With his victory in South Carolina’s GOP primary Saturday, Donald Trump is now two for three in the early voting states and continues to defy skeptics. Heading toward Super Tuesday, the question now is whether his ceiling of support could actually lift as the Republican presidential field narrows.
Handicapping the businessman’s base had been a consulting firm parlor game in the lead up to 2016. Few consultants believed Trump could prove as popular as he has, running a campaign with a team with little name recognition within the industry. But as of Saturday night, he’s come in first or second in a diverse trio of states giving Republicans a conundrum heading into the high-stakes March round of voting.
Now, Trump’s opponents are betting that sustained negative advertising and a culling of weaker candidates in the GOP presidential field will consolidate support around a party-preferred candidate while peeling off the businessman’s less enthusiastic supporters.
There were signs that was taking shape early Saturday as Jeb Bush announced he was suspending his campaign and GOP pollster Patrick Ruffini pointed to Trump’s final tally in South Carolina as proof that the businessman’s image isn’t teflon. “At the start of the South Carolina [primary], Trump was close to 40. Win at 32-33 shows attacks can work,” Ruffini tweeted.
With 98.7 of the districts reporting, Trump was at 32.5 percent with Marco Rubio in second at 22.5 percent and Ted Cruz third at 22.3 percent.
Polling analyst Nate Silver noted Saturday night that while New Hampshire was a rough night for Trump skeptics, the results in South Carolina might be viewed more positively by the anti-Trump crowd.
“Trump skeptics can point out he didn’t improve on his performance from New Hampshire despite several candidates dropping out, which suggests he may indeed have a ceiling,” Silver wrote on FiveThirtyEight.com. “They can also say that Marco Rubio has moved pretty clearly ahead in the ‘establishment lane’ primary, giving Trump a major rival down the road.”
Trump rebuffed the argument against his candidacy when he took the stage in Spartanburg to give his victory speech.
“These geniuses,” he said, “don’t understand that as those people drop out, I’m going to get a lot of those votes also. I think we’re going to do very, very well.”
Jeb Bush, who engaged in a bitter campaign trail feud with Trump ahead of South Carolina's primary, suspended his campaign following Saturday's results. The looming question now for the Republican establishment is whether more will follow.
Republican pollster Justin Wallin told C&E that he’s skeptical winnowing the Republican field will derail Trump’s campaign.
“The big assumption is that people will swing over and say, ‘I’m not going to choose Trump, I’ll choose the last man standing.’ I don’t put a lot of stock in that,” he said. “Trump has proven he has the capacity to attract people we didn’t in the past think he’d attract.
“People were saying last year that Trump may have a ceiling of 25 percent. His support defied that expectation,” added Wallin. “We’re now in the same situation assuming that when candidates drop out that support will stack up with the anti-Trump candidate. That’s a huge assumption.”
Democratic pollster Stefan Hankin predicted the remaining GOP primaries could play out similarly to 2012 when eventual nominee Mitt Romney was able to clinch the nomination by capturing roughly a third of the vote after the early states cast their ballots. “It’s Trump’s to lose right now,” said Hankin, a contributor to C&E. “The only thing I think changes that is Cruz dropping out, and then it’s Trump versus an establishment candidate. But Cruz is not dropping out.”
Cruz, following his third-place performance, pitched his candidacy as a fight against the political establishment. “South Carolina has given us another remarkable result,” he said Saturday night.
Meanwhile, Hankin predicted that most of Bush’s supporters would gravitate to Rubio, but noted some of them could wind up in Trump’s column. “It’s probably going to be a 75-25 split with Trump making everyone’s job that much harder to catch him,” said Hankin.
Heading into the SEC primary, when big states like Georgia, Texas and Virginia vote, Trump has the advantage, according to Hankin.
“Does anyone have the type of funding to make them competitive in a lot of these states?,” he asked.
After March 1, Hankin predicted, “Trump might have enough of a [delegate] lead to make it a miracle for anyone to actually catch him.”