Most in the national news media are talking about how Donald Trump is now the clear Republican front-runner and will be nearly impossible to stop. They are only partly right.
Trump, who won South Carolina (and all of its delegates) with a little under one-third of the GOP primary vote, certainly is the front-runner. He has won two of the first three contests and has a clear lead in delegates. He should do well March 1, when many Southern states hold primaries and more than 600 delegates are at stake.
But the South Carolina primary results, combined with recent national polls, suggest that Trump remains a tentative front-runner, not some kind of unstoppable favorite. Trump drew about 32.5 percent of the Palmetto State’s vote, a little less than the 35.3 percent he attracted in New Hampshire and about eight points more than his 24.3 in Iowa.
In other words, he did not do as well as the 2008 or 2012 winners did in New Hampshire or South Carolina. That’s understandable considering the size of this year’s field, but it raises questions about the eventual breadth of his appeal.
Winning is good and losing is bad, but Trump’s problem is that while he has a high floor of support (many of his supporters will continue to back him no matter what he says or does), he may also have a low ceiling. We will find out if that is true over the next month, now that the GOP field has winnowed further.
Fox’s Feb. 15-17 national survey found Trump at 36 percent among Republicans nationally, an almost 2-1 lead over Ted Cruz, who was in second place. But when respondents were asked for a second choice, Marco Rubio and Cruz showed strong. Trump did not.
It’s possible to win a primary with one-third of the vote. But it’s difficult to win a two-way or three-way race getting just one voter in three. And that is a problem for Trump. His ceiling may prevent him from being the second choice of many Republicans.
The folks at CNN kept repeating on the latest primary night that if another candidate had performed as Trump has so far, everyone would be calling him unstoppable. That’s true, of course. But the point is that Trump definitely is not like any other candidate.
His language is not like a politician’s, and many of his positions are not classically Republican. That certainly enhances his appeal to some, but it disgusts and repels others, limiting his ability to attract additional support.
Most candidates who win multiple early contests have demonstrated broad appeal. In contrast, Trump remains a deeply polarizing candidate, one whose message obviously touches a certain kind of voter — one who is angry, wants a political revolution and is looking for a political strongman to beat perceived enemies.
That describes many, but not necessarily most, Republican voters.
The South Carolina exit polling found Trump doing very well among such voters but poorly among those who want a candidate who “shares my values.” And he ranked a weak second to Rubio among those who want a candidate who “can win in November.”
Cruz, even as he presses his argument that he is the only candidate who can stop Trump, turned in a South Carolina showing that has to be disappointing for him and his supporters. More than seven out of 10 GOP primary voters there said they were evangelicals, but Cruz carried only 26 percent of them. If Cruz can’t do well among them, he is in trouble.
Cruz did carry “very conservative” voters, another group at which he aims his message, but he must do better among evangelicals on Super Tuesday if he is going to remain a top-tier hopeful. Once the primary process moves north and west, Cruz’s appeal wanes.
Jeb Bush’s exit is a plus for Rubio, who is now in a much better position to coalesce establishment support. That’s partly offset, of course, because John Kasich shows no sign of exiting, thereby limiting Rubio’s ability to unite pragmatists.
As others have noted, the longer the establishment is divided, the more difficult it is to stop Trump from winning primaries and accumulating delegates.
Those who believe that Trump is unstoppable frequently note that no Republican who has won both New Hampshire and South Carolina has been denied the GOP’s nomination.
That’s true, but I believe we have already established that the old “rules” do not apply.
None of this means that Trump cannot win the nomination. But he will need to broaden his appeal, something that he has shown no inclination or ability to do so far.
South Carolina’s results didn’t change Trump’s prospects in the Republican race very much. The outcome was more of the same, not an indication of his growing support in the party. Until that happens — and it might happen or never happen — the GOP nomination is very much up for grabs.