South Carolina Could Decide The Fate Of Several Republicans

Tonight's results in South Carolina could have a significant impact on the race going forward. (Plus, a projection)

Ninth Republican Debate

Voting has begun South Carolina in what is likely to be a contest that will determine what kind of battle we see going forward into Super Tuesday and the rest of the March primaries, and the stakes could not be higher for each of the remaining Republicans:

SPARTANBURG, S.C. — The Republican presidential candidates hurtled across South Carolina on Friday, one day before the state’s primary, as polls showed the race tightening after an often nasty week of campaigning. Across the country in Nevada, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton tried to lock down supporters in the fiercely contested caucuses there.

The vote on Saturday is a critical test of organization and strength for both parties. Saturday’s Republican primary in South Carolina comes as Donald J. Trump’s rivals are closing in on him after he enjoyed comfortable leads in the polls here. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll showed him just 5 points ahead, down from his 16-point lead in the state a month ago.

The poll had Senator Ted Cruz of Texas in second place with 23 percent, followed by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida in third place with 15 percent, and Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, in fourth place with 13 percent. Ben Carson, a retired pediatric neurosurgeon, and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio each had 9 percent.

As the Republican field winnows, nearly all of the remaining contenders need to deliver strong performances. A big victory by Mr. Trump would give him momentum that could add a sheen of inevitability to his candidacy heading into the crucial March 1 contests, when 12 states vote, many of them in the South. The winner in South Carolina will take 29 of the 50 delegates; the remaining 21, divided among the seven congressional districts, will go to the winners in those districts.


On the Republican side, Mr. Cruz, the winner of the Iowa caucuses, is eager to prove his appeal is broader than that of the previous winners, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who struggled to attract voters beyond their base of evangelical support. In recent days, Mr. Cruz’s rivalries with Mr. Trump and Mr. Rubio have turned particularly heated, producing a hail of negative advertising, semi-substantiated attacks, threatened litigation, accusations of doctored images and persistent charges of foul play among the three men.

In a series of rallies on Friday — which included a chat with the television host Sean Hannity, an endorsement from Representative Mark Sanford and extended monologues from Phil Robertson, a Cruz supporter and “Duck Dynasty” star — Mr. Cruz made a play for the folksy.

“I can shoot me a bird,” he boasted in Charleston. He later detailed the parallels between South Carolina and his home state of Texas, invoking “the South Carolinians who went down to Texas and spilled their blood at the Alamo.”

But Mr. Cruz and Mr. Trump also ensured that their escalation of hostilities continued apace — a bitterness that has seeped deeply into the feelings of voters.

Mr. Cruz mocked Mr. Trump’s penchant for generalities. “It’s easy to say ‘make America great again,’ ” he told supporters in a room overlooking the ocean. “Do you understand what made America great in the first place?”

He also expressed astonishment at Mr. Trump’s suggestion that he would stay “neutral” in disputes between Israel and its enemies. “I have no intention of being neutral,” Mr. Cruz said.

Mr. Trump called Mr. Cruz the “biggest liar I’ve ever seen,” a common refrain all week.

Mr. Rubio, for his part, sought to rise above the fray, even as his campaign continued to hammer Mr. Cruz as dishonest. One news release on Friday was titled: “Rubio Campaign Warns SC Voters: Beware Primary Day Tricks By Cruz.”

Eager to rebound from a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, Mr. Rubio held forth in downtown Columbia, S.C., presenting his campaign themes and his army of big-name supporters.

“We have a chance to be the authors of the greatest chapter in the story of America, and that is why I’m asking you for your support tomorrow,” Mr. Rubio said.

In a show of force intended to underscore his message of ushering in a new generation of Republican stars, Mr. Rubio was flanked by the political leaders here who have endorsed him — a diverse lot that included Gov. Nikki R. Haley, an Indian-American; Tim Scott, a United States senator who is black; and Trey Gowdy, a popular congressman who is white.

“The new conservative movement looks like a Benetton commercial,” Ms. Haley shouted to the crowd, which she beckoned to join her and Mr. Rubio on stage.

The generational pitch was a sharp contrast to Mr. Bush’s nostalgia-tinged push. During his three-stop swing through the northwest part of the state, Mr. Bush was joined by his mother, Barbara Bush; one his sons (Jeb Jr. — or “2.0,” as he is called); his wife, Columba; and his two younger brothers, Neil and Marvin.

“You like Bushes?” Senator Lindsey Graham, a Bush supporter, asked the crowd here. “We’ve got a pile of Bushes.”

Mr. Bush is under increasing pressure from donors and supporters to drop out if he does not place in the top three, or finishes far behind Mr. Rubio.


In Myrtle Beach, Mr. Trump cited polls that showed him having the most support on the economy, national security and immigration. “The only thing I’m a little weak on,” he said, “is my personality, but who the hell cares?”

Mr. Trump held three rallies on Friday in coastal communities — Myrtle Beach, Pawleys Island and Charleston — that are rich in moderate Republicans and independents. Many residents say they remain torn over their options, but it is clear that vitriol will persist long after the vote.

“I was somewhat of a fan of Cruz, but I don’t like the way he’s been lately,” Steve Armendt said at the Trump rally in Myrtle Beach. “I don’t like the way he’s slinging mud against Trump.”

“He’s all yadda yadda yadda,” a Cruz attendee, Mike Loebs, said of Mr. Trump.

Among the lower-polling candidates, every prospective vote, it seemed, was a reason to be grateful. After a town hall-style forum in Columbia, Mr. Kasich appeared to take expectation management to the extreme.

“People thought we would get, you know, like, maybe two or three votes,” he told reporters. “I think we’re going to do better than that.”

More so than any other contest so far, pretty much every candidate on the ballot has something to prove today in the Palmetto State, and several of the are likely to face a choice if they don’t perform up to, or in some cases out-perform, expectations. Based on all of the polling, Donald Trump seems to be virtually assured of victory as he was ten days ago in New Hampshire. If, however, the voters in South Carolina decide to throw the nation a curve ball and goes against the polls, which would generally not be typical for the Palmetto State, then it would be a shock for a campaign that has been riding a wave of confidence so high that, in recent days, Trump has seen fit to take on Pope Francis himself. Ted Cruz started out with a win in Iowa, but his campaign has generally been hobbled since then by allegations of unfair campaign tactics by Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump, and by a third place finish in New Hampshire that was much too close for comfort to the fourth place Jeb Bush. For most of the past month, Cruz has been polling in second place in South Carolina but there have been signs of a late surge by Marco Rubio that could push him into third place, a finish that would complicate his campaign’s game plan for Super Tuesday and the March primaries. Marco Rubio finds himself in a similar position in that the future viability of his campaign virtually requires that he finish in at least second place tonight, or at least in a very strong third. The fact that he received endorsements from three of the most popular Republicans in the state — Congressman Trey Gowdy, Senator Tim Scott, and Governor Nikki Haley — seems to have helped his campaign somewhat but he remains in a tight race for second/third with Cruz that could end up being very close in the end. Jeb Bush may have the most to lose of all. South Carolina is supposed to be “Bush Country,” in that it is a state that helped to secure the inevitability of the nominations of both his father and his brother, which is one of the reasons why Jeb’s campaign has brought out the family in a way we’ve never seen before now. In the end, though, one can’t help but believe we are witnessing the inevitable end when it comes to the Bush campaign absent some sort of miracle that lands him in second or third place. Ohio Governor John Kasich may have the least to lose here since nobody expects him to do very well. At the same time, there have been some signs that his second place finish in New Hampshire has helped him in the Palmetto State and that he could end up doing better than many analysts are expecting. As for Ben Carson, there’s really not much worth saying. His campaign is dead, he just doesn’t know it yet.

Looking at the polls, there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that this is Donald Trump’s race to lose. With the exception of two polls showing Trump with just a single digit lead heading into today’s voting, one from NBC News and one from Opinion Savvy, every recent poll taken in the Palmetto State shows Trump with a double digit lead ranging from the seventeen point lead in the last Emerson poll to the twelve point lead in last ARG tracking poll. To the extent that there have been differences in these polls, it has been in the position of Senators Rubio and Cruz and, to some extent, Governor’s Bush and Kasich. At the end of the day, that leaves us with a final RealClearPolitics average that puts Trump in the lead with a 31.8% average that gives him a twelve point over Marco Rubio, who now stands in second place with an average of 18.8%, followed by Ted Cruz in a close third place at 18.5%. Jeb Bush, meanwhile, is in fourth place at 10. 7%, which would certainly be a disappointing finish for him although it may not be enough to force him out of the race. John Kasich is in fifth at 9.0%, but as I’ve noted there have been some signs in recent polls that he could end up doing much better. Finally, there’s Ben Carson in last place at 6.8%. The broader Pollster average differs in that it shows Senator Cruz in something of a stronger position in third place but that may be because this average is factoring in earlier polling that did not show Marco Rubio’s surge over the past week or so.

Based on all of this, and on how we’ve seen South Carolina vote in the past compared to pre-election polling, I’m fairly confident in predicting that Trump will win his second primary, a development that could set him on a path to inevitability depending on how he does on Super Tuesday and which will send chills down the spines of Republicans across the country. The rest of the field is somewhat murky and could end up being quite close, which would mean that no candidate sees a need to drop out immediately. That last part is especially worth keeping in mind given that the next contest, the caucuses in Nevada,is only a few days away on Tuesday. With that in mind, here goes:

  1. Donald Trump — 30.5%
  2. Marco Rubio — 21.8%
  3. Ted Cruz — 20.5%
  4. John Kasich — 11.5%
  5. Jeb Bush — 10.9%
  6. Ben Carson — 4.8%

So, there you have. Of these candidates, Rubio probably has some more potential on the upside given the way things have been trending for him, and it’s entirely possible that Trump could end up slightly below 30%. The crucial question for Ted Cruz in this scenario, of course,would be how close he is to Rubio in the end. If Rubio manages to put Cruz five or more points between himself and Cruz then things could get fairly dicey for the Texas Senator heading into Super Tuesday. I’m also somewhat optimistic about Kasich’s potential to surprise again, largely due to the fact that his on the ground campaigning has, by all accounts, been very well received among South Carolina voters. If that translates into votes, then Kasich would remain a contender going forward. A fifth place finish for Bush, of course, would seem to prove fatal but the question at that point would be whether or not he would have the resources to continue. And the less said about Ben Carson the better.

Now, let’s all watch the voters of South Carolina most likely prove me wrong in at least some respect.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Ron Beasley says:

    Pretty good analysis Doug. I agree that Trump will probably win but perhaps not by the 30% you predict. Cruz and Rubio will be second and third but who is second is a toss up. If Bush comes in fifth that will pretty much do him in and he will be told by his family to drop out before he causes further embarrassment to his family and it’s legacy such as it is. Carson has gone from being a candidate to a grifter – using the opportunity to increase book sales and speaking fees.

  2. MBunge says:

    What is it with the GOP and empty suits? George W. Bush in 2000 and now Rubio in 2016. How much better off would we all be if Kasich had been the fallback guy after Jeb.


  3. C. Clavin says:

    Rubio has been climbing in just the last couple days and, if that surge continues, may very well beat out Cruz to be first loser, as you say.
    But even with Trump dropping slowly and steadily over the past week he is still probably going to win by…what?…10 or 13 points?
    And he is up 10 points in Nevada…which comes on Tuesday.
    What surprises me as I talk to my Republican friends is the support for Kasich. Man, he has everyone conned into thinking he is a moderate. If you are a woman, gay, any color but white, or not rich, you absolutely do not want a President Kasich. This guy is just as radical as the rest of the ex-conservatives…he just keeps it quiet.

  4. Barry says:

    “This guy is just as radical as the rest of the ex-conservatives…he just keeps it quiet.”

    Midwestern politicians are IMHO the best at being batsh*t crazy but speaking and looking reasonable.

  5. Jen says:

    @C. Clavin: Generally, I agree with you–he is no moderate. But Kasich has also been pretty much alone in the Republican candidate field in stating that the courts have decided on gay marriage, and he also was smart enough to take the Medicaid expansion, which worked for his state, rather than reflexively refusing it on the Republican OMGIT’SObamacare nonsense. He also does seem thoughtful and less likely than the rest of the clown car to overreact to international issues.

    I’m voting for the other team, but honestly I’d rather have the choice be between Kasich and Clinton. Were something to happen that would have an impact on the electorate’s vote (say, an attack on somewhere in the US, or other such calamity), it’s my preference that the Republican candidate be one that wouldn’t be a disaster for the republic.

  6. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    an endorsement from Representative Mark Sanford and extended monologues from Phil Robertson, a Cruz supporter and “Duck Dynasty” star — Mr. Cruz made a play for the folksy.

    Just when I thought by opinion of Cruz couldn’t get any lower … 😀

  7. PJ says:

    Bush is gone.

  8. Kylopod says:

    Regarding Kasich, I wrote the following last week:

    The basic point that I’ve seen articulated in some articles I’ve been reading is that the “base” of the party is motivated more by tribal identity than by specific issues. You can see this not just by Trump, but also on the other side by the candidacies of Jon Huntsman in the last cycle, and John Kasich in this one. Huntsman had a very conservative gubernatorial record. But he was deemed a moderate and a RINO who had no appeal to the base. A lot of it had to do with the fact that he served in the hated Obama Administration, and on a broader level, he (and perhaps Ron Paul to some degree) were the only Republicans who didn’t seem afflicted by ODS.

    Similarly, Kasich is a very conservative governor. He’s been deemed the “moderate” of the race in large part because of his vigorous defense of the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare.

    Trump’s views on health care are, in fact, way to the left of Kasich’s. He’s not only praised single-payer as an ideal system, the reforms he’s suggested to the US system involve increasing the government’s role in health care. But unlike Kasich he hasn’t defended Obamacare at all; he’s scathingly attacked it. The fact that he attacks it from the left is either lost on his supporters or they just don’t care, because at least he’s sticking it to Obummer. And he consistently uses the same language as the other Republicans, calling Obamacare a monstrosity and talking about how he’s going to “repeal and replace” it with a “free market” alternative. It’s like the buzzwords matter more than the actual policy.

    I once saw an interview with Carroll O’Connor from late in his life in which he commented on his Archie Bunker character. O’Connor said that he modeled Archie on the dumbest type of conservative in the country, the poor conservative. Conservatives have done nothing for the poor, O’Connor said, and he suggested that Archie doesn’t even understand why he’s a conservative.

    I think Archie Bunker would have loved Donald Trump. Archie accepted many conservative beliefs in the abstract, like the idea of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, but he was often inconsistent and hypocritical about these beliefs, and in the end his conservative identity was defined more by his fear of a changing world and discomfort with people who were different from him.