The Republican primary race is far from over, and Marco Rubio and (to a lesser extent) Ted Cruz will have a chance to consolidate more support from party regulars going forward. But despite the happy talk, their double-digit loss to Trump is a concerning sign for both candidates. Cruz has seen his constituency — designed to appeal to “libertarian” and “Tea Party” voters — narrowed to evangelical Christians only, and he has failed to gain a quarter of the vote in a heavily evangelical state. Rubio’s performance may be even worse.
South Carolina has a nearly-ideal combination of characteristics he needs to surpass Donald Trump. It is a religious, Southern state, ill-suited for Trump’s secular appeal. It is a hawkish and pro-military, making it well-suited to Rubio’s belligerent neoconservatism, and the perfect place to reject Trump’s attacks on George W. Bush’s foreign policy record. And it is also traditionally a hierarchical state, where voters take their cues from party elites.
That latter quality is what has made the state a traditional firewall for the establishment after Iowa and New Hampshire elevate insurgent candidates. And the state’s establishment lined up fully behind Rubio here. Its popular governor, Nikki Haley, its senator, Tim Scott, and Rep. Trey Gowdy all endorsement Rubio. Yet the voters did not take the cues — or, at least, failed to take them to the requisite degree. The theory that the party would prevail assumed that eventually it would unite behind a single, non-Trump alternative. That finally happened. And yet.
Rubio’s campaign had long predicted South Carolina would supply him with his first victory. Going forward, he can raise more money as he assimilates the husk of Jeb Bush’s bloated apparatus. Perhaps the relentless pounding of the Republican message machine, which is aligning on his behalf, can slowly prevail. But the terrain is not going to get much easier for him going forward. If Rubio can’t compete with Trump in South Carolina, he may not find anywhere more favorable.