February 21, 2016
Donald Trump is not a fluke. You probably already knew/accepted this, but finishing a close second in Iowa, winning New Hampshire by more than a 2 to 1 margin over the second place finisher, and taking South Carolina by 10 points is a big deal.
This trio of early contests has framed the GOP nomination race since 1980. Leaving incumbents aside, nobody has done better in the first three. Nobody. Not Ronald Reagan, who did almost as well. Not George H.W. Bush, who did worse. Not George W. Bush, who did worse.
Each of the above eventual presidents took two of three, just like The Donald, but Bush 41 finished a distant third in Iowa back in 1988, while his son lost badly in New Hampshire in 2000. Trump is firmly on the Reagan path.
The contest is far from over. John McCain won both New Hampshire and South Carolina in 2008 on his path to the nomination, but needed a Florida victory and strong enough Super Tuesday performance to lock things down.
The Palmetto State doesn’t choose a nominee, but it does pick a definite frontrunner and it will narrow the field. Speaking of which, Jeb! has accomplished many things in his life, but he won’t add becoming Bush 45 to the list.
We’ll never know where his over/under point for staying in was, but finishing almost 15 points behind Marco Rubio was clearly on the wrong side of the line. He gave his best speech of the campaign on his way out.
John Kasich missed his target. It appears he finished fifth, in a close knot with Jeb and Ben Carson. He wasn’t trying to win, place, or show. He spent the day in Massachusetts, campaigning for March 1.
He needed a decent fourth place finish. Trump 34, Cruz 23, Rubio 17, Kasich 13 would have worked out just fine. Kasich could have argued that he was most qualified to lead the establishment’s last stand. Until Rubio’s late surge, polls indicated this was possible.
While he’s planning on sticking around until Ohio votes on March 15, and may succeed in doing so, there’s no path at the moment. South Carolina is an open primary. His ability to draw Independents and Democrats didn’t follow him south. Either that, or he didn’t get any Republicans to vote for him. Either way, it’s a problem.
Performing relatively well in Massachusetts and Vermont isn’t going to count for much if he’s in single digits on the SEC side of Super Tuesday. The South Carolina results indicate that’s what he’s looking at.
Ben Carson is vowing to stick around. On the bright side, he fell just short of finishing fourth. The bad news is the 4th, 5th, and 6th (Carson) place candidates would have needed to combine their votes to challenge Rubio and Cruz for second.
Winding up at 7% in a state where almost 3/4 of primary participants self-identify as evangelicals is not a good sign. Assuming he sticks around through March 1, this is a minor assist for Rubio if he can hold the vote for Cruz and Trump down ever so slightly.
Now that we have the winner and three losers out of the way, time to focus on Ted & Marco, who ended the evening essentially tied. Both gave victory speeches. It was the third for Cruz, second for Rubio, despite having only one combined win.
Rubio gives a great victory speech. One of these days it may actually follow a victory. Failing at that, other candidates can contract him to give theirs. Tonight’s, which featured Nikki Haley and Tim Scott, architects of his Palmetto recovery, was a solid outline for a convention speech.
While Trump was being Trump in his victory address, Rubio and Cruz gave contrasting versions of the pitch to become the alternative to The Donald. It’s hard to imagine any observer rating them evenly. Depending on your personal taste, one or the other was much easier on the ears.
Both senators are on the clock. There is still time to stop Trump, but not if he wins Nevada by double digits and comes close to sweeping March 1. While Cruz can survive his South Carolina loss, the majority of his best delegate opportunities are all in the next couple/few weeks.
You can argue Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama, or Georgia might be a slightly better fit than the Palmetto State, but he has 10 points to make up on Trump and Rubio is going to push him too. It would really help him to do well in Nevada.
As usual, Rubio is a subject for glass half-empty, half-full analysis. Given how badly his last few days in New Hampshire went, rallying to a second place tie and over 20% of the vote is impressive.
He finished off Jeb and won the majority of establishment-friendly support. Among educated evangelicals he competed strongly against Cruz. While he really needs a win at some point, Rubio has far more opportunity than Ted after March 15, and polls very respectably against him before.
With Jeb gone and Kasich of very questionable viability, he should expect another wave of endorsements soon. Being Bob Dole’s Jeb backup isn’t super useful in an insurgent year, but finishing up his collection of Gen X GOP leaders is another matter. Scott, Haley and Trey Gowdy did help him here.
That’s the half-empty part. Rubio had the support of the most popular politicians in the state, Tea Party certified Republican leaders. He had a solid debate and did well in the other TV events.
His campaign leaders hail from South Carolina and he was as or more organized on the ground than he is anywhere else in the country. The Palmetto State usually flocks to the most electable conservative. With all that going for him, he finished 10 points off the lead.
It looks like Nevada will provide him with another opportunity to simultaneously over and underperform. As with Cruz and Trump, we’ll have some real answers by midnight on March 1. Either he has actual victories to celebrate that evening, or this isn’t going to happen for him.
Even Marco Rubio can’t win a nomination if he can’t win one of the first 16 states.