Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Ten seconds before the Nevada caucuses officially closed at 9 p.m., an excited crowd of several hundred Donald Trump supporters counted down in a ballroom at Treasure Island.
As the clock struck 9, CNN called the election for Trump, sending the crowd into choruses of wild applause, whistles and chants of “Trump, Trump, Trump” that echoed throughout the room where Trump’s caucus watch party was being held.
The win comes as no surprise: Expectations were particularly high for Trump over the past few days. Polling in the state — scarce and uncertain as it was — placed Trump with a wide lead over Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Fresh off a first-place victory in South Carolina, Trump carried that momentum over into Nevada, holding two packed rallies Monday and Tuesday in Las Vegas and Sparks.
A solid victory in Nevada is expected to propel Trump solidly forward to next week, when 11 states hold their nominating contests on Super Tuesday. The Nevada win is Trump’s third first-place win in a row, following New Hampshire and South Carolina. (The only state he hasn’t won was Iowa, the first nominating contest, which Cruz carried.)
Nevada was long projected to be Rubio’s firewall, but instead he left the state in second place.
Trump won 46 percent of the vote. Rubio placed second at 24 percent and Cruz was in third at 21 percent. Ben Carson garnered 5 percent of the vote, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich is at 4 percent.
“A couple of months ago, we weren’t expected to win this one, you know that, right?” Trump told the crowd through whistles and cheers Tuesday night. “Of course, if you listened to the pundits we weren't expected to win too much, and now we're winning, winning, winning.”
The question now for Rubio and Cruz in the coming days is what, if anything, can knock Trump off his game.
“Tomorrow you’ll be hearing, if they could just take the other candidates and add them up, because you know the other candidates are 55 percent,” Trump said. “They keep forgetting that when people drop out, we’re going to get a lot of votes.”
Trump’s victory showed that he was able to mobilize an enthusiastic base of supporters to turn out to the caucuses Tuesday night, even up against the well-organized Cruz and Rubio campaigns in the state.
“Forget the word ‘caucus’ just go out and vote, OK?” Trump had told his supporters at a Monday night rally in Las Vegas.
Trump also proved that he is able to carry almost every single demographic in Nevada against the other Republican candidates. Among white voters, Trump received 47 percent support and among Latino voters, 44 percent, according to a CNN entrance poll.
The only demographic Trump didn’t appear to win is voters 17 to 29 years old, which Rubio won.
Trump supporters both at the caucuses Tuesday evening and at his rally said that they expected the New York businessman to win by a wide margin.
“I love everything. I like the way that he’s going to make America great,” said Socorro Matsuo, 69, who caucused for Trump at Chaparral High School. “We have to win.”
As of early Wednesday morning, Rubio pulled away from Cruz after being neck-and-neck for much of the night.
Rubio and his team — camped out at Dom DeMarco's Pizzeria in the western valley — called it a great night for the presidential hopeful who once called Southern Nevada home.
"We feel that tonight was a big night for Rubio and the reason is because Nevada has turned this Republican primary race into a two-man race — and that's between Donald Trump and Rubio now," Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison said.
Rubio left Nevada earlier Tuesday and headed to Michigan, where he will be campaigning for the next rush of primaries and caucuses across the country. The second-place finish — on the heels of his second-place finish on Saturday in South Carolina — will likely give Rubio a boost heading into a busy March.
Second place in Nevada allows Rubio to continue pushing the narrative that he is the most electable alternative to Trump, like Hutchison said. In the CNN entrance poll, Rubio was considered by 51 percent of respondents as the most likely candidate to win, compared to Trump’s 33 percent.
Hutchison attributed Rubio's strong showing, in part, to his success capturing not only former Jeb Bush supporters but also a large swath of undecided voters.
"Sen. Rubio is uniquely qualified to articulate the conservative values and principles to a wide spectrum of the American people," he said.
Piers Tueller, a UNLV law student and Rubio campaign volunteer, said he's optimistic Rubio can beat Trump based on the senator's ability to identify with the average American, his detailed policies and his message of inclusiveness.
"He truly is middle class," Tueller said.
Cruz, meanwhile, finished No. 3, following third-place wins in both New Hampshire and South Carolina. Addressing an upbeat Las Vegas crowd of nearly 400, Cruz refocused his attention on Super Tuesday.
"The only campaign that can beat Donald Trump is this one,” Cruz said.
Speaking at the Bill and Lillie Heinrich YMCA in the central Las Vegas Valley, Cruz congratulated caucus winner Donald Trump on a “strong evening,” adding the early count was not official when he took the stage about 10:15 p.m.
The senator was introduced by Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt and national radio host Glenn Beck, who said Cruz would become the United States’ first Hispanic president in November.
“This guy hasn’t budged or compromised one bit,” Beck said of Cruz.
But unlike Beck and Laxalt, Las Vegas supporters on hand for Tuesday’s post-caucus speech expressed doubt at the U.S. senator’s chances at beating out Trump for the Republican nomination.
“It’s really hard to say at this point,” said Nick Giovanni, 60, a Las Vegan who caucused for Cruz for his “sharp knowledge of American law.” “I think you have to be a little worried.”
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Ohio Gov. John Kasich appeared to fall far behind the rest of the pack Tuesday night. Kasich didn’t even campaign in the state in the last few days, while Carson held a handful of rallies.
As results started trickling in Tuesday night, Carson told the modest crowd that had gathered in the ballroom of an off-Strip hotel that he would stay in the race, despite receiving a small percentage of the votes as of late Tuesday night.
Carson left after his speech, but not before greeting a throng of supporters and signing one woman's copy of his book "A More Perfect Union."