Is Trump unstoppable?
The Republican establishment’s nightmare scenario got one step closer to fruition in South Carolina on Saturday night.
Donald Trump won the South Carolina GOP primary in decisive fashion, carrying one-third of the vote in one of the most conservative states in the country. Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz lagged far behind, with each carrying only about 22 percent of the vote.
Trump’s victory in the Palmetto State gives him a commanding lead in the race for the Republican nomination. Indeed, if Trump can win South Carolina, he can win anywhere.
Here are five key takeaways from Trump’s South Carolina victory.
1. Trump is connecting with evangelical voters
One would not think that a foul-mouthed, thrice-married, New York billionaire and reality TV star would resonate with arch-conservative voters in the Deep South.
But in South Carolina on Saturday, that’s exactly what happened.
Trump carried most major GOP constituencies in South Carolina, including the two most important Republican demographics in the state: evangelical Christians and military veterans.
The key to Trump’s appeal resides in his relentless, biting and effective rhetorical attacks on the Washington establishment. At his theatrical and raucous campaign events, he makes GOP voters laugh, clap, boo and cheer as he condemns the nation’s leaders and promises to restore America to greatness.
Trump’s timing could not be better. Republicans voters are intensely pessimistic about the country’s future. Social conservatives in particular fear that the nation is in moral decline. For example, 63 percent of Republicans oppose the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. Conservative pessimism has many other sources as well, including the violent chaos in the Middle East, the chronic nature of illegal immigration, the economic instability caused by globalization and deep-seated conservative hostility to America’s changing demographics.
The result is a toxic brew of fear and paranoia. A January 2016 CNN poll found that 88 percent of Republicans believe that America is headed in the wrong direction.
With a crisis-like atmosphere prevailing within the GOP, conservative and evangelical voters are far less interested in ideological consistency in their candidates than they have been in past elections. Convinced that America faces impending disaster, Republicans yearn for a strong leader to reverse what they perceive as the nation’s rapid decline.
Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan is thus perfectly suited to the fearful and vengeful Republican mood of 2016.
2. Political history works to Trump’s favor
The importance of Trump’s double-digit victory in South Carolina extends far beyond the 50 delegates at stake in the primary election.
Since 1980, the winner of the South Carolina GOP primary has won the GOP nomination in six of the last seven contested races.
That’s why South Carolina is considered a bellwether state for the South. The demographics of the South Carolina Republican Party – evangelical, Protestant, working-class and conservative – closely parallel those of states throughout the region.
The crucial “Super Tuesday” primary on March 1 is filled with states that resemble South Carolina, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.
Trump’s big win in South Carolina demonstrates unquestionably that his campaign resonates with southern Republicans. If he sweeps all or most of the southern states on March 1, his march to the Republican nomination will become unstoppable.
3. Cruz’s scorched earth strategy backfired badly
Since entering the presidential race, Ted Cruz has made clear that he will say or do anything to get conservative support.
To boost conservative turnout in Iowa, Cruz’s campaign sent out deceptively official-looking mailers that implied the recipients had broken the law by failing to vote in past elections. Then, minutes before the Iowa caucuses began, the Cruz campaign falsely claimed that Ben Carson was dropping out of the race. Cruz kept up his dirty tricks campaign in South Carolina, circulating a fake, photo-shopped picture of Marco Rubio shaking hands with President Obama.
In past elections, those unseemly tactics might have worked, but not this time around. In South Carolina both Trump and Rubio repeatedly called Cruz a cheater and a liar. The attacks drew blood because of Cruz’s long-standing reputation for arrogance and abrasiveness. Even his former boss, President George W. Bush, declared of Cruz: “I just don’t like the guy.”
The attacks on Cruz’s character clearly worked, because by any traditional measure the Texas senator should have won South Carolina. The son of an evangelical minister, Cruz asks voters to pray for him and conducts his campaign rallies like religious revival meetings with supporters waving Bibles in the air. Cruz’s heavy emphasis on religion made him a natural fit with South Carolina voters.
But the inconsistency between Cruz’s ostentatious displays of religiosity and his hardball political tactics finally caught up to him. As Trump put it at a South Carolina rally last week, Cruz “holds up the Bible and then he cheats.”
4. Bush flopped on a historic scale
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush finished in a distant fourth place with eight percent of the vote. In his South Carolina concession speech, he sadly announced that he was ending his presidential campaign.
Bush is one of the best-funded flops in presidential election history. In 2015 his campaign set an all-time record by raising over US$100 million in contributions in a six-month span. But all that money did not translate into votes.
Bush’s poor showing in South Carolina put the final nail in his political coffin.
5. Delegate math is on Trump’s side
With the Nevada GOP caucuses on Tuesday and the key southern primaries following one week later, Trump is well-positioned to take an insurmountable lead in the delegate race.
The reason is because of a quirk in the GOP delegate rules. As Nate Cohn of The New York Times recently pointed out, the GOP’s complex delegate award process makes it possible for Trump to win a majority of delegates without winning a majority of the popular vote. As long as he keeps finishing in first in the primaries, he’ll pile up the delegates.
That is not good news for Trump’s GOP rivals. If they are going to stop him, they need to do it soon. Time is running out on everyone but Trump.
Nevada has put the momentum behind Clinton
A liberal tidal wave is building within the Democratic Party, but Bernie Sanders is no longer the only candidate riding it.
Hillary Clinton’s crucial victory in the Nevada caucuses on Saturday showed that Sanders does not have a monopoly on liberal voters. Clinton held her own with liberals while winning big among moderates. In the process, she has moved firmly back into the lead in the Democratic presidential race.
On Saturday Clinton won about 52 percent of Nevada’s county convention delegates. Although Nevada has a Byzantine delegate award process, Clinton’s margin of victory will likely give her a majority of the state’s 43 presidential delegates.
The ultimate importance of Clinton’s victory, however, does not really lie in the delegates at stake in Nevada. The state has only a tiny fraction of the 2,382 delegates necessary to win the Democratic presidential nomination.
The real significance of the Nevada results lies in the fact that Clinton demonstrated she can do well enough among liberals to win key states. Her success with liberal voters spells trouble for Sanders, particularly as the campaign moves to the South, where Clinton’s base of support runs deepest.
Here are four reasons why Clinton has reason for optimism after Nevada.
1. Clinton is making inroads with liberal voters
By any measure, the Democratic Party is becoming more liberal. Last year the Gallup Poll found that nearly half of all Democrats describe themselves as liberal or left-leaning, a 17 percent increase since 2001.
On Saturday, Nevada Democrats reflected that trend. The entrance polls found that an astounding 70 percent of Nevada caucus-goers identified themselves as liberal. Eight years ago, only 45 percent of Nevada Democrats described themselves as liberal.
On paper that should have meant a big victory for Sanders. A self-described socialist, he is one of the most liberal presidential candidates in recent history. His campaign platform calls for tax hikes on the rich, free college for everyone, a single-payer healthcare system, and heavy regulation of business and industry.
But despite the large liberal turnout in Nevada, Sanders did not win the state. Clinton attracted enough support from liberal voters to carry her to victory. Although she is a self-described moderate, the Nevada results indicate that Clinton’s unpopularity with liberal Democrats is greatly overstated.
The fact that Clinton won moderates by a huge margin is also crucially important for the general election. Moderates constitute 34 percent of the American population overall. In contrast, liberals constitute only 24 percent of the country.
Clinton’s strength among moderates strongly suggests that she would be a more formidable candidate in the general election than Sanders.
2. Minorities and union members back Clinton
Clinton’s victory in Nevada would not have been possible without support from Latinos, African Americans, and union members of all races.
Nevada is one of the most diverse states in the country. It is 28 percent Latino, 9 percent African American, 8 percent Asian American, and 2 percent Native American. Whites make up just over 51 percent of the population, far below the national average of 62 percent. Nevada also has a heavily unionized casino workforce.
All of those constituencies helped carry Clinton to victory in Nevada, particularly African Americans and casino workers. Clinton won by 10 percent in Clark County, home to 75 percent of Nevada’s population, as well as Las Vegas, the state’s largest city.
Clinton’s strength in heavily urban Clark County bodes well for her chances in large urban states like New York, California and Illinois.
3. Liberal economists side with Clinton
Clinton also benefits from liberal intellectuals' growing criticism of the Vermont senator’s economic proposals.
Last week a group of highly regarded liberal economists warned that Sanders’ proposals would drive up federal government spending by US$2 to $3 trillion annually. The dramatic increase in spending would far exceed the revenues generated from Sanders’ proposed tax increases.
Austan Goolsbee, a former top economic adviser to President Obama, declared last week that “the numbers don’t remotely add up” in Sanders’ economic plans. Similarly, the prominent liberal economist Jarad Bernstein warned that defenders of the Sanders’ economic proposals are engaged in “wishful thinking.” Ironically, even the University of Massachusetts economist who publicly defended Sanders’ economic proposals recently revealed that he plans to vote for Hillary Clinton.
Although Sanders will continue to inspire progressive dreams, the sharp critique of liberal economists takes a bit of the luster off the Sanders campaign.
4. Clinton’s strongest states lie ahead
The biggest ally Clinton has over the next two weeks is the Democratic primary calendar. It unfolds in almost perfect fashion for her.
Next up is the South Carolina Democratic primary on February 27. A majority of South Carolina Democrats are African Americans, a vital constituency that has provided rock solid support for Clinton. She currently leads Sanders 3-to-1 among African-American voters. Not surprisingly, therefore, the polls indicate that Clinton will likely win a landslide victory in South Carolina.
Things only get worse for Sanders on March 1, the date of the “Super Tuesday” primaries. Nearly a dozen states vote that day, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas. Most of the Super Tuesday states have demographics highly favorable to Clinton, so much so that her campaign views those states as a firewall against Sanders.
Clinton’s campaign has clear reason for confidence in her southern firewall. Although he has a strong base of support among white northern liberals, Sanders has thus far failed to make any inroads in the South.
If Sanders can’t find a way to appeal to southern voters, the next two weeks could be a very rocky and dangerous stretch for his campaign.