Trump victory in South Carolina primary: Can he be stopped?

As long as the Republican field remains large and divided, Donald Trump could be hard to beat. For now, each candidate has reasons to stay in the race. 

Paul Sancya/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a South Carolina Republican primary night event Saturday in Spartanburg, S.C.

Three contests into primary season, a simple truth is self-evident: Donald Trump is on track to become the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nominee.

True, the brash billionaire won the South Carolina primary on Saturday with just 32.5 percent of the vote. And it’s still early. The vast majority of convention delegates remain up for grabs. But even with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s decision to drop out Saturday night after finishing a distant fourth, Mr. Trump can still succeed – and vacuum up delegates – by dividing and conquering.

“The fact that he won about the same share of the vote in New Hampshire and South Carolina – two wildly different states – shows the broad appeal of his campaign among a significant portion of the Republican electorate,” write Larry Sabato and Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. 

The South Carolina exit poll tells the story. In a strongly religious state, Trump won both the evangelical and nonevangelical vote. He won among both modest-income and well-off voters. He won among the non-college-educated, and barely lost to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – the surprise second-place finisher overall – among those with college degrees.

But the biggest shock to the Republican system comes in another poll number: the evident yearning for an outsider. When asked what is the best preparation for the presidency, 48 percent of South Carolina voters said being “from outside the political establishment” – and of those, 63 percent went for Trump, a first-time candidate for public office.

“Anybody but Trump” sentiment remains strong in Republican circles, though exit polling showed that he is some voters’ second choice, so he has room to grow his vote in a shrinking field.

“What I don’t know is whether he can crack 50 percent in a two-person race” for the nomination, says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.

For now, though, the field remains large at five candidates. Each of the four remaining contenders – Senator Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and retired surgeon Ben Carson – has his own reasons for staying in. And as long as they have the money to keep going, in all likelihood they will.

  • Rubio, a GOP establishment favorite, has momentum after beating Senator Cruz for second place by two-tenths of a percent, 22.5 percent to 22.3 percent. Exit polls show that the last-minute endorsement of South Carolina’s popular governor, Nikki Haley, helped Rubio.
  • Cruz, a tea-party conservative with appeal among Evangelicals, has money and organization, and can still do well in the Southern states that will vote on Super Tuesday, March 1.
  • Governor Kasich, who barely competed in South Carolina, hopes to build on his second-place finish in New Hampshire in the northern state primaries to come – most crucially in his home state of Ohio on March 15.
  • Dr. Carson, who came in last in South Carolina at 7.2 percent, has a devoted following of Evangelicals and others who admire his life story, and he is building his personal brand as he campaigns.

Going forward, the march to the Republican National Convention in July becomes a simple question of math. 

“After Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio vote on March 15, nearly 60 percent of the Republican delegates will have been won,” write Professor Sabato and Mr. Skelley. “If someone is going to beat Trump, Rubio probably has the best shot, but the hour is growing late for all of the non-Trump candidates.”

In an analysis written before the South Carolina primary, Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium laid out the stakes. 

“The not-Trump scenario occurs if Republicans cull their field, fast,” writes Mr. Wang.

By his calculation, the field needs to come down to two Trump alternatives by Feb. 29, the day before Super Tuesday. Only one – Mr. Bush – has obliged, and the Nevada GOP caucuses on Tuesday are unlikely to eliminate two more. After the intensive effort most candidates made in South Carolina, it’s unclear that anybody has the juice to shake up the race in Nevada.

Another reality is that the presence of Cruz in the race has forced some establishment Republicans to the conclusion that they’re better off with Trump as the nominee than the hard-line Texan, if the choice came down to those two. Inside the Beltway, Cruz’s hard-edged demeanor and no-holds-barred style has won him few friends, whereas Trump is seen as more pragmatic.

The ideal scenario, for the GOP establishment, is for one man to take on Trump – and with Rubio on the rise, he may be the man.

One big question after South Carolina is whether Trump will go after Rubio, a first-term Cuban-American senator who is running more on his inspiring family story than on his record. In the run-up to South Carolina, both Trump and Rubio had focused on taking down Cruz, with some success, but if Trump feels threatened by a rising Rubio, the billionaire could strike.

Another question is what happens to Bush’s supporters. Analysts presume that many go to Rubio or Kasich, the two remaining establishment candidates, but other candidates could gain, too. More important is that the departure of Bush frees up his donors to start helping others, most likely Rubio.

The spectacular failure of Bush to catch on is one of the big stories of 2016. As the son and brother of former presidents, his last name helped in fundraising and establishment endorsements but was a killer with voters, in a cycle with strong demand for an outsider.

But it’s premature to declare the end of the Bush dynasty. Jeb Bush’s son George P. Bush is Texas land commissioner, a statewide elective office and a potential stepping stone to the governorship. From there, a national run for office could beckon.

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