There’s no doubt that South Carolina’s result was better for conservatives than the dumpster fire in New Hampshire. Two strong conservatives performed marginally well in South Carolina, whereas in New Hampshire Trump obliterated the entire field. So one cheer for Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
But let’s not kid ourselves. If the race continues with Rubio and Cruz tearing each other apart — and with Kasich and Carson loving their way to ten percent — Trump’s solid base will be more than enough to win the vast majority of the states between now and March 15. The only real question will be whether Rubio or Cruz starts to achieve some degree of separation, but so far the margin between the two candidates has been 4.5 percent (Iowa), 1.1 percent (New Hampshire), and a razor-thin 0.2 percent (South Carolina). In Nevada, the RealClearPolitics average puts them — you guessed it — exactly one point apart.
Not only does the conservative fratricide limit either candidate’s ability to break out, it’s allowing Trump to sail forward in the face of remarkably light headwinds. The decision of the Republican candidates to spend far more money attacking Rubio than Trump stands out as one of the most short-sighted (and possibly cowardly) collective decisions in modern politics.
Then there’s of course the question of party unity. While the 2012 race was nasty enough, this contest is making Romney versus Gingrich versus Santorum look like a love-in. Large numbers of Cruz supporters see themselves as every bit as anti-establishment as Trump voters, and they may well choose Trump over Rubio — or stay home. Similarly, some of Rubio’s more establishment supporters would rather support anyone but Cruz.
In other words, the race is lining up for Trump. And to say that conservatives have more momentum after South Carolina is merely to say that pessimism is better than hopelessness. Trump is in the driver’s seat, and an extended three-man race hands him the nomination.