Can George W. Save Jeb's Neck in South Carolina?

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Will Trump attack former U.S. President George W. Bush on the campaign trail and try to draw him into the debate? Attacking the former president could backfire, the author writes. James Lawler Duggan/Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

It is difficult to overstate how total and complete Donald Trump's dominance was here in the New Hampshire GOP primary.

Trump won 35.1 percent of the vote—almost 20 points ahead of his nearest rival, John Kasich (with 15.9). Cruz, Bush and Rubio came in with what was effectively a three-way tie for third—separated by just 1 point.

But second and third in New Hampshire were nothing like second and third in Iowa. In Iowa, the top three candidates got 27.6 percent (Cruz), 24.3 percent (Trump) and 23.1 percent (Rubio). The difference between first and third was 3.3 points, and the difference between first and third was 4.5 percent.

So we got no clarity at all on the so-called "establishment lane," with none of the candidates really earning any "bounce" out of the Granite State.

For months, we've been hearing about how Trump's base was less-educated, low-information voters. Well, last night, according to exit polls, Trump beat every other GOP candidate in every single demographic group. Trump won:

  • 46 percent of voters with high school degree or less;
  • 38 percent of voters with some college;
  • 32 percent of voters with college degrees and;
  • 23 percent of voters with post-graduate degree.

Trump won 38 percent of voters with incomes under $30,000 and 31 percent of voters with incomes of $200,000 or more. He also won 32 percent of women—double the next closest candidate (Kasich with 16 percent).

So the idea that Trump is simply turning out uneducated, low information voters is wrong. He beat the pack among men and women, rich and poor, factory workers and rocket scientists.

Now the race moves to South Carolina, but instead of the GOP field being clarified in New Hampshire, it has been muddied. Bush's 11.1 percent fourth-place showing—which cost him a field topping $36 million—apparently earned him a ticket out of Manchester, if only in coach.

Bush has spent most of that money attacking not Trump but Marco Rubio. And apparently, he plans to continue that strategy in South Carolina. Politico reports that Bush plans to launch a "scorched-earth attack" on Rubio and Kasich in the Palmetto State.

But the really interesting dynamic in South Carolina will be the re-entry of former President George W. Bush into the political fray after eight years on the sidelines. In New Hampshire, Jeb announced that his brother "is going to campaign for me in South Carolina. I'm excited about that."

That is smart strategy. Jeb is polling at just 10 percent in South Carolina, but his brother remains extremely popular in the state. It remains to be seen whether any of that popularity rubs off on Jeb, but the really interesting dynamic will be how Trump reacts when George W. joins the campaign.

Trump has made no secret of his utter disdain for the 43rd president, whom he has called a "disaster." In October, he accused Bush of ignoring intelligence warnings that the 9/11 attack was coming and declared, "When you talk about George Bush, I mean—say what you want—the World Trade Center came down during his time."

The question is: Will Trump attack 43 on the campaign trail and try to draw him into the debate? Attacking the former president could backfire.

According to a Bloomberg poll, he remains the single most popular GOP figure in the country with a 77 percent approval rating among Republicans. And 43 has a special relationship with South Carolina, the state that saved his 2000 presidential campaign after his loss to John McCain in New Hampshire.

Trump needs to remember: There may be lots of Trump supporters in South Carolina who are also George W. Bush supporters. And while their residual loyalty to 43 may not translate into votes for Jeb, they won't like it if Trump tries to attack George W. Bush.

Marc Thiessen is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.