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Big Saturday for presidential candidates in key primaries

Posted at 3:46 PM, Feb 20, 2016

ASSOCIATED PRESS — It’s a significant Saturday in the 2016 campaign as voters in the South and the West get their first say in the race.

Republicans are facing off in South Carolina’s presidential primary, a contest that could determine Donald Trump’s strength as a front-runner and help clarify whether a more mainstream politician will ever emerge to challenge him.

Democrats are holding a caucus in Nevada, the first test for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in a more racially diverse state. While Clinton’s campaign once saw the Western battleground as an opportunity to start pulling away from sanders, her team is nervously anticipating a close contest with the Vermont senator.

For both parties, the 2016 election has revealed deep voter frustration with Washington and the influence of big money in the American political system. The public mood has upended the usual political order, leaving more traditional candidates scrambling to find their footing.

In South Carolina, John Kasich’s campaign is already claiming a victory of sorts.

A top strategist, John Weaver, tells reporters that however the Republican candidate does in Saturday’s primary, Kasich’s showing will be enough to “drive somebody out of the race.”

Weaver says he’s expecting two candidates to drop out over the next week — including Jeb Bush. Weaver says that “for all practical purposes, there’s no path forward” for the former Florida governor.

Kasich finished second in the New Hampshire primary, but the expectations are lower for his performance in South Carolina.

The Ohio governor hasn’t ignored South Carolina, but he has focused resources on states in the Midwest and Northeast that hosts contests in March. Today, Kasich is holding a rally in Massachusetts .

Meanwhile, Jeb Bush is getting a lot of attention in the primary and is being pegged as an early favorite. But he may need a third-place finish — if not better — on Saturday in order to remain viable in the race.

Bush finished sixth in Iowa’s leadoff caucuses and fourth in New Hampshire.

He’s trying to break out as the establishment alternative to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. But Bush has competition on that front, chiefly from Marco Rubio and John Kasich.

Without a strong showing in South Carolina, the Bush campaign may have a hard time competing in Nevada next week and then in the larger number of state voting on March 1.

LAS VEGAS, NV - FEBRUARY 20: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and his wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders, (L) greet voters as they visit the Western High School caucus site on February 20, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Sanders and Hillary Clinton wait for the voters to weigh in as they head to the polls in the Democratic caucus. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS, NV – FEBRUARY 20: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and his wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, (L) greet voters as they visit the Western High School caucus site on February 20, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Sanders and Hillary Clinton wait for the voters to weigh in as they head to the polls in the Democratic caucus. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders almost crossed paths just before Nevada’s Democratic caucuses got underway.

First it was Sanders who stopped by an employee cafeteria at Harrah’s casino in Las Vegas. Just minutes after he left, Clinton arrived and was greeted with cheers.

Unionized casino workers are an important constituency in the caucuses. Their union has ensured that a room at each casino is open for employees to caucus in during special, two-hour paid break.

Early results of an entrance poll of Nevada Democratic caucus-goers is showing that Hillary Clinton was backed by a majority of women, college educated voters, those with annual incomes over $50,000.

The survey also showed that moderates, voters aged 45 and older, voters living in union households, suburbanites and non-white voters mostly backed Clinton.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders did best with men, voters under 45, those less affluent and educated.

Sanders did particularly well with the quarter of Democratic caucus voters who identify themselves as independents, getting 7 in the 10 of their votes. He was also backed by nearly 6 in 10 of the 3 in 10 voters who consider themselves very liberal.

Overall, whites were split in the Nevada democratic caucuses: more than half of white women preferred Clinton while about 6 in 10 white men supported Sanders.

The survey was conducted for AP and the television networks by Edison Research as voters arrived at 25 randomly selected sites for Democratic caucuses in Nevada.