LAS VEGAS, NV — Newt Gingrich, limping away from a brutal Florida loss, doesn’t have much to look forward to in Nevada. Avoiding a total wipeout, especially a third place finish behind Ron Paul, is likely to be the top goal.
The state’s caucuses were a high water mark in 2008 for Mitt Romney, who won 51.1% of the vote, and Paul, who placed second with 13.7%.
Romney benefits from a large Mormon minority that’s energized by Romney’s historic candidacy and expected to make up an even larger share of the GOP primary. in 2008, entrance polls showed as many as 25% of Republican caucus-goers were Mormon, 94% of whom supported Romney, despite making up just 7.5% of the state’s population. His close ties to neighboring Utah also make him a more known quantity compared to the rest of the field.
As a result, Newt — while still planning to contest the state —is rushing to downplay expectations.
“Nevada’s tricky because of the Mormon influence, but we have a shot at it,” he told reporters on Monday.
For Gingrich, the more immediate danger to his leftover momentum may be a finishing behind Paul.
“Paul is probably the sleeper in Nevada,” Sig Rogich, a Republcian consultant based in Nevada told TPM. “He’s always enjoyed real suport and Nevada is a libertarian state. So I think it will be Romney in first and a tight race for second between Gingrich and Paul.”
The state awards its delegates through a caucus, which typically benefits candidates with more energized and well-organized grassroots supporters, an area where Paul excels and has focused the bulk of his resources and attention. Paul, who skipped campaigning in Florida to focus on upcoming caucus states, was already in Nevada on Tuesday evening to rally his supporters.
By contrast, even Gingrich’s own supporters concede his ground game is weak compared to Romney and Paul, meaning even another late infusion of cash from his Super PAC may not be enough to turn out voters.
“If 100 people supported Romney and 100 supported Gingrich, Gingrich would still be behind the eight ball because Romney folks will make sure people turn up,” Chuck Muth, a local GOP consultant advising pro-Newt Super PAC Winning Our Future, told TPM.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t opportunity for Gingrich in the state, however. Muth suggested that Gingrich could advance his strategy of gradually consolidating the conservative anti-Romney vote with a big win over Rick Santorum, increasing the pressure on the former Senator to drop out.
“The key here is how well he does versus Santorum,” Muth said. “Everyone expects a Romney blowout, so anything less than a blowout with Newt in second, thats a victory at this point.”
Santorum’s team, for their part, say they’re running a national campaign and won’t be bullied into dropping out by any one state result.
“We didn’t want to fall into the trap Newt did of putting all our eggs into the Florida basket so we didn’t,” spokesman Hogan Gidley said. “I’m sure they’re a little upset at the way things happened, it’s tough to win an election when your candidate doesn’t offer a contrast with Mitt Romney.”
Gingrich’s South Carolina surprise means he also won’t be able to catch Romney off guard as easily. After seeing Gingrich come back from the dead twice this election, Team Romney won’t want to take any chances by letting up on their spectacular anti-Newt offensive. Romney adviser Kevin Madden told TPM the campaign would focus on winning over as many Nevada voters as possible with an economy-focused message, but would still “draw contrasts where necessary” with their rivals.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.