The sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia played only a small part in Saturday’s South Carolina Republican debate. But in the days to come, it’s likely to refocus GOP thinking on the high stakes of this presidential election. So maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that the most experienced candidates had their strongest performances on stage—and Donald Trump had his angriest, least-disciplined showing in all the debates.
Here’s the central question: Will 30 percent of Republican voters in South Carolina back a candidate who accused George W. Bush of lying about 9/11, slammed Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, praised Planned Parenthood, and angrily attacked both Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz at tonight’s debate? Trump’s rhetoric was a rebuke to Bush-led GOP establishment, but his views went far beyond what even the party’s populists believe. George W. Bush is still popular in GOP circles, the party has remained hawkish, and Roberts is still seen as a mainstream conservative jurist. Meanwhile, in genteel South Carolina, his heated tone won’t play as well as it did in New Hampshire.
Jeb Bush emerged as the standout performer in the debate, effectively egging on Trump and contrasting his governing record with Trump’s bombast. But by doing so, he cemented the two poles within the Republican Party: Trump vs. Bush. The best-positioned GOP nominee will be someone uniting the two wings under one roof. Marco Rubio effectively articulated a similar message as Bush, but mostly avoided the nasty squabbles that defined the South Carolina debate. Meanwhile, John Kasich was free to promote his sunny brand of centrism without taking much fire from his opponents.
Cruz, for his part, was fighting a two-front war against Rubio and Trump. Both of his rivals called him a liar in memorable exchanges. And he didn’t get to showcase his legal chops, as he was initially ignored (and later fact-checked) in the opening question about the impact of Scalia’s death. With Trump on the defensive, this was Cruz’s opportunity to present himself as the strongest alternative to conservatives. Instead, he was under attack all night.
If Trump faded, Cruz didn’t get any momentum, and all three establishment-lane Republicans got a boost, then the debate provided the ingredients for a contested convention. Despite its conservative disposition, South Carolina historically favors mainstream Republican candidates. If history repeats itself, that’s encouraging news for Bush and Rubio heading down the home stretch in the state.
—To get a sense of whether there’s enough political support behind Republicans’ plan to block President Obama’s nomination to the Supreme Court, play close attention to the swing-state GOP senators up for reelection in 2016: Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, and Ohio’s Rob Portman. Republicans have the votes to block Obama’s choice, but opposition won’t hold if the public turns against the proposal. And if the GOP’s Senate majority-makers find themselves losing reelection in November, such stalling would be a Pyrrhic victory for the opposition.
—Here’s how Kasich views South Carolina: He’s spending two days next week in Michigan, less than one week before Saturday’s primary. Michigan, a Midwestern battleground with an open primary on March 8, is much friendlier terrain for the Ohio governor. “South Carolina is [important] for others who don’t have a top-two finish yet,” Kasich spokesman Chris Schrimpf told National Journal.
—One lesson learned from the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary: When Republicans attack Trump, he loses ground. When he avoids attack ads, he gains momentum. In the final week of the Iowa campaign, Cruz’s campaign and super PAC spent millions on ads questioning his conservatism and were aided by a super PAC run by former Mitt Romney adviser Katie Packer. The Cruz campaign stopped going negative on Trump in New Hampshire, with just Packer’s super PAC ads remaining on air. (All told, just 7 percent of all the ads aired in Iowa and New Hampshire were anti-Trump, according to The Cook Political Report’s Elizabeth Wilner.)
Trump’s winning coalition was very broad as a result of the Cruz-Trump cease fire. He won 32 percent of women voters, 32 percent of college graduates and 31 percent of voters in households making more than $200,000. He only lost a dozen of the 234 towns and cities in the entire state. Compare that to Iowa, where Trump’s coalition more closely resembled his rhetoric. In Iowa, entrance polling show Trump only won 21 percent of college graduates—and just won 21 percent of the vote in affluent Dallas County, a white-collar bellwether.
In South Carolina, that bodes well for Ted Cruz, who is already on the air with hard-hitting ads against Trump, and the winner of the Rubio-Bush skirmish in the state. If the electorate in Iowa is more like South Carolina, it raises the likelihood that candidates will fit more neatly in their expected lanes—Cruz running strongly with evangelicals, Trump best with working-class whites, Rubio winning the most-pragmatic conservative voters, and Bush hoping to win veterans and overperform in the old money confines around Charleston. (Kasich needs to overperform low expectations; he doesn’t have a natural constituency down South.) That would set up a very competitive four-way race.
—Even if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination against Bernie Sanders, some glaring weaknesses have been exposed in her primary fight against the socialist senator. She’s struggling to generate enthusiasm with young voters and underperforming badly with women—two central parts of the modern Democratic coalition. The fact that Sanders won women by 11 points in New Hampshire is something that Team Clinton never would have ever imagined a month ago. Or losing millennial voters by 4-1 ratios in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
There are some additional signs that two other core elements of the Obama coalition aren’t particularly enthused about Clinton. Her campaign is downplaying expectations in Nevada, a state where more than one-third of the Democratic electorate is nonwhite. Her campaign manager Robby Mook engineered her impressive victory over Obama in the 2008 caucuses, but now he’s claiming that Nevada’s demographics more closely resemble Iowa’s homogeneity. As Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston pointed out, that’s a ludicrous statement. Clinton aggressively touted her support for immigration reform, going even beyond President Obama’s activism in a pitch to rally Hispanic support. If they either don’t show up or don’t back her comfortably, it’s hard to see enthusiastic Hispanic turnout in the state come November.