Against the Grain

Trump Wins South Carolina Battle, Rubio Well-Positioned for War

The real estate mogul’s victory was impressive, but also revealed his vulnerabilities.

Donald Trump at a primary-night event in Spartanburg, South Carolina on Saturday, Feb. 20. Trump claimed a big victory in South Carolina's Republican primary Saturday, deepening his hold on the party's presidential field as the contest moved into the South.
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Feb. 21, 2016, 7:40 a.m.

CHARLESTON, S.C.—Donald Trump was the big winner in South Carolina. He won one-third of the Republican primary vote in a state where he spent the last week insulting former President George W. Bush, the pope, and Apple, the country’s most successful business. He’s expected to notch all 51 delegates in the state, sweeping the state’s congressional districts, and holding a comfortable edge in the early delegate count. But the path to his eventual defeat was also paved in South Carolina, with Marco Rubio emerging as a formidable establishment alternative.

—There are two questions that are key to understanding the GOP nomination: a) Will the party’s leadership consolidate in time to block Trump?; and b) Will Trump’s victories build unstoppable momentum that will help him to expand his support among more-skeptical elements of the Republican Party? With Jeb Bush’s withdrawal from the race, Rubio is now positioned to begin uniting donors and party leaders behind him. But Trump’s 32.5 percent tally also demonstrates that he’s at the threshold of building just enough support to rack up delegates on Super Tuesday—and even has a shot at prevailing in winner-take-all contests in more-moderate territory come March 15.

—Despite his first-place finish, Trump’s behavior here made it harder for him to win the support to build a lasting majority. His acidic attacks against core elements of the Republican Party hardened opposition to him. Last week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that both Rubio and Ted Cruz comfortably beat him in one-on-one primary matchups, a decisive shift from earlier polling. Trump won only 16 percent of late-deciding South Carolina voters, well behind Rubio and Cruz, suggesting his campaign antics cost him at least some support.

—The big wild card now is Cruz, who finished a disappointing third in a state that once looked conducive to his victory. Now, as my colleague Ronald Brownstein noted, he’s looking more like a niche evangelical candidate, failing to appreciably improve on Rick Santorum’s and Mike Huckabee’s meager support with non-evangelical voters in the first three states. Rubio benefits from the caustic Trump-Cruz rivalry that damaged Trump in Iowa and Cruz in South Carolina. If they continue to spar with each other, Rubio has the opportunity to press his gains further going forward.

—As diminished as the establishment is within the GOP, its three favored candidates (Rubio, Bush, John Kasich) outdistanced Trump, 38 to 33 percent. Rubio’s goal will now be to perform strongly in the suburban, college-educated elements within the Super Tuesday SEC states (in Nashville, Northern Virginia, and the Atlanta suburbs, to name a few). It’s the constituency that propelled Mitt Romney to victory in 2012. If Rubio can hit enough Southern delegate thresholds on Super Tuesday (a growing possibility given the South Carolina results), he’d be positioned to take the delegate lead two weeks later with wins in his home state of Florida and other swing states holding primaries that day. Trump may be the front-runner, but Rubio’s odds of winning the nomination have also never been higher.

TRAIL MIX

  1. Hillary Clinton’s narrow five-point victory over Bernie Sanders in the Nevada caucuses suggests she’s on a path to the Democratic nomination, but that it will be lengthy and costly. On the plus side: She overwhelmingly carried African-American precincts, her team’s organization and smarts made the difference in a close contest, and her victory speech finally hit the empathetic tone that had been lacking in previous iterations. On the negative side, her performance with Hispanic voters was far worse than in her caucus victory over Barack Obama in 2008, turnout was down sharply from 2008 (about 80,000 people voted, compared to 120,000 eight years ago), and winning 53 percent of the vote in diverse Nevada against a socialist Senate gadfly is more of a relief than a celebration.
  2. The breadth of Trump’s victory is the story of the night for him. He again won healthy support from Republican voters outside of his comfort zone, according to the exit poll: 28 percent from those making over $100,000, 35 percent of veterans (despite his criticism of John McCain), 34 percent of evangelicals, and even 22 percent of those who opposed deporting illegal immigrants.
  3. If Rubio wins the Republican nomination, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s stock has risen even further atop the veepstakes list. After offering her timely endorsement and campaigning with Rubio across the state, she helped him secure a solid second-place finish behind Trump. The evidence? Rubio won late-deciding voters with 29 percent of the vote. After Rubio finished his speech, he locked arms with Haley in a victory pose—akin to what the just-nominated ticket does at the conclusion of party conventions.
  4. NBC’s Chuck Todd made a prescient point: For Trump, the two biggest tests to come will be in his rivals’ home states: Texas (on March 1) and Florida (on March 15). If Trump beats Cruz on his home turf next month, it would be an immense momentum boost in the biggest GOP state on the map. And if he beats Rubio in the winner-take-all Florida primary, he likely locks down the nomination. But if he falls well short in both, it underscores the idea that support for Trump still has its limits.
  5. Don’t underestimate the impact of a Romney endorsement of Rubio. At the Trump events I’ve covered—in wealthy and working-class towns alike—most of the Trump supporters I interviewed backed Romney in the 2012 primaries and admired his business acumen. His endorsement won’t change many minds, but it could redirect softer Trump supporters to consider Rubio more closely than Cruz.
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