Donald Trump’s victory in the South Carolina Republican primary will be remembered as the moment when he secured his hostile takeover of the Republican Party and his path to the nomination. Though many are surprised, this analyst noted in early August that Trump’s candidacy was serious and viable.
This piece builds on earlier analysis in a separate piece, but has been updated for Super Tuesday.
AMMAN — Trump was expected to win big in South Carolina’s Republican Primary, and even when, just days before that contest, he attacked George W. Bush’s presidency, got into a fight with Pope Francis, and said nice things about Obamacare and Planned Parenthood, he still won the state by 10 percentage points and won every delegate at stake, shutting out his opponents. As a result, Trump is without a doubt the clear frontrunner and is now near-certain to win the nomination, and Republican elites are in full panic mode, desperate to find someone to topple him from his lead position.
It was clear even before South Carolina that the at least a big chunk of “Establishment” Republicans wanted Rubio to be their man (especially clear when they packed the audience with people very favorable to Rubio and Bush and hostile to Trump and Cruz at the last debate in South Carolina just days before the primary).
Yet the GOP “Establishment” pinning its hopes on Rubio to dislodge Trump is an unwise move in an already losing movement: the idea that a candidate who came in 3rd in Iowa, 5th in New Hampshire, a distant 2nd in South Carolina (barely edging a 3rd-place Ted Cruz), and a distinct 2nd in Nevada is somehow going to now win a bunch of states and delegates is not rational; Rubio may not even win a single state, given that Trump is dominating almost every poll in almost every state.
The “Establishment” may not want to admit it, but Rubio is not a terribly strong candidate; though often polished, upon closer inspection he lacks depth, gravitas, and maturity, and, more often than not, wilts under pressure. And those faults do not even go into how vulnerable Rubio is with Republican primary voters on the hot-button issue of immigration.
There are four other candidates still in the race besides Rubio, and to simply assume that Jeb Bush voters who had have favored the graying, experienced, moderate former governor will mainly flock to a junior freshman senator who possesses none of the experience or gravitas that Bush does and is far less moderate is quite a faulty assumption; if anyone is likely to gain the most from Bush’s departure, it will be Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who may yet outperform Rubio when more moderate states get to have their say.
Rubio has no victories so far (don’t be misled by his speeches behaving as if he has actually won something), and Cruz’s only victory has been Iowa, on the backs of Evangelicals, who now seem to be favoring Trump and clearly did so in South Carolina. Dr. Carson will still keep many diehard Evangelicals away from Cruz, and Cruz’s best bet for a big win, Texas, is a state that will divide delegates up proportionately in a way that will minimize any delegate lead from that state Cruz will have over Trump, and that is assuming he wins there.
Other contests that are winner-take-all (Florida, Ohio, Arizona) currently favor Trump over his rivals. In addition, many of the contests in March that are proportional only award candidates delegates if they hit 15% (3/1: Arkansas, Oklahoma; 3/8: Michigan, Mississippi; 3/12: DC; 3/22: Utah) or 20% (3/1: Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont; 3/5: Louisiana; 3/6: Puerto Rico; 3/8: Idaho) of the vote, meaning Rubio or Cruz could even be shut out of getting any delegates in multiple states if they do not perform well.
What’s more, while all the remaining Trump rivals save Kasich have raised and spent large amounts of money, Trump spent dramatically less compared with Cruz, Rubio, and Carson (and, including PACs, less than Kasich, too), winning with minimal effort in terms of organization and money. Trump is essentially dominating with one hand tied behind his back. Obama’s victory was fueled by a lot of passion, but also a lot of money and a top-notch organization; Sanders is also fueled by passion, but is also raising and spending a lot of money; alone in the modern era, Trump is winning almost solely on passion and media exposure. This is remarkable and unprecedented.
Furthermore, Trump has played his rivals so skillfully that most of them until a few days ago have saved their fiercest attacks for each other; those who took him on most strongly earlier have exited the race. Imagine if Rubio seems to truly be gaining steam, and Trump starts to actually spend money and organize heavily, or to focus his attacks on Rubio…
No, Rubio will almost certainly not be taking Trump down. Cruz will almost certainly not be taking Trump down even more so.
Trump’s South Carolina victory made a win in Nevada, where he had been polling very high before that win, nearly certain: Trump destroyed his opposition in Nevada, where he amassed more votes than Rubio and Cruz combined. Thus, Trump has nearly all the momentum going into Super Tuesday and beyond, contests where he is dominating in most polls in most states by double digit-margins, often more than 20 percentage points; a dominant, delegate-accumulating performance early in March will only further lead to more success as many more states vote later in March.
Barring an unprecedented political miracle, the window for someone else to come out on top has closed.
Rubio being taken down by Christie in the New Hampshire debate, thus failing to position himself to be able to challenge Trump before it was too late, Cruz losing to Trump with Evangelicals in South Carolina, and Trump’s 10-point victory there will be remembered as the events that sealed the deal for Trump and doomed the hopes of Rubio, Cruz, and “The Establishment.”