Trump wins big in Nevada caucuses, NBC News projects

Donald Trump has won the Nevada Republican caucuses, the third-consecutive victory for the real estate mogul as the GOP presidential race rolls into Super Tuesday, NBC News projected.

Trump, who has already won GOP contests in New Hampshire and in South Carolina, took 44 percent of the Nevada Republican vote, with Sen. Marco Rubio garnering 24 percent and Sen. Ted Cruz getting 21 percent, according to NBC projections from early results.

"We love Nevada!" Trump told a victory rally. "We will be celebrating for a long time!"

As of 2:45 a.m. ET, NBC News had allocated 22 of Nevada's 30 delegates — with 12 going to Trump and 5 each for Rubio and Cruz.

While Trump may be the projected winner, the percentages will matter in Nevada. As a proportional state caucus, a candidate gets the same portion of Nevada delegates as they do votes.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign watch party on the day of the Nevada republican caucus at the Treasure Island Ballroom in Las Vegas, NV on Tuesday Feb. 23, 2016.
Jabin Botsford | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign watch party on the day of the Nevada republican caucus at the Treasure Island Ballroom in Las Vegas, NV on Tuesday Feb. 23, 2016.

Although there are still many scheduled primaries and caucuses ahead, Trump's third- consecutive victory may force party leaders to begin to accept him as the party's likely standard-bearer.

"We weren't expected to win this one, you know that right?" Trump said in his Nevada victory speech. "Of course if you listened to the pundits we weren't expected to win too much — and now we're winning, winning, winning the country. And soon the country is going to start winning, winning, winning."

Entrance polls indicated that Trump won with a broad swath of support: He captured the largest portions of caucus goers identifying as very conservative, somewhat conservative, and moderate. He also defeated his rivals among white evangelicals, those who graduated college, those who didn't, men, women and every age group over 30.

Trump touted those results, proclaiming that "we won with highly educated, we won with poorly educated, I love the poorly educated: We're the smartest people, we're the most loyal people."

Cruz was able to notch a victory over Trump in the first state to voice its opinion, Iowa, but he posted third-place finishes in the next two states.

Rubio, who is averaging third place behind Trump and Cruz in recent national polls, was looking for his first outright win in Nevada: His camp had spun a third-place finish in Iowa and a second-place in South Carolina as signs of momentum.

Additionally, Rubio supporters have expressed hope that Republicans who had been behind Jeb Bush would come to their side after the former Florida governor's exit.

Early entrance poll data indicated that 32 percent of Republican caucus-goers identified as white evangelicals, and 38 percent said they were at least 65 years old, according to NBC News. That's fewer white evangelicals than this year's Iowa caucus and South Carolina primary, but the largest portion above 65 of any Republican test yet.

Additionally, 40 percent of early entrance poll respondents identified as "very conservative," and 43 percent as "somewhat conservative," according to NBC News. Entrance polls also showed that only about 1 percent of Nevada GOP caucus goers said they were black — with 86 percent identifying as white, and 8 percent as Hispanic, NBC News reported. On the education front, 49 percent of entrance poll respondents said they had at least graduated college, while only 12 percent reported high school or less as their education level.

The NBC News entrance poll also found that 61 percent said they wanted the next president to be from outside the political establishment, with only 33 percent saying they prefer a candidate with political experience.

Also in the race are Ohio Gov. John Kasich — the second-place finisher in New Hampshire who pundits say is competing with Rubio in the GOP's so-called establishment track — and retired surgeon Ben Carson. The former director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital has seen his campaign's fortunes steadily eroding after challenging Trump as national front-runner in November.

Nationally, Trump has averaged a commanding lead over his nearest rivals in recent polls, but he is still capturing the support of less than 50 percent of respondents, so his competitors see a potential path to victory — if only the field would narrow further.

Beyond Nevada, the Republican race will move to Super Tuesday — the slate of states (and one territory for the Democrats) that will go to the polls on March 1. For a list of Super Tuesday states, click here.