What happens if Donald Trump wins big in South Carolina?

Despite Palmetto State polling, establishment insiders still think Donald Trump won't grab the nomination, but, if so, when will he stop winning?

David Goldman/AP/File
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with fellow candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, followed by Gov. John Kasich (R) of Ohio and, Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida after a Republican presidential primary debate in Manchester, N.H.,Feb. 6, 2016.

Donald Trump is rolling along and gaining momentum. At what point will he have enough electoral/kinetic force that no other candidate will be able to prevent him from winning the nomination?

That’s our immediate reaction to a new poll out of South Carolina that shows Mr. Trump maintaining a wide lead in the state. He’s the choice of 36.3 percent of South Carolina voters, according to the Augusta Chronicle survey. Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas is a fairly distant second at 19.6 percent, with Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida is third at 14.6.

There hasn’t been a lot of polling in the Palmetto State but these results are consistent with polls conducted prior to the New Hampshire primary. What they show is that the race may remain static. Trump leads. Senator Cruz is his only real competition. Behind them come the peloton of contenders for the title of establishment alternative, jammed up and elbows out.

That sound you hear is the slap of face-palming pundits as the reality of the situation sinks in.

“Folks, I’ve been as skeptical as anyone about Trump, but make no mistake he wins SC by 15+: it’s possible but tough to stop that train,” tweeted FiveThirtyEight poll expert Harry Enten on Friday afternoon.

Poll data shows Trump winning almost all South Carolina GOP demographic categories. He even wins voters who say they are “very conservative,” though by only one point over Cruz.

Add the poll figures for the so-called establishment candidates – Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich – and the total number is still a couple of points lower than Trump’s 36 percent. That suggests that even if party elites could rally around one candidate and get the other two to drop out, Trump would still win.

“What I wonder now after New Hampshire is if anyone can stop Trump even if someone gets to the point where they’re one of the final three,” said University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala on a February 12 episode of POTUSCast, a political podcast.

Trump could still lose, Mr. Scala added. It’s just becoming more doubtful that will happen.

It’s true the Augusta Chronicle poll is just one poll in just one state. Trump’s national numbers have dropped a few points in recent weeks.

Cruz remains the pivot point. Can he gain strength in the South by hammering Trump as a closet liberal? If so, could he actually win? If not, where would his voters go?

A large majority of the members of Politico’s Caucus, a group of insiders in early voting states, still think Trump’s a goner. Eighty-five percent of them say Trump is not on track to win the nomination, despite his recent big New Hampshire primary win.

But insiders have been saying that for months now. When does Trump’s losing start?

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