Why Donald Trump Won South Carolina

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GOP candidate Donald Trump gives two thumbs up as he takes the stage for a campaign rally in Portsmouth, New Hampshire February 4. Reuters

Donald Trump's victory in the South Carolina primary demonstrated his strength among Republican voters of all stripes and even helped force Jeb Bush, once considered the likely frontrunner in the GOP presidential contest, to suspend his campaign—the latest sign of how the real estate mogul has upended politics.

Despite his dust-up with Pope Francis, the state's governor endorsing his rival and the appearance in the state of George W. Bush to help his brother, Trump won big in South Carolina. According to exit polls, he carried veterans and older voters, virtually tied Ted Cruz for the evangelical vote and dominated among voters with no college, some college and college degrees. He won moderates and conservatives alike. His only weaknesses were among self-identified "very conservative" voters, the more affluent and voters with graduate degrees.

None of this means that Trump is unstoppable. But he's also won secular New Hampshire, where less than a quarter of the state's Republican primary voters were evangelical. (In South Carolina, it's 69 percent.) He came in second in the Iowa Caucuses. The southern states that dominate the March 1 and March 15 primary dates also seem like fertile ground for Trump. "Let's put this thing away," he said in his victory speech on Saturday.

The tight battle for second place between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio suggests both first-term senators of Cuban extraction will continue to raise money and fight hard going into the explosion of primaries in the first two weeks of March. Cruz won evangelicals in South Carolina by a slim margin against (thrice-married) Trump, as well as among those who described themselves as very conservative. Rubio did his best with the young and the most affluent and educated. (He edged out a victory among voters earning between $100,000 and $200,000 annually.)

Both Cruz and Rubio have laid claim to pieces of the electoral map, but neither has demonstrated Trump's broad appeal. It's become cliche in the presidential campaign to talk about candidates having different lanes—an outsider lane, an establishment lane, etc.—but Trump has no lane. He's a Hummer doing 90, weaving in and out of traffic. He is dominating all elements of the GOP demographic coalition not just those who are angry.

At this point there is no certainty, as Washington insiders had once hoped, that as the field narrows Trump will be stopped either by voters or because the party will coalesce around a less controversial alternative. To date, the thinning field has actually strengthened Trump and while it's possible that Cruz or Rubio could beat Trump in a one-on-one race, so far, with the exception of one outlier poll, the evidence suggests the reverse is more likely.

In South Carolina, Trump defied the doubters once again. Those who thought, for instance, that his salty language would hurt him in the polite South were proven wrong, as were those who thought Trump had hurt himself by praising Obamacare's "individual mandate." Trump did seem to trail among so-called late deciders, but not by margins large enough to matter.

With its elements of Shakespearian drama and dynastic decline, Jeb Bush's suspension of his campaign on Saturday also personifies the upheaval in the GOP. South Carolina had saved the faltering campaigns of previous Bushes in 1988 and 2000; this time it buried a Bush's chances. It represents a remarkable fall for the twice-elected governor of Florida, the nation's most populous swing state. But Bush always seemed out of place in this year's political climate, a Republican Rip Van Winkle. He appeared almost disbelieving that anyone could oppose, for example, free trade agreements, or the Bush-led wars in the Middle East, or the Common Core curriculum standards that have enraged both the right and left.

Trump entered the presisdential race in June, just one day after Bush, but has seen an essentially opposite trajectory. He is dominating the Republican party in all respects and molding it to fit his views, however controverial. For example, polls showed three in four South Carolina Republicans favor Trump's ban on Muslims entering the country. Trump also blew away the taboo, adhered to by both parties, that George W. Bush shouldn't be blamed for 9/11.

As for the survivors of the latest Trump win? Rubio once again held a cheerful, victory-like rally on Saturday, despite his third primary loss. (This time, he was at least surrounded by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who is of Sikh descent and earlier this week described her stumping with Rubio as "a Benetton commercial.") And while Ted Cruz had reason to be happy, he has reason to be nervous, too. South Carolina—heavily conservative and evangelical—should have been a win for him. Can Cruz win in states like Alabama and Mississippi if he couldn't win South Carolina? It seems less likely now.