Yesterday I observed that at least one final-day pollster projected the vote in South Carolina would closely resemble Iowa’s. The difference in the final results — Trump winning easily this time, as the polls predicted both times — may just reflect how much easier it is for the Donald to get his vote out in an open primary than a closed caucus. In any event, the same three candidates who dominated voting in Iowa did so tonight as well. John Kasich may once again claim a mulligan and promise to resume his real campaign in Michigan on March 8. But Jeb Bush suspended his campaign tonight, Ben Carson is out of excuses, and in general it’s clear we have the three-way contest that was supposed to emerge eleven long days ago after the New Hampshire primary.
As in New Hampshire, and to some extent in Iowa as well, Trump did well in most areas of the state and in most demographic groups. And in a metric we need to begin paying more attention to, Trump appears to have swept all 50 delegates at stake (South Carolina, as one of the four early “carve out” states, is allowed to stray very far from proportionality, awarding all of its delegates to the statewide and congressional district winners), despite winning only a third of the vote. This is despite Trump enjoying perhaps his most heretical stretch on the campaign trail yet, beginning with comments echoing 9/11 truthers in a televised debate and ending with comments that until he “clarified” them sounded like a endorsement of ObamaCare’s individual mandate (you know, the feature most Republicans like to compare to slavery or totalitarianism).
For those frantic to get on with a establishment-ordained one-on-one contest between Trump and Rubio, it’s time to simmer down. The states voting on March 1 — particularly the southern cohort where he spent precious time away from Iowa late last year — have been Cruz’s chief target from the beginning. At least five (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee) have estimated evangelical percentages of the GOP primary electorate equal to or higher than South Carolina’s. And none of them have the “establishment firewall” tradition of SC, or the phalanx of hostile statewide elected officials Cruz had to deal with there. So he’s not going anywhere for a good while. And Marco Rubio, however much hype he continues to generate by beating expectations, must at some point actually win. Right now perhaps his best prospects before Florida — where he could still suffer a disastrous, campaign-ending home-state loss in a winner-take-all contest — are to hope Trump and Cruz stay in equipose in the South, enabling him to sneak through with one of those 35% victories that made John McCain the winner of a demolition derby in 2008.
But right now, it’s a race any one of the three survivors can win, and probably Trump’s to lose.