Trump’s hostile takeover is on course with South Carolina
Property magnate’s bid to control the Republican party takes a step closer to fruition
Much like Donald Trump, facts are stubborn things. No Republican has ever won both New Hampshire and South Carolina and failed to win the nomination. Yet two earth-shattering victories later, swaths of the Republican establishment continue to think Mr Trump will prove an exception to that rule.
In the case of Mr Trump, Republicans might as well jump straight to the latter. It is hard to overstate how emphatically the party’s rank and file have repudiated their leaders in the past two weeks.
It is likely to get worse. On Tuesday, Mr Trump will almost certainly sweep Nevada, according to the polls. A week later most of the Bible Belt will vote in the Super Tuesday primaries on March 1 that will select a huge slate of delegates. With almost three-quarters of voters declaring themselves evangelical, South Carolina was about as biblical as a primary could be.Not only did Mr Trump win 43 per cent of evangelical voters, according to exit polls. He won many more than his scripture-quoting rival, Ted Cruz. The portents for Texas, the most important state on Super Tuesday, look ominous.
To underline, the overtly Christian Mr Cruz lost hands down among socially conservative voters to a thrice-married, Pope-insulting, profanity-spewing, casino-owning mogul from New York.
Ben Carson, the other evangelical, did not clear double digits. “I am not going anywhere,” said Mr Carson. He spoke the truth. That is uncomfortable fact number one. Mr Trump reaches hitherto unsuspected corners of the evangelical mind.
Awkward fact number two hits even closer to the establishment nerve. Outside of the deep south, South Carolina is the state with the highest ratio of military bases to voters.
It strongly favoured George W Bush in 2000, his father, George HW Bush in 1988 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. It is the kind of place that backs whatever war happens to be going. It was the perfect venue for Jeb Bush’s comeback. He spent a lot of money there and enlisted his brother, George W, and his mother, former first lady, Barbara Bush, to help on the campaign trail.
Moreover, Mr Trump gave the House of Bush its perfect rallying cry at the Republican debate last week when he declared the Iraq war to have been a “big fat mistake”. He added: “They lied when they said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none and they knew there were none.”
Finally, said the establishment, he had gone too far.
Mr Trump took four times as many votes as Mr Bush in South Carolina. Indeed, he took more than Mr Bush and Marco Rubio, the establishment favourite, combined. In his farewell speech on Saturday night, Mr Bush called on his unnamed rivals to act with “honour and decency”. He might as well have asked Mr Trump to join a monastic order.
But it is painful fact number three that most confounds the Republican establishment: Mr Trump is not a conservative. People can legitimately call him many things. He is Islamophobic. He is anti-immigrant. He is an affront to all forms of political correctness. But he is not a conservative. Alone in the Republican field, Mr Trump has vowed to protect US social security, Medicare and other federal entitlements from cuts. This is as close as it comes to heresy in ideological circles. He will also make hedge funds pay the same taxes as everyone else.
Furthermore, “The Donald” last week praised a key plank in the Affordable Care Act — otherwise known as Obamacare — that mandates every American to buy health insurance. He since disavowed those remarks. Yet the mere hint of such would be enough to trigger a successful primary challenge against a Republican legislator. Mr Trump got away with it. He does not preach the virtues of small government. Could it be that The Donald knows something about Republican voters that its leaders do not?
The answer is obviously yes. Does that mean he has the nomination? Not necessarily.
Panglossians are now pinning all hopes on Mr Rubio whom they believe could aggregate all anti-Trump voters under his banner. Mr Rubio’s chances cannot be ruled out.
Trump sceptics point out that he has a “high floor” of roughly a quarter of the Republican vote but a “low ceiling” of about a third. If Mr Rubio could sweep up everyone else, the Republican party as we know it would live to fight another day. But there are a lot of leaps of faith in that bet. The biggest is that Mr Cruz will drop out of the race and that all his evangelical supporters will go to Mr Rubio.
Either way, Mr Trump is very much the man to beat. In order to do so, Messrs Cruz and Rubio will need to take this already unpleasant contest to a whole new pitch. As Mr Trump said on Saturday night: “It’s tough, it’s nasty, it’s mean, it’s vicious. It’s beautiful.”