About a month ago, former South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon (R), a Ted Cruz supporter and surrogate, suggested Donald Trump’s chances in the Palmetto State had been exaggerated. “A thrice-married man is going to come into South Carolina expecting to be the Republican nominee?” Condon asked Politico incredulously.
Given that Newt Gingrich, a thrice-married man, won the South Carolina primary four years ago, it was a slightly flawed argument, but the point of Condon’s critique had some merit. Looking at the demographics of the state’s Republican electorate – Christian evangelicals in the Deep South – a neutral observer wouldn’t necessarily assume a largely secular, hyper-wealthy New Yorker would receive a warm reception.
And yet, Trump won easily, defeating his next closest rivals by double digits.
Much of the discussion since Saturday night has been focused on who came up short and who quit as a result of the primary results, but it’s worth pausing to appreciate just how improbable Trump’s victory really is. NBC News’ First Read wrote a piece last week – long before voting began – that continues to ring true.
For starters, South Carolina isn’t New Hampshire: 65% of Republican voters in the Palmetto State are evangelical Christians, per the 2012 exit polls, versus the 25% we saw in New Hampshire. Also, while only 55% of GOP voters in the Granite State considered themselves to be Republicans (due to the state’s heavy presence of independent voters), it was 71% in South Carolina four years ago.Yet beyond demographics, South Carolina has been Bush Country in past cycles – George HW Bush won it in 1988 and 1992, George W. Bush won it in 2000, and John McCain won it in 2008. Yes, New Gingrich was your 2012 victor, breaking the state’s streak in its winner going on to be the GOP’s presidential nominee. But if Trump wins South Carolina on Saturday, it not only would give him a clear path to the nomination; it also would be another sign how much the Republican Party has changed since 2008.
At its root, this is a population that simply has nothing in common with Trump. He’s been largely secular; South Carolina Republicans are deeply religious. He never served in the military; veterans and their families are well represented among South Carolina Republicans.
It was easy to make the case for Ted Cruz, who enjoys broad backing from the religious right and evangelical leaders. It was equally easy to argue for Marco Rubio, the darling of the South Carolina Republican establishment, who’s eager to start several new wars, to the delight of Southern hawks.
But at least on the surface, there was a cultural disconnect between the GOP frontrunner and voters in the first-in-the-South primary – which ended up not mattering a bit.
Trump’s landslide, 20-point victory in New Hampshire was quite an accomplishment, but all things considered, I’d say his double-digit win in South Carolina was arguably more impressive.
Postscript: The last time a presidential candidate from either party won the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, but failed to win the party’s nomination? It’s never happened.