Republican presidential candidates at presidential debate in Las Vegas
Republican presidential candidates at presidential debate in Las Vegas Reuters

The GOP caucus in Nevada begins tonight at 5 PM, and the state’s history of electoral unpredictability has the five remaining campaigns on edge.

The first-in-the-West state is demographically distinct from the three previous GOP contests, and is almost a polar opposite of last Saturday’s South Carolina GOP electorate.

The Nevada caucus is also relatively new, introduced only in 2008, making a state already notoriously difficult to properly poll even more complicated.

That’s left many establishment Republicans jittery following Trump’s back-to-back wins in South Carolina and New Hampshire. A Trump victory in Nevada, they fear, would hand the New York real estate mogul a trifecta spanning the northeast, south, and west, giving him momentum that could make his nomination all but inevitable.  

But despite Trump’s double-digit lead in the recent polling, observers see Nevada as a toss-up.

In the past two elections, Nevada has embraced establishment candidates, giving former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney more than 50% both times.

In the last GOP caucus in Iowa, Trump underperformed polls, while Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson all outperformed expectations. Caucuses, as opposed to primary votes, take place during fixed hours in the evening and require a significant commitment of time and energy to participate, leading to significantly smaller electorates.

Unlike New Hampshire, where Trump benefited from the open primary system allowing independents to participate, Nevada requires voters to register as Republicans at least 30 days in advance.

Rubio, who has won a string of crucial endorsements since the South Carolina primary, may benefit from a coalescing of establishment support around him.

Nevada may be especially friendly territory for the Florida Senator. Rubio lived in Nevada as a child, where his family attended a Mormon church. The Mormon LDS Church is the second largest congregation in Nevada and is prominent in the state’s political establishment.

Rubio may also benefit from the state’s significant Hispanic and Asian populations, who are less likely to support Trump’s harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Voting in the Nevada caucus is indirect, with participants choosing representatives for a state convention, where actual delegates are chosen. The final results of the caucus will not be declared until the state convention in March.