By Tim Reid and Alexandra Ulmer
(Reuters) - Donald Trump told his supporters not to bother with Tuesday's Nevada primary because he was not on the ballot, but nearly 44,000 Republicans cast votes anyway to deliver a stinging rebuke to Nikki Haley.
Even though Haley, Trump's last remaining rival for the Republican presidential nomination, was the only major candidate on Tuesday's primary ballot, she lost in a landslide to ballots marked "none of these candidates."
It was a humiliating defeat for the former United Nations ambassador and a powerful indicator of the feverish commitment to the former U.S. president by his followers, Nevada Republican Party members and strategists said on Wednesday.
"Everybody knows Trump's supporters are loyal," said John Ashbrook, a Republican strategist who is not affiliated with any campaign this year. "But Nevada's primary demonstrated they're also incredibly motivated to vote."
There was no concerted effort by Trump's team or the state party to get his supporters to vote against Haley in Tuesday's primary, party leaders and insiders said.
"This was simply a message from voters to Nikki Haley to unite the Republican Party," said Michael McDonald, chair of the Nevada Republican Party and a Trump loyalist. "We hope she gets behind Donald Trump."
A spokesperson for Haley, Olivia Perez-Cubas, downplayed Haley's loss, arguing that the process in Nevada this week favored Trump.
"Even Donald Trump knows that when you play penny slots, the house wins. We didn't bother to play a game rigged for Trump," Perez-Cubas said.
Trump and his team in Nevada have been urging voters for weeks to participate in Thursday's separate Republican caucus, organized by the Trump-friendly state Republican Party and the only contest in Nevada that awards delegates to the party's nominating convention in July.
Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, is set to win all of Nevada's 26 delegates. Haley, who has vowed to stay in the race and compete in the Feb. 24 South Carolina primary, is not taking part in the caucus.
"Your primary vote doesn’t mean anything," Trump told supporters at a Nevada rally on Jan. 27. "Just do the caucus thing."
But in recent days, a right-wing media campaign was launched by Trump allies telling Republicans to mark their primary ballot with "none of these candidates," said Sigal Chattah, a Republican National Committee member from Nevada and Trump supporter.
Chattah said national conservative media figures and Trump supporters - including Steve Bannon, a former White House advisor to Trump, and Wayne Allyn Root, a radio and TV host - had been urging Nevadans on their networks to vote "none of these candidates" to embarrass Haley.
The message was "to go out there ... to vote none of the above," Chattah said.
Nevada's pro-Trump governor, Joe Lombardo, also had said in recent days that he would vote "none of these candidates" in Tuesday's primary and then back Trump in Thursday's caucus.
Some Republican voters said they came to the decision to cast a symbolic vote against Haley on their own, without direction from Nevada party officials or the Trump campaign.
"I got no messages, no emails," said Republican Party member Mark Lipp. "But I don't like Haley. I worked it out myself and voted 'none of these candidates.' And I will caucus for Trump on Thursday."
Lipp's ballot was among the 63% cast for "none of these candidates," compared with just 31% backing Haley.
(Reporting by Tim Reid and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio)