February 19, 2016

South Carolina: The ‘Wrecking Ball’ Maintains His Lead

The Palmetto State primary is Saturday. What’s at stake?

Since Donald Trump surged to the top of the polls last summer, one by one other candidates have made their bids to wrest the leadership role from him. But Trump has stayed at the top thanks to a loyal support base that’s miles deep — and a knack for keeping himself on the front page.

We will grant that Ted Cruz won the Iowa caucuses, but the glory of his victory was soon overshadowed — not just by the media fawning over the surprising third-place performance of Marco Rubio but by the accusations leveled at Cruz of foul play with regard to a CNN-propagated rumor that Ben Carson was dropping out of the race. And who was the leader of the band branding Ted Cruz a “cheater?” Donald Trump, that’s who.

Trump won a “yuuuge” victory in New Hampshire, where political independents gave him a significant portion of his winning margin. The same may hold true in South Carolina, which has an open primary — indeed, Trump has a sizeable lead in most statewide polls leading up to the Saturday contest.

Those in the Republican Party who would like to dump Trump have continually pinned their hopes on the anti-Trump vote coalescing around one candidate, thus the speculation that the challenger of the month would be the one to garner enough support to stay ahead. Polling suggests that once the race gets to a head-to-head matchup between Trump and either Rubio or Cruz, Trump will falter. One recent survey that had Cruz on top nationally, though, is now being considered as an outlier given newer results.

Either way, the only poll that matters is the one on election (or, in this case, primary) day.

Needless to say, the ubiquity of social media on top of the 24/7 news cycle has made this GOP primary one to strain long-standing friendships and break family ties. There is a near-religious fervor to this race among supporters of the remaining candidates. Unfortunately, the other five contenders are arranged in a circular firing squad, shooting at each other while Trump launches his own verbal grenades into the pit. Good luck getting Republicans united around a candidate this year. And say what you will about Democrats — no matter how contentious the primary, they always rally around their standard-bearer. Don’t assume Hillary backers won’t support Bernie, or vice versa.

So what happens if the polls are correct and Trump wins South Carolina? It’s apparent that anything outside the top three would be the end for Jeb Bush, who was visibly emotional about not getting the coveted endorsement of Governor Nikki Haley, who instead backed Rubio. In fact, Bush said sarcastically, “It’s all been decided, apparently. The pundits have already figured it out. We don’t have to go vote. I should stop campaigning maybe.”

The hollowed-out shell of Ben Carson’s campaign may make it to Super Tuesday (which would benefit Trump), but his financial situation is getting more and more perilous. John Kasich is pinning his hopes on the Michigan primary, but that doesn’t occur until March 8 — the week after Super Tuesday. That’s more good news for Trump.

For the race to be anything other than a Trump coronation, it’s likely that it has to be down to three contenders no later than the beginning of the “winner-take-all” primaries of March 15. If his ceiling is really around 30% to 35% of the vote, we think Trump will find it tougher to win a three-way race and perhaps impossible to come out on top in a two-man battle as delegate totals begin to mount.

Republicans truly believe they can beat either Hillary (damaged goods) or Bernie (too radical) with anyone — except Donald Trump (though his supporters will tell you otherwise). Trump doesn’t poll well against Hillary or Sanders, unlike both Cruz and Rubio.

National Review editor Rich Lowry writes, “If Trump wins the nomination outright, many Republican voters may stay home, and senators and members of the House up for re-election will scurry for cover.”

Until 2012, South Carolina Republicans had always voted for the eventual nominee, but last time around they gave Newt Gingrich a rare victory. Donald Trump already has a win under his belt in New Hampshire, so if the poll results hold true in the Palmetto State, Republicans will have to decide if Trump is really the lesser of two very flawed evils come November. If The Donald wins the GOP nomination, a campaign season that began with Trump against 16 promising candidates may devolve into a high-stakes episode of “The Apprentice” with none of the employees worth keeping.

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