KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C.—Steps away from the meticulously groomed Turtle Point golf course, home to the 2021 PGA Championship, an audience comprised mainly of several hundred well-off retirees waited for its favored candidate to emerge. This was, put simply, the Republican elite. Most of the men were wearing khakis with a blazer. One attendee was reading The Wall Street Journal waiting for the event to begin. Many had made small fortunes in business before retiring to the luxurious barrier-island community one hour from Charleston.
No, this wasn’t a Jeb Bush fundraiser. It was a Donald Trump campaign rally in the closing days of the South Carolina campaign. And it was a clear sign that the front-running businessman isn’t just winning over disaffected GOP voters in his surprisingly successful quest for the presidency—but is making surprising inroads among voters from the top 1 percent, who are impressed with his business acumen and no-nonsense approach.
“Who’s the best golfer in the room? Who’s club champion?” Trump joked as he began his remarks, briefly reflecting on his golf game. “But I don’t care about that stuff anymore. I care about making America great again.” Later, he sounded more like a billionaire businessman than a populist candidate: “I love this place. I’ve got so many friends that live here. I have such great relationships here. It’s a course I actually play.”
If Trump wins the South Carolina primary, it will be because he expanded his coalition well beyond his blue-collar base—a sign of his campaign’s success and his staying power. Trump isn’t likely to perform as well on the Carolina coast as he does upstate, but if he can tally 25 percent of the vote in wealthy precincts like these, it makes all the difference to his campaign. Without a credible threshold of support from affluent, college-educated voters, he’d probably be running from behind in South Carolina instead of holding a healthy double-digit lead, as most polls suggest.
Indeed, many of Trump’s most loyal supporters interviewed said they backed Mitt Romney in 2012, even as he badly lost the state to Newt Gingrich. They cited both GOP candidates’ business acumen as reasons for their support, even as their personalities and policy positions diverged greatly.
The importance of rich Republicans to Trump’s success has been overlooked amid his rise to the top of the primary field. The comfortable conventional wisdom, fueled by GOP donor sentiment, is that Trump is fooling less-educated Republicans into buying his current guise of a rock-ribbed conservative stalwart. But based on exit-poll data in New Hampshire and polling in South Carolina, Trump is having stunning success with his own class.
In New Hampshire, exit polls showed Trump won 32 percent of support from college graduates and 31 percent of households making more than $200,000. He won 29 percent of the vote in Bedford, one of the toniest towns in the Granite State. That’s not far behind his overall 36 percent vote in the entire state. In Quinnipiac’s national poll released this week, Trump wins 30 percent of college graduates. That’s still good enough for first place, six points ahead of Marco Rubio.
Trump noted the breadth of his support during his hour-long speech at the country club, riffing on his decisive victory in New Hampshire: “We won every group: rich, poor, fat, thin, highly educated, not so well educated.”
In Iowa, however, Trump bled much of his support from well-off voters in the wake of attack ads from Ted Cruz and momentum from Rubio. In affluent exurban Dallas County near Des Moines, Trump won just 21 percent of the caucus vote, finishing well behind Rubio and Cruz. It’s a sign that Trump’s support is a bit softer among this demographic group—and that these voters are more receptive to negative attacks against the businessman.
But interviews with some of Trump’s most enthusiastic fans in Kiawah Island illustrate the commitment of his voters. Two of his supporters at the event were consummate Washington insiders. Phil and Cris Bernstein lived in Northern Virginia for decades before retiring to the picturesque island. A lifelong Republican, Phil Bernstein worked as an analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency, where he said he raised flags about the Bush administration’s intelligence on Iraq. “Cheney lied. We knew it,” he said. His wife worked on Capitol Hill for Democratic Sens. Hubert Humphrey and Daniel Patrick Moynihan before becoming an event planner—and a Republican. Trump, she said, “tells it like it is.”
John Termine, a retired medical researcher living on the island, expressed how dissatisfied he was with the status quo in Washington—and that Trump was a breath of fresh air. “Government needs a shake-up. It’s moribund.” Asked whether Trump’s comments about the war in Iraq changed his views, he said he sympathized with Trump: “I know people who lost relatives in the Iraq war, and they agree with Trump.”
The most newsworthy element in Trump’s speech came when he responded to Pope Francis’s suggestion that he wasn’t Christian because he backed a border fence. Trump’s aggressive criticism of the pope—“to question a person’s faith is disgraceful,” Trump jibed—drew quick reaction from the media, but it didn’t dissuade any of his supporters in the room.
As Trump supporter Tamira Bates put it: “That was shocking to hear.” She then paused. “From the pope.”