The polls are clear: Donald Trump will win tomorrow’s South Carolina GOP primary. Moreover, he is likely to do so by a substantial margin, one that will give him all 50 of the Palmetto State’s delegates. It will be the first strong punch landed by any candidate, and one which clearly establishes Trump as the man to beat.
As with the other races, Trump’s victory will come from a coalition built across the GOP’s traditional ideological divides. He polls first among moderates, first among “somewhat conservatives,” and a very close second to Ted Cruz among “very conservatives,” evangelicals, and Tea Partiers. He leads substantially among those who say this will be their first GOP primary vote ever, which would be consistent with the data from the two exit polls we have from Iowa and New Hampshire. Trump seems to be attracting the “casual conservative,” the person who thinks they are a conservative but are clearly not an ideological or movement conservative, to cast ballots for him and for him alone.
The real battle will come down ballot. Rubio seems to have recovered from his momentary brain freeze and is running third or second in most polls. Moreover, he has momentum: he has gained 3.6 points in the Real Clear Politics average since February 11. Only John Kasich, who is riding his second place finish in New Hampshire to new found attention, has more momentum: he has gained 8 points since February 11, but remains mired in fifth at a mere 10 percent support.
The battle among the non-Trump candidates is breaking down exactly as my “four faces” theory would predict. Cruz is highly tilted to the two “very conservative” factions, garnering either 29 or 31 percent among this group in five of the six polls providing these data (he gets 42 percent of very conservatives in the other poll). Indeed, if the GOP were wholly or even largely a “very conservative” party, Cruz would be winning or be neck and neck with The Donald. He leads Trump in all six of those polls among very conservative voters.
But it is not predominantly a very conservative party even in South Carolina. And here Cruz falters badly. His support among “somewhat conservatives” is no higher than 21 in any poll, and he normally runs behind both Rubio and Trump among this group, the largest single faction. In this he is following his predecessors, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who also did significantly better among very conservative voters than among somewhat conservatives. Indeed, Cruz is doing much worse among these voters than Huckabee did. This is why he trails Trump by large margins in nearly every poll.
The so-called “establishment” lane remains unclear largely because the lane itself is split between somewhat conservatives and moderates. Marco Rubio is the choice among the former, although not by large margins, and John Kasich is the choice among the latter. Jeb Bush continutes to poll decently among each group, but trails the faction leader in each category. Moderate independents like Bush but they prefer Kasich, and somewhat conservative Republicans have mixed feelings about Jeb and prefer Rubio.
For this reason it is likely that Bush will face renewed calls to drop out unless the polls are wrong and he narrowly tops Rubio here as he did in New Hampshire. Kasich seems set to go on at least to Massachusetts, a heavily moderate state voting on March 1, and probably Michigan, a historically moderate friendly Midwestern state bordering his home state of Ohio. Thus, the “establishment” lane – or, as I prefer to say, the Dole-McCain-Romney alliance that has dominated the post-Reagan GOP – will remain contested no matter what Jeb does. But his dropping out, should he do so, would likely help Rubio and Kasich increase their share of the vote and help them garner delegates on March 1 as those states all allocate their delegates proportionally.
Ben Carson remains the wild card. His voters are more likely to be very conservative and evangelical, but nowhere near as heavily as are Cruz’s supporters. His dropping out could help Cruz slightly, but recall the Iowa controversy between these two men. Carson may choose to hang on through March 1, which would effectively deny delegates to Cruz as his share of the vote will be lower. Or he could choose to drop out and endorse Rubio or Kasich, which might make that man’s candidacy slightly more appealing to Carson backers looking for a second choice.
The race continues to head on a trajectory to March 15, when states can finally award their delegates on a winner-take-all fashion. Should Trump continue to be polling in the mid-30s then as he is now, he would have to be regarded as the favorite to win the 165 delegates available in winner-take-all Ohio and Florida, making him very difficult to stop thereafter.
Notes on what to look for if Trump’s share of the vote falls below 30 percent:
- If Cruz outperforms the polls here as he did in IA, then expect him to challenge Trump for delegates in the 4th, 5th, and 7th Congressional Districts. These CDs have the largest share of “very conservative evangelical” voters that are Cruz’s base, and a Trump drop plus a Cruz rise would manifest itself in close races here;
- If Rubio’s momentum carries him to an unexpected second place finish, then expect him to challenge Trump in the Charleston-based 1st CD. This CD is the home to South Carolina’s moderate GOP voter. Kasich’s strength among these voters could deny Rubio the three delegates winning this CD would provide, but a Trump drop and a Rubio rise places this seat in contention. One should also watch the 2d CD in this scenario.
- If Trump falls to 25 percent, then all bets are off. But that scenario looks to be highly unlikely.