Lessons from the South Carolina GOP primary

Lessons from the South Carolina GOP primary

Exactly one week after the GOP debate in the Palmetto State, South Carolinians headed to the polls Saturday for the nation’s ‘First in the South’ GOP primary.

He’s a winner

As polls were closing and the first results began to trickle in, it became apparent that Donald Trump’s sizeable lead in the polls from the preceding week was translating into a healthy lead in the voting booths. The trend held strong throughout the evening, ultimately yielding a South Carolina victory for Trump as he garnered 32.5% of the vote.  With the win came all 50 delegates from this winner-take-all state primary, giving Trump a substantial lead in total delegate counts thus far.

One week after a GOP debate in which the billionaire real estate mogul embraced Democrats’ distaste for former President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, and even seemed to blame the 9/11 Islamic terrorist attacks on the 43rd President, the first place finish in a southern Republican stronghold is that much more remarkable.

However puzzling it may be to political pundits and Republican insiders, turning outlandish political incorrectness into growing support is nothing new for Donald Trump.  In the ‘Year of the Outsider’, Trump has repeatedly taken brazen stands against the fecklessness of the Republican establishment that endear him mightily to disaffected voters fed up with business as usual in Washington.

One prime example of this phenomenon was in play last week as Donald Trump came under attack from the Pope himself for his positions on illegal immigration; ones the Pope suggested were antithetical to being a Christian.  True to form, Trump spent the next couple of days lambasting the Pope for questioning his faith and further pointing out the robust nature of the Vatican’s own walls and immigration policies.

On primary night, Trump won all of South Carolina’s most evangelical counties.  Perhaps evangelical voters again saw Trump as merely standing up to the ultimate ‘establishment’ figure. Whatever the case may be, voter anger keeps translating into support for the unconventional candidate.

That anger is not restricted to Republican voters, however.  Trump’s support of many Democrat talking points in last week’s debate may have actually been an exercise in political calculus:  The South Carolina GOP runs an open primary in which Democrats are free to vote in the contest as well.  If Trump was able to draw votes from registered Democrats to bolster his total in SC, it would be yet more evidence of his unorthodox campaign’s effectiveness.

Splitting the GOP opposition

In the fight for second place, Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz more or less tied, with only 0.2% separating the two – 22.5% and 22.3% respectively.

Cruz has been the leading contender to frontrunner Trump for weeks, especially after winning the Iowa Caucus to kick off the nominating season.  Indeed, he placed second in nearly every county in South Carolina as well, extending a consistent campaign performance as the traditional conservative’s anti-establishment alternative to Trump.

Rubio, though, produced the biggest rebound performance of the night.  The Florida Senator slightly edged out Cruz and reclaimed his place in the top tier after a disappointing finish in New Hampshire. 

Early in the campaign season, the Rubio campaign described their ‘3-2-1’ strategy to win the nomination:  finish at least third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and first in South Carolina to establish a path to victory.  After starting off well in Iowa with a third place finish, Rubio fell woefully short in New Hampshire after a dismal debate performance and distant fifth place finish.

South Carolina represented a make or break moment for Senator Rubio and he rose to the occasion with a strong debate performance in the Palmetto State that served to undergird his impressive showing at the voting booths. 

Rubio has now effectively closed the door behind him, reclaiming his place in the top tier and initiating the ‘campaign suspension countdown’ for the three bottom tier candidates.

Culling the herd

The countdown hit zero on Saturday night for former Governor Jeb Bush. Mere weeks ago, Jeb Bush guaranteed his supporters a win in the state that his brother won handily in 2000.  Yet, after poor finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, he earned less than 8% of the vote in the South Carolina primary race.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Bush addressed supporters at his South Carolina headquarters and announced he was suspending his campaign for President.  It remains to be seen if Bush will endorse his fellow Floridian Marco Rubio after a bitterly contentious campaign battle.

Arguably, Bush supporters are likely to turn to the more establishment candidates left in the race; Marco Rubio and John Kasich.  While Kasich has recently enjoyed a late surge from the depths of the roster, it is Rubio who will benefit the most from any coalescing of establishment support in the secondary race for the GOP’s anti-Trump.

John Kasich and Dr. Ben Carson finished fifth and sixth respectively, earning approximately 7.5% of the vote.  Carson’s campaign is likely in its waning days after his early momentum has disappeared.  A nonexistent path to victory will increase pressure on him to suspend his bid.  Kasich on the other hand is riding a fresh wave of interest after his second place finish in New Hampshire, and he has vowed to take his message across the country.

What happens in Vegas

Next, the slightly winnowed GOP field heads to the Nevada Caucus where casino mogul Donald Trump is again favored.  Watch for additional campaign suspensions, such as the fledgling campaign of Ben Carson, because they may add extra drama to this contest, putting more pressure on Trump.  If Carson were to withdraw, his anti-establishment supporters are likely to gravitate to Cruz, helping him close the gap between himself and the frontrunner.

Similarly, Rubio will benefit from Bush’s exit; offering a second threat to the inevitability of Trump. 

Interestingly, the combined votes of Cruz and Rubio in South Carolina comprised 44.8% of the total — a number much greater than Trump’s 32.5%.  Even though two out of three GOP voters are supporting candidates other than Trump, if his top challengers continue to split the opposition, he could claim the GOP nomination with no more than a third of the GOP in his camp.

Categories: North America, Politics

About Author

Jeffrey Moore

Jeff Moore is a Project Manager and Research Specialist with the North Carolina Department of Commerce, with a focus on legislative, economic and workforce issues. Previously, he served in the Office of Governor Pat McCrory as an economic policy aide and researcher. After earning a BA in Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2007, Jeff worked as a proprietary equity trader, successfully navigating capital markets during the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing business and political ramifications that followed.