Donald Trump won South Carolina while doing seemingly everything in his power to lose. That is a scary, scary thought if you're a Republican trying to beat him on March 1, when a slew of southern contests could give him a substantial boost to the nomination. With 99 percent of precincts in, Trump took 32.5 percent of the vote on Saturday, far ahead of second place Senator Marco Rubio and third place Senator Ted Cruz, who each took about 22 percent.
The New York developer chose a very different path. In the 11 days between the two high-profile primaries, Trump appeared in a debate in which he effectively blamed the most recent GOP president for 9/11 and a disastrous war in Iraq. He also picked a fight with Pope Francis. And House Speaker Paul Ryan. And Apple.
More than a few observers argued that the Republican candidate was not only taking an enormous gamble with these antics, but he might also be committing electoral suicide before our very eyes. In the end, however, as MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin explained very well, "Even Donald Trump can't stop Donald Trump."
In terms of delegate distribution, it now appears Trump will likely end up winning all of South Carolina's 50 delegates. If this stands, it's a reminder that the chatter about who finished second is largely irrelevant -- in the Palmetto State, first place is about delegates, while second place is about media hype and bragging rights, and nothing else.
Yesterday's double-digit victory, of course, comes on the heels of Trump's 20-point win in New Hampshire -- a state with a very different kind of electorate in a very different part of the country, reinforcing the impression that Trump's supporters represent a fairly broad intra-party constituency.
When was the last time a presidential candidate from either party won New Hampshire and South Carolina in the same election cycle and failed to win the nomination? Never. It's simply never happened.
As for the bigger picture, let's again try to cut through the noise and break things down from a pitch-vs-hype-vs-truth perspective.
The Pitch: South Carolina, a state filled with Southern, evangelical Republicans who have nothing in common with Trump, served as a real opportunity to derail the frontrunner. That didn't happen.
The Buzz: Whether Trump can hold on as the GOP field narrows remains an open question.
The Truth: There's simply no denying the fact that Trump, who's also favored in Nevada this week, is in the driver's seat. The question for the party is whether it starts accepting him as a nominee or launches one last, all-out, scorched-earth war in the hopes of stopping him.
The Pitch: All year, the media has been willing to pretend Rubio's losses are actually victories. Maybe everyone will simply play along again?
The Buzz: Hey, everyone, look at how impressive Rubio looked in the midst of his latest defeat!
The Truth: Rubio had every possible advantage in South Carolina -- a state his campaign fully intended to win. Practically the entire state Republican establishment pulled every stop to help him, and the media hype bordered on cheerleading. But in the end, he still lost by double digits to a first-time candidate, and just barely avoided another third-place finish. Worse, as part of his failure, Rubio will apparently leave South Carolina with exactly zero delegates.
The Pitch: Only two candidates finished in the top three in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Therefore, it's a two-person race.
The Buzz: South Carolina was a test of Cruz's "Southern evangelicals can carry us to victory" plan. He failed the test.
The Truth: In this case, the buzz is the truth. Team Cruz saw South Carolina as the place where he could stall Trump's momentum, and some polling showed the Texas senator narrowing the gap. But in the end, it's very hard for Cruz and his allies to spin a third-place, no-delegate finish in a Southern state. Still, he has quite a bit of money, and decent odds in March 1 primaries throughout the South.
The Pitch: Well, Bush did say he'd finish better than fifth in South Carolina, and technically, he did.
The Buzz: Please clap ... as Jeb exits the stage.
The Truth: We'll explore Bush's departure in more detail a little later this morning, but after New Hampshire, I argued he still had a chance to claim the mantle of the competitive establishment candidate. He failed to do so in South Carolina. No more chances.
The Pitch: As the sole survivor in the "governors' lane," Kasich sees this as a four-person race.
The Buzz: If the Ohio governor has a path to the nomination, no one outside Kasich campaign HQ can see it.
The Truth: Kasich may be a fine general election candidate, and Democrats almost certainly would prefer not to run against him, but his odds after a second-place showing in New Hampshire aren't budging. Look for him to work hard in March 1 states like Vermont and Massachusetts, where he has a decent shot of strong showings. Possible twist: can he get Jeb's support?
The Pitch: Carson, who has nothing else to do, is in no hurry to withdraw.
The Buzz: Carson will very likely finish in last place in most, if not all, of the remaining primaries and caucuses.
The Truth: He'll probably continue to make debate appearances, but Carson's time as a competitive contender ended months ago. It's hard to imagine that changing.