-for-you rhetoric with a critique of Sanders for campaigning on what the right loves to call  "free stuff" — was striking: "I want you to think about this," Clinton said. "It can't be just about what we're going to give to you. It has to be what we're going to build together."

What was her key to victory?
The entrance poll showed very clearly that Clinton's "firewall" among African Americans held strong, with three-quarters of black voters caucusing for her.

The rest of the exit poll showed now-familiar divides. The generational divide remained strong, with Sanders winning 75 percent of voters under 45, and Clinton winning 66 percent of voters over 45.

Wait that sounds like a winning formula for Sanders. Did young people not show up?
Here's the worst news for Sanders out of Nevada: His idea of a "political revolution" is premised on young people and unlikely voters turning out in record numbers. But Nevada on Saturday was not a high-turnout election; only 80,000 Nevadans turned out — 40,000 fewer than showed up in 2008. As a result, the electorate skewed older, with just 37 percent of voters under 45.

What about Latino voters?
If the entrance poll is to be believed, Sanders did better among Latinos — 53-45 — than he did among white voters, 49-47. Several statheads pointed to that number as fishy, in particular because the actual returns from Hispanic-heavy precincts in Las Vegas swung for Clinton.

Nonetheless, the Sanders campaign touted the victory: "What we learned today is Hillary Clinton's firewall with Latino voters is a myth," said deputy political director Arturo Carmona. The Clinton campaign hit back in no uncertain terms. Traveling press secretary Nick Merrill tweeted in response, "I don't typically like to swear on Twitter, but by all accounts so far this is complete and utter bullshit."

What does this mean for the Democratic race?
If African Americans vote 3-to-1 for Clinton going forward, this race is going to be very hard for Sanders to win. Next Saturday's South Carolina Democratic primary could offer Sanders a chance to prove he can make inroads with African Americans. But, oddly, in his concession speech Sanders appeared to all but concede the South Carolina contest, focusing instead on the multi-state primary that follows. Sanders thanked his Nevada supporters, declaring, "And now it is on to Super Tuesday!"

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