Donald Trump won a resounding victory Saturday in South Carolina, beating his two rivals by 10 percentage points. Coming on the heals of a double digit win in New Hampshire and leading the Real Clear Politics Average poll for Nevada by 22 points, it’s hard to see the Trump Express slowing down or stopping. Some might even agree with Trump who boasted he could ‘run the table’ if he won South Carolina.
Marco Rubio barely finished in second place, 10 percentage points behind Trump and only two-tenths of a point, or about a thousand votes ahead of third place Ted Cruz. Yet some are ready to hand Rubio the nomination. Almost a coronation a la the Democrats and Hillary Clinton.
Karl Rove, election maven and voice of the establishment, from his perch on Fox News told Chris Wallace, “Trump should be ‘worried, he’s peaked.” Political commentator Erick Erickson interpreted Trump’s big win as, “It becomes Rubio’s to lose.” Huh?
It’s hard to argue with Karl Rove, who knows the political make up and previous voting record of almost every precinct in America. Yet Rove and his establishment buddies have been writing Trump’s political obituary for the past eight months since Trump announced his candidacy, and last anyone checked, Trump is alive and well.
Newt Gingrich, past winner of the South Carolina primary, weighed in with open eyes, unclouded by the DC establishment fog, recommending that the GOP, “Start taking Donald Trump seriously.”
What’s the chance that a GOP frontrunner can lose the first four primaries and stay in the race, much less win the nomination? It’s never happened. Then again, a Donald Trump phenomenon has never happened either, so maybe there is slim hope for Rubio. Yet he finished third in Iowa, fourth in New Hampshire, second (barely) in South Carolina, and trails by over 20 points in Nevada.
Good luck Marco. Like at the reaping scene in The Hunger Games – “May the odds be ever in your favor.”
Rubio will have the support of the deep-pocketed GOP establishment, serving as their golden boy now that Jeb Bush has suspended his campaign and John Kasich is floundering, finishing fifth behind Jeb in South Carolina. This assumes all of Jeb’s supporters will now flock to Marco. Don’t bet on it.
A recent poll looked at Bush supporters’ second choice. Rubio got 19 percent and Trump 11 percent. Bush received 8 percent in South Carolina meaning that Rubio might pick up 2 points to Trump’s 1 point, hardly a game changer.
Not much better with Kasich, also receiving 8 percent in South Carolina. The Kasich second choice breaks 24 percent Rubio, 16 percent Trump. Again, Rubio might gain a single point against Trump if Kasich drops out.
Even if Cruz were to drop out, his second choice support divides Rubio 33 percent, Trump 26 percent. Perhaps a one percentage point pick-up for Rubio, a drop in the electoral bucket.
Another way to look it are the political philosophies of the various candidate factions. Conservative versus moderate. Cruz and Carson on the conservative side. Rubio? Up for debate. Ditto Trump. Kasich and Bush on the moderate side.=
Perhaps more importantly, establishment versus anti-establishment. Bush, Kasich and Rubio on the establishment side. Trump, Carson and Cruz on the anti-establishment side.
This year the establishment versus anti-establishment battle lines are taking precedence. On the Democrat side, Bernie Sanders as an anti-establishment candidate is holding strong against the poster child of the Democrat crony class, Hillary Clinton. Ditto on the Republican side. Otherwise how to explain a neurosurgeon still in the race and a brash businessman leading the field?
Newt Gingrich summed up the anti-establishment sentiment well. “If you think Washington is so sick you want someone to kick over the kitchen table, then you like Donald Trump and you frankly don't care about the details." Meaning that voters this year may be willing to look beyond ‘conservative’ or ‘moderate’ labels or even past positions on abortion or the Iraq War.
Using these distinctions, Trump is likely to pick up much of the Carson and Cruz anti-establishment support. Those two candidates captured about 30 percent of the South Carolina vote, which combined with Trump’s 33 percent, would put him over 50 percent; numbers and assumptions along with an educated guess.
Leaving that aside, how about momentum? A sense of inevitability? Trump is poised to rack up three double digit wins among the first four contests. Much like a football team trouncing its opponents week after week developing an aura of invincibility on their road to the Super Bowl.
There is also the bandwagon effect. Skeptical voters listening to chattering class on Fox News come to believe Donald Trump is a flash in the pan, ready to self destruct at any moment. Who in polite company will admit they support a racist, sexist Islamaphobe on his third marriage? Except when that person continues to win. And win big. Everyone wants to hook their wagon to a winner.
When Denver made it to the Super Bowl with Peyton Manning’s aura of inevitability, everyone was a Broncos fan. The early season skeptics and nay-sayers, myself included, largely disappeared.
With all due respect to Karl Rove, this is not 2000 or 2004. The establishment is not the ‘safe choice’ but instead the ‘enemy’ to be defeated. This may not be obvious from newsrooms in New York and Washington DC, but it is out here in fly over country. To paraphrase Mark Twain, ‘The reports of Donald Trump’s political death have been greatly exaggerated.’
Brian C Joondeph, MD, MPS, a Denver based retina surgeon, radio personality, and writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.