Will Nevada Narrow the GOP Field into a Two-Person Race?

Marco Rubio and Donald Trump FBN

Following his second place win in the South Carolina Republican primary, Florida Senator Marco Rubio is riding the “Marcomentum.” The battle for second place has been a fervent contest between Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, with Donald Trump firmly holding on to his frontrunner status in the GOP field.

In the Palmetto state, Trump won with 33%, Rubio had 22.5% and Cruz came in third with 22.3% -- approximately a thousand votes shy of Rubio.

The next contest for the GOP moves to the west for the Nevada caucus on Tuesday. In a recent CNN/ORC poll, Trump has 45% support from Republican Nevada caucus-goers, Rubio is in second with 19% and Cruz rounds out the top three with 17%.

Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada in Reno says the Republican “hybrid caucus” is unique because voters can cast their ballot but are not required to stay for the actual caucus. He says when it comes to voters connecting with candidates, Nevada also sets itself apart from other caucus states.

“For Republicans, ground game is important here in Nevada but not as important as in Iowa, and candidate visits are important but not as important as in New Hampshire. Donald Trump can come in and do a big event, get good media and that will be more valuable in Nevada,” said Herzik.

He adds that Trump’s ground game has not been as visible in the Silver state as Cruz’s or Rubio’s well organized efforts, with Rubio spending the most money on advertisements.

“Rubio is selling himself in his ads as, ‘I am the candidate that Democrats are most afraid to face, I can win and I also have roots in Nevada’ because he lived here during his teen years so he is playing that up,” said Herzik.

Using traditional grassroots efforts does work in Nevada, but Herzik says Trump’s style speaks to the region.

“Trump is a candidate of glitz and flash and bombast; Well you just described a lot of how this state works. I mean we are Las Vegas and he is a Las Vegas kind of guy,” said Herzik.

For Republican caucus-goers in the Silver state, 39% say the economy is the most important issue with illegal immigration and terrorism tied at 20%, according to the poll.

Ford O'Connell, Republican strategist and advisor to the McCain-Palin 2008 campaign, says Rubio is poised to become the new establishment favorite for the Republican nomination but that moment may not come until Super Tuesday on March 1.

“If Marco Rubio won Nevada it would be an earth-shattering moment in the race. I think right now what Rubio needs to do is to make sure he comes in second to keep that momentum going. There are not enough votes out there to be number one so GOP candidates are trying for number two,” said O’Connell.

He says with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush out of the running, Rubio stands to inherit his donors and endorsements because he is seen as the “mainstream candidate with the best chance to win” in the general election. Voters coalescing around the Florida senator could help narrow the field but other candidates need to make way for him first.

“As long as you got Kasich eating a few of the votes, Carson and Cruz eating a few more, it is very hard to see how you could overcome Trump. If Cruz bows out those voters could be split between Trump and Rubio, that is why Trump is hammering Cruz all day long and not Rubio,” said  O’Connell.

He says as long as the Republican field stays wide, Trump will continue to be the beneficiary of votes and eventually become the “winner take all.”

“If it narrows to a two-person race between Rubio and Trump before March 15, then Rubio’s chances are very  good because he is the most electable against Hillary Clinton,” said O’Connell.