Donald Trump won by double digits in New Hampshire. On Saturday, he won by double digits in South Carolina. It was not the Roman triumph that was expected a week before the Palmetto State vote, but it was a solid victory. No GOP candidate who won both New Hampshire and South Carolina has subsequently lost the nomination.
Trump is the frontrunner. He is the most likely Republican nominee for president. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
The theory that as non-Trump candidates drop out, all the non-Trump voters will flock to a single remaining non-Trump candidate, who can then win the nomination, assumes that Trump has maxed out his support. To put it another way, it assumes that every Republican voter who isn't currently voting for Trump will remain an anti-Trump voter perpetually. The exit polling does show some evidence of this, with nearly 65 percent of the party having negative views of the frontrunner. The question is, can there be another? After Saturday night, it seems the only options are Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
Rubio has certainly been the beneficiary of media expectations that he would make the most formidable nominee. Every moment is a Rubio moment and South Carolina was no different. It is annoying to anyone who is not sold on him that Rubio seems to "win" according to the media's made-up spread even when he finished third in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire, and a second that was a hair away from third in South Carolina. But the Rubio expectations game is based on national polls that show him being acceptable to the largest blocs of the party and competitive in the general election.
Saturday was a bad but not fatal night for Ted Cruz. Consider what coming in a virtual tie or just behind Rubio means for him. First, it blows a hole in his post-New Hampshire theory that this had become a two-man race. Clearly that's not true if voters were willing to wind up Marco-bot for another run. But more crucially, South Carolina seemed to disprove the theory that the Cruz campaign is operating on. South Carolina's GOP primary is determined by evangelical voters. Ted Cruz's theory of the 2012 general election is that the Republican Party failed to turn out millions of evangelical voters. But Trump won the evangelical vote in South Carolina. And he won especially big margins among evangelicals who do not have college degrees. The South Carolina primary also set a record for turnout. That has to be credited to Trump turning out new voters (for him and against him). If the Cruz theory is true, it is helping Trump more than Cruz. Not to mention that Cruz was always going to have trouble being the consolidated anti-Trump candidate because the donor class of the Republican Party loathes him.
Now that Jeb Bush is out of the race, many donors, activists, and party hacks are primed to join Team Marco. The biggest money cannon in the race, the Bush-aligned super PAC Right to Rise, is no longer firing on Rubio. The Florida senator will have a chance to put together the anti-Trump coalition. Many powerful people in the conservative movement and the Republican establishment desperately want him as their nominee. That counts for a lot.
But don't get too excited for Rubio. It may still be too late. The race moves to Nevada next. It is hard to see Rubio or Cruz being so discouraged by results there that one of them drops out and endorses the other in an attempt to stop Trump. They will, as they have, focus all of their fire on each other, continuing the pattern where Trump never stays in a prolonged one-on-one fight. Rubio wins among people who have college diplomas and Republicans who have high-paying jobs. He is acceptable to most of the party, but he is only truly beloved by the political class itself.
Trump's victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina make the Trump phenomenon more real and plausible to voters who find some part of themselves attracted to him. He is creating havoc and inflicting pain on the Republican Party, along with the entire class of media and political professionals. Trump's campaign has shattered the illusion of governed order within the Republican Party, and many voters now find themselves enjoying the freedom to loot unpunished. A kind of dark fatalism gathers itself in the Republican Party. And, anecdotally, this fatalism is shared by many Republican elites themselves, who privately tell columnists like yours truly that they richly deserve the fate Trump is delivering to them.