Obviously, at a most basic level Trump was a winner here, and the decisiveness of his ten-point win shouldn’t be minimized. He is clearly the front-runner in the race right now and he looks to have won all of South Carolina’s delegates. On the other hand, it is not just attempting to paint a bright picture for the Trump alternatives to say that Trump’s results showed he is still quite beatable.
New Hampshire was a blowout for Trump. He beat his real competition there 35.3 to 22.3 (the combined share of Cruz and Rubio in NH). In South Carolina, things were much more competitive. Cruz and Rubio combined to take 46 percent of the vote, a number well in excess of Trump’s — and there is no reason to believe that much of their vote, or that of anyone else in the race, will go Trump’s way if one of them eventually dropped out.
In many ways, Marco Rubio had the best night, getting a badly needed second-place finish (barely nipping Ted Cruz, 22.5 to 22.3). I had argued previously that with the top three endorsements in the state, he needed a top-two finish, and while his top-line number wasn’t overwhelming given the number of heavyweights who lined up behind him, it was good enough to finish second. But what was more important for Rubio is what happened immediately after South Carolina, when Jeb Bush suspended his campaign. It’s not that Bush, who was polling at 5 percent nationally, will send that many votes to Rubio (if anything, polling seems to suggest that many will go to Kasich) but loyalty to Bush had kept a great number of important GOP figures and donors on the sidelines. Many of these influencers figure to migrate to Rubio when faced with a choice among him, Cruz, and Trump, especially as the fairly dismal performances of Carson and Kasich confirmed that this is a three-man race. The trick for Rubio, however, is that he has to move quickly.
The most recent finance report, announced Saturday, showed Rubio with just $5 million on hand, a trivial amount with which to run a national campaign. He has concentrated his efforts predominantly on the first few states (including Nevada, which votes Tuesday). But because he is not nearly as heavily organized as Cruz is in the Super Tuesday states, he will have to rely on momentum, including an expected raft of expected new endorsements, to carry him through the next couple of weeks while he restocks his war chest. Regardless, having vanquished Bush, he leaves South Carolina far stronger than he was before the voting.
For Cruz, last night was a mixed bag. Cruz actually outpolled his RealClearPolitics polling average by 3.8 percent, the most of any GOP candidate, and essentially finished in a dead heat for second with Rubio. Furthermore, he cemented his claim as one of the clear three survivors in what is now effectively a three-man race. He continues to have the most cash on hand of any candidate and sports the best organization in the upcoming Super Tuesday states. But for a campaign that has built much of its outreach strategy on Evangelical voters, and has dominated in Evangelical endorsements, losing this voting block to the profane Trump must be dispiriting, and it is a disquieting omen for the Southern Super Tuesday states on which Cruz has staked a great deal of his campaign’s fortunes.
On the other hand, there is good reason to believe that Cruz is well-positioned to do better on Super Tuesday than his respectable South Carolina showing. Every candidate was on the ground numerous times in all of the early primary states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina), and leaders from each have been courted for many months.
That simply isn’t true for the Super Tuesday states, 14 of which vote on March 1. Many campaigns have had almost no presence there and little organization. Their airwaves haven’t been saturated with political ads, and with so many states to cover, voters won’t be able to be won over with personal appeals. Turnout figures to be substantially lower than it was in the first three states. All of these factors award the best-organized candidate, and right now that candidate is Cruz, who, with his allied super PACs, has concentrated most of his resources on these states from the very beginning.
The stakes will be higher for Cruz on March 1 than for any other candidate, but with a strong showing, including, perhaps a win in the biggest prize, his home state of Texas, Cruz could easily wind up in a very strong position after Super Tuesday.
However, if the goal is to stop Trump from winning the nomination, both Rubio and Cruz may have to alter their strategy going forward. Head-to-head polling regularly shows both Cruz and Rubio beating Trump one-on-one. It’s partly for this reason that the two have trained their fire on each other, each hoping to be the one to take on Trump. What South Carolina shows is that this choice, appealing as it may be to each campaign in theory, may not really be available in practice. Neither Cruz nor Rubio seems likely to be able to easily vanquish the other. It may be that their only path to victory going forward is to work together to take Trump down.