COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Hillary Clinton pulled out a crucial victory in Nevada’s Democratic presidential caucuses Saturday, overcoming an unexpectedly strong surge by Bernie Sanders and easing the rising anxiety of her supporters.
Republicans were competing for votes in South Carolina, where Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were in a tight, three-way contest as polls closed. Jeb Bush and other candidates were lagging behind, according to early exit polls.
For both parties, the 2016 election has laid bare voters’ frustration with Washington and the influence of big money in the political system. The public mood has upended the usual political order, giving Sanders and Trump openings while leaving more traditional candidates scrambling to find their footing.
Clinton’s victory came as a relief to her campaign, particularly after her blowout loss to Sanders in the previous New Hampshire contest.
“Some may have doubted us, but we never doubted each other,” Clinton told her cheering supporters during a victory rally in Las Vegas. “This one is for you.”
The former secretary of state captured the backing of voters who said electability and experience were important in their vote. But in a continuing sign of her vulnerability, Sanders did best with voters looking for a candidate who is caring and honest.
Sanders congratulated Clinton on her victory, but then declared that “the wind is at our backs. We have the momentum.”
Among Republicans, South Carolina was seen as Trump’s to lose given that he led preference polls in the state for months. In a Twitter message sent shortly after the polls closed, Trump wrote that he would “be happy with a one vote victory.”
The South Carolina results were also being watched closely for indications of whom, if any, of the more mainstream candidates might emerge to challenge Trump. But the electorate had warnings for those candidates: Half of voters said they felt betrayed by politicians in the Republican Party.
The prospect of a Trump win alarmed Bush, the former Florida governor trying to save his campaign with a respectable showing in the first Southern state to vote.
“Trump can’t win, plain and simple,” Bush told reporters outside a polling place in Greenville. “A ton of people would be very uncomfortable with his divisive language and with his inexperience in so many ways.”
A Trump victory could foreshadow a solid performance in the collection of Southern states that vote on March 1. Victories in those Super Tuesday contests could put the billionaire in a commanding position in the delegate count, which determines the nomination.
Texas’ Cruz banked on a well-regarded get-out-the-vote operation and 10,000 volunteers to help overtake Trump on Saturday, as well as in the Southern states that follow.
A failure to top Trump in South Carolina could puncture that strategy, though Cruz, who sidetracked briefly to Washington to attend the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s funeral Mass, will still have more than enough money to run a long campaign.
Florida’s Rubio was also fighting for a top-tier finish in South Carolina that could help establish him as the more mainstream alternative to Trump and Cruz. Many GOP leaders believe neither Trump nor Cruz could win in the general election.
Rubio scored the endorsements of several prominent South Carolina politicians, including Gov. Nikki Haley, and seemed to have rebounded after a dismal debate performance two weeks ago.
Bush hoped his deep family ties to South Carolina — his brother and father each won two primaries here — would be a lifeline for his struggling campaign. But if Bush is unable to stay close to the leaders, he’s sure to face pressure to end his campaign.
Also in the mix was Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who had low expectations in South Carolina. He was looking toward more moderate states that vote later in March. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson had a small but loyal cadre of followers.
The crowded Republican contest was a contrast to the head-to-head face-off among Democrats. Sanders, backed by a powerful network of small financial donors, has plenty of money to stay in the race for months.
But Clinton’s victory in Nevada could be vital if she’s to hold off the challenge from Sanders. Clinton and Sanders split the first two voting contests, revealing the Vermont senator’s appeal with young people drawn to his impassioned calls for breaking up Wall Street banks and providing free tuition at public colleges and universities.
According to the entrance polls of voters, Clinton was backed by a majority of women, college-educated voters, those with annual incomes over $100,000, moderates, voters aged 45 and older and non-white voters. Sanders did best with men, voters under 45 and those less affluent and educated.
Clinton’s win means she will pick up at least 19 of Nevada’s 35 delegates. She already holds a sizeable lead in the delegate count based largely on her support from superdelegates — the party leaders who can support the candidate of their choice, no matter the outcome of primaries and caucuses.
Democrats and Republicans will swap locations in the coming days. The GOP holds its caucus in Nevada on Tuesday, while Democrats face off in South Carolina on Feb. 27.
The polling of voters in Nevada and South Carolina was conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research as voters arrived at 25 randomly selected caucus sites.
Pace reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Ken Thomas in Las Vegas, Alex Sanz in Greenville, Hope Yen in Washington and AP News Survey Specialist Emily Swan contributed to this report.