Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, and Nebraska presidential contest thread

Democrats and Republicans are caucusing today in Kansas and voting in the Louisiana primary. Republicans are also caucusing in Maine and Kentucky; Democrats will caucus in Maine tomorrow. Democrats caucused in Nebraska today, while Republicans will hold a primary there in May. This thread is for any comments about the presidential race. I will update throughout the evening.

Ted Cruz won the Kansas caucuses, which went to Rick Santorum in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008. Speaking from Idaho about his latest victory, Cruz told supporters, “The scream you hear, the howl that comes from Washington DC, is utter terror at what We the People are doing together."

Trump is still on track to win the Republican nomination, but a brokered GOP convention can't be ruled out, especially if Cruz wins states dominated by social conservatives, John Kasich wins Ohio and possibly Michigan, and Marco Rubio wins the Florida primary. Ben Carson has ended his campaign, which could help alternatives to Trump win other states. Cruz just won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a sign of his continuing strength with hard-core activists.

Pat Rynard previewed the Democratic caucuses in Nebraska and in Kansas (where some voters will have to drive very long distances to participate). His account and others suggest that Bernie Sanders will win those states. However, Hillary Clinton is favored in Louisiana and has already built up a substantial pledged delegate lead. Unless Sanders can overtake Clinton in pledged delegates, the superdelegates are expected to go overwhelmingly for Clinton (Iowa is no exception).

UPDATE: Further updates are after the jump. It's a disastrous night for Rubio: a distant third in Kansas, where most of the establishment was supporting him, and fourth place in Maine. He pursued a flawed strategy over the past couple of weeks, culminating in Thursday night's debate in Detroit. Rubio went after Trump by getting down to Trump's maturity level. Cruz had a much better debate, attacking Trump on policy and mocking him as childish. After some particularly un-presidential comments by Trump, Cruz scored his best points, asking the viewers at home whether this was the kind of debate they want to see play out over the summer.

Not only did Cruz dominate the field in Kansas, he won the Maine caucuses, a rare victory for a social conservative in New England and a rebuke to Governor Paul LePage, who endorsed Trump on February 26, less than a week after trying to mobilize GOP governors to stop Trump. So far, Trump leads the vote count in Kentucky and may carry Louisiana as well, but Cruz took a big step toward cementing his position as the viable alternative to Trump. He has called on Rubio to promise to drop out if he doesn't win the Florida primary on March 15.

Sanders won the Nebraska and Kansas caucuses (full results are not in yet). Clinton has been projected the winner in Louisiana, as expected, and should net more delegates out of that win than Sanders does from the two caucus states.

SECOND UPDATE: Sanders beat Clinton by a two to one margin in Kansas. The margin was closer in Nebraska, where more caucus-goers last night supported Sanders, but the Clinton campaign narrowed the gap with absentee ballots, as Rynard discussed here.

That absentee strategy may have provided Clinton anywhere between a 5% and 20% boost when you compare Nebraska’s results to other caucus Midwest caucus states (excluding Iowa, which had its own special dynamic). Sanders won the Kansas Caucus today 68% to 32%, the Minnesota Caucus 62% to 38%, and the Colorado Caucus 59% to 40%. Much of the closer margin in Nebraska could likely be chalked up to those absentees.

Still, the Sanders folks preferred to focus more on what happens in the room, and there were signs they were much better organized there. There were many volunteers greeting arriving caucus-goers, they had plenty of signs, placards and stickers for their supporters, and they provided food and drinks. A Clinton precinct captain in Sarpy County complained they quickly ran out of all of their supplies. It helped that many of the Sanders caucus-goers appeared to bring their own Sanders shirts and signs from home.

If the Iowa caucuses allowed for some kind of absentee participation, I believe Clinton would have benefited more than Sanders, as the candidate with greater support among older voters who are often more reluctant or unable to go out at night.

Clinton won by a huge margin in Louisiana, with just over 71 percent of the vote. That will ensure she nets more delegates over the weekend than Sanders does from his wins in Nebraska and Kansas, and a likely victory in Maine today.

Although Trump won Louisiana and Kentucky, Cruz kept his winning margin below 5 percent in both states. Rubio was a distant third, 15 points behind Cruz in Kentucky and more than 25 points behind the runner-up in Louisiana. The Florida senator's spin is sounding pitiful, as Jonathan Martin reported for the New York Times.

Mr. Rubio, who backed out of trips to Kentucky and Louisiana on Friday to make three stops across Kansas, has an increasingly narrow path and is confronting the prospect of a humiliating loss in his own state next week. He has won just a single state, Minnesota, and lags well behind Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz in delegates.

“The states that voted tonight are states that quite frankly some of my opponents just do better in; we recognized that going in,” Mr. Rubio told reporters in Puerto Rico, where he is hoping to find a win on Sunday.

In an encouraging sign for Cruz, he beat Trump among election-day voters in Louisiana, suggesting support for Trump slipped in the last few days.

Trump crushed it in Kentucky's poorest counties, while Cruz beat him by one vote (!) in Rowan County, which became famous last summer when county clerk Kim Davis refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Current GOP delegate standings, according to Taniel:

Trump 391 (45%)
Cruz 302 (34%)
Rubio 124 (14%)
Kas 37 (4%)
Other 23

On the Democratic side, Clinton leads Sanders by 663 pledged delegates to 457. Those totals do not include superdelegates, hundreds of whom have endorsed Clinton.

LATE SUNDAY UPDATE: Sanders won the Maine caucuses by a significant margin.

Rubio destroyed the competition in the Puerto Rico primary and will win all the delegates from that territory, despite changing his position on "whether Puerto Rico should be granted bankruptcy protection."

Nevertheless, Rubio's campaign strategy is getting panned, even by some supporters. Good reads: Ed O'Keefe, Robert Costa, and Paul Kane in the Washington Post on the pattern in several states of "a big last-minute push, notable endorsements and a thud of a finish."

Party leaders, donors and other supporters of Rubio portray a political operation that continues to come up short in its message, in its attention to the fundamentals of campaigning and in its use of a promising politician. [...]

According to senior congressional Republican aides, Rubio’s camp has told prospective endorsers that building momentum in the final week of that particular state’s primary or caucus was central to its strategy. The best illustration of this plan came in South Carolina, where Rubio had a strong performance in a debate just days ahead of the primary, held several well-received rallies and, finally, won the endorsement of popular Gov. Nikki Haley (R). [...]

But Rubio’s game plan ran into reality — the #MarcoMentum strategy, as it’s been dubbed on social media, was covering up massive deficiencies inside the states that were voting. Rubio had little to no infrastructure inside those key states, and each effort began when he was so far behind that momentum meant very little. He ended up a distant third behind Cruz, whose campaign has run a more effective, traditional effort to find supporters and then get them to the polls.

In pitches to fellow Republican senators, Rubio’s team highlighted its repeated support among “late deciders,” voters who make up their minds in the final week. But that meant little if the overwhelming majority of voters made up their minds earlier than that.

In Virginia, for example, Rubio won among late-deciders, winning 39 percent of those making up their mind in the last week, twice as much support that Trump picked up that week, according to exit polls. But that bloc represented just 35 percent of the electorate — Trump won 42 percent of voters who decided before the last week of the campaign, enough to win.

Sasha Issenburg analyzed "The Best-Laid Free Media Plan of Marco Rubio" for Bloomberg Politics:

In their duel for second place, Cruz and Rubio had similarly sophisticated targeting operations, but put to very different uses. While Cruz’s analysts saw that as the first step toward disaggregating the electorate into segments that could receive targeted communication—separating “timid traditionalists” from “stoic traditionalists,” for example—Rubio had all but abandoned individualized contact by Super Tuesday. Throughout the year, the campaign had made only symbolic investments in field operations—enough to convince the press and local party figures that he was taking seriously grassroots interaction but not enough to dramatically shape the electorate through them. “All this is not to say that door knocking doesn’t work,” concluded a memo that Tranter and Stobie released on their website in late December. “But it like every other tactic must only be applied in support of a strategy designed to the realities that each unique campaign must face.”

Implied was that Rubio could win states only by making significant inroads in other candidates’ bases through persuasion, not through the incremental gains that come with turnout. At the same time, Rubio’s comparative lack of cash gave him few opportunities to persuade voters on his own terms. His advertising buys were measly, keeping him off television in the day’s largest media markets—Atlanta, Washington, Dallas, and Houston—although the campaign saw adjacent suburban areas as friendly turf. (Pro-Rubio advertising in those markets came from an allied super-PAC.) Ultimately his team was counting on what they assumed was a pro-Marco gravity in public opinion: If Rubio could get close to his goals, he would close the margin by dint of the fact that he was more popular among late-deciding voters than Trump or Cruz. On Rubio’s spreadsheets, there was no red, only green.

The Second-Best Television Candidate

From the outset, the Rubio strategy was one of maintaining the candidate’s popularity above all else. One who could establish himself as broadly acceptable as voters’ second choice, transcending the party’s factional cleavages, could afford to linger in the middle of the pack. Rubio would wait for other candidates to fall away and emerge as a consensus pick once voting started. Rubio aides expected that their cash would be more finite than many rivals’, but knew they had a candidate more naturally charismatic than any other in the field. They would rely largely on press exposure to introduce him to voters, and hope that a supportive super-PACs would swoop in later to support the efforts with aggressive ad buys that the campaign could not afford. [...]

By fall, the 0ptimus research repeatedly showed that media coverage consistently reached more voters than ads. Decisions about where to place Rubio as a guest could now be intelligently guided, toward local television stations with disproportionately Republican audiences, and again and again to friendly interviewers on Fox & Friends. (Rubio’s press team also found reason to remain sanguine about increasingly hostile snipes from the Morning Joe cast: according to 0ptimus calculations, an estimated three likely Iowa caucus-goers in the Ottumwa media market tuned into the MSNBC program.) It was not until the final week before the Iowa caucuses that the number of paid impressions for all of the candidates exceeded what they were generating through free coverage.

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