WASHINGTON - South Carolina made Donald Trump the clear front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, revived Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign and sounded the death knell for Jeb Bush.
The New York businessman won his second convincing victory in a week, following New Hampshire. Rubio, pronounced dead after a dismal New Hampshire performance, was locked in a tight battle with Ted Cruz for second place, well ahead of the rest of the field. Bush, trailing badly, dropped out as the South Carolina results came in.
Cruz failed to dominate the heavily evangelical vote in the state, a disappointment to a campaign that relied heavily on that constituency.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton’s win over Bernie Sanders in the Nevada caucuses was a much needed shot in the arm after she was trounced in New Hampshire last week. If, as expected, she wins a big victory in the South Carolina Democratic primary next Saturday it could position her to run up a sizable delegate lead on March 1 when 11 states vote in Democratic contests, though Sanders is positioned to win several of those states.
With almost 22 percent of the Democratic delegates to be selected on March 1, a strong Clinton showing would make her eventual nomination appear to be almost inevitable.
Trump’s win in the Palmetto State, with very different Republican voters from New Hampshire’s, confirmed that he commands such a fervent following that episodes that would undo conventional candidates don’t hurt him. He came across as rude and boorish in a South Carolina debate when he seemed to blame former President George W. Bush for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Then he engaged in a public quarrel with Pope Francis. Then he won decisively — and failed to mention Jeb Bush in his victory statement.
The contest also settled the issue of which Floridian would move on, propelling Rubio forward and ending the once formidable-seeming campaign of former Gov. Bush.
For many mainstream Republicans, Cruz isn’t any more attractive a choice than Trump. “Whoever wins the presidency is going to carry the Senate with them and now make a Supreme Court appointment; that’s 80 percent of government,” said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia. “Why then turn to Trump or Cruz who can’t win a general election?”
The next Republican contest is Tuesday in Nevada, a caucus. Trump is ahead in polls there, followed by Cruz and Rubio, though polling isn’t especially reliable in caucus states.
The billionaire New Yorker’s South Carolina triumph puts him in a commanding but not invincible position. To win three of the first four contests and then fade would be unprecedented in modern politics. Still, hurdles stand in his path.
On March 1, a fourth of the Republican delegates are to be chosen in 12 states, mostly in the South. All are to be selected by proportional representation, meaning a candidate can pick up delegates without winning. This places a premium on smart targeting and organization. That is not Trump’s strength.
When the race is focused on one state, he has been able to dominate. Now we’ll see how well he can do when there are multiple contests. The anti-Trump faction also expects that he won’t be so strong when the race narrows to one or two opponents, although these people have underestimated him all along. Moreover, it’s uncertain how long it will take for a single opponent to emerge, or who it will be.
It won’t be Bush. Once a prohibitive favorite for the nomination, he couldn’t adapt to a party that had changed and didn’t have fond memories of his brother, the former president. He showed his usual class as he bowed out Saturday night.
Rubio, who only a week ago was thought to be on political life support after a miserable performance in New Hampshire, is back as the establishment’s main hope. Endorsements are pouring in and money is picking up. Florida is critical for him, and with Bush out of the race he must defeat Trump in his home state’s primary on March 15 — the first winner-take-all contest for delegates. He probably also needs victories in several of the 23 remaining elections between now and the Florida vote.
Cruz came out of South Carolina in about the same shape as he went in. He’s counting on his data-driven campaign and financial resources to make a strong showing on March 1 to beat Trump and Rubio in the delegate count. That day’s contests include his home state of Texas, which he represents in the U.S. Senate and which will award the second-largest number of delegates of any state.
Gov. John Kasich ran weakly in South Carolina but was helped there anyway when Bush dropped out. A longshot, he’s banking on a Midwestern strategy. He hopes to pick up some delegates on March 1 and perhaps even a victory in a non-Southern state, to set him up for Michigan on March 8. That, the thinking goes, would put him in position to score big a week later in the winner-take-all primary in his home state of Ohio, and to do well in Illinois and Missouri.
It’s not hard to imagine that three or even four candidates could be fighting it out a month from now, with Trump the front-runner.
That’s a scenario that worries Republicans skeptical of Trump’s prospects in the general election. His liabilities were exposed by a Bloomberg Politics poll this week in South Carolina, where he was regarded unfavorably by 43 percent of Republicans. Half said they wouldn’t be enthusiastic if he were the nominee, and majority thought his use of profanity was unsuitable for a president and reflected bad manners and taste.
In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll this week of voters nationwide, Trump received similar bad marks. Almost half the public — independents and Democrats as well as Republicans — said they were “very negative” about him, the worst score of any major political figure. In head-to-head match-ups, he ran well behind both Democratic contenders, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
On the Democratic side, even though Clinton won an important victory in Nevada, Sanders showed he could compete for Hispanic voters, and his close loss there does nothing to discourage his forces from waging a long battle.
Even so, anxiety is likely to wane among some of the prominent Clinton supporters who have been calling for major changes in her campaign. Her campaign chief, Robby Mook, devised the Nevada strategy and came out a winner.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was formerly the executive editor of Bloomberg News, directing coverage of the Washington bureau.