South Carolina Republicans used their opportunity to choose a presidential nominee on Saturday to illustrate the new contours of the race, a contest now likely to become a tooth-and-nail fight for delegates among candidates pursuing three clear factions within the GOP.
With nearly every precinct reporting, real estate mogul Donald Trump won the first-in-the-South contest with nearly 33 percent of the vote, ten points ahead of Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who were separated by fewer than 1,000 votes out of a record 700,000 cast. No other candidate topped 10 percent of the vote.
The results represent the second straight win for Trump, the New York billionaire whose unorthodox and at times bizarre campaign has torn up the standard playbook for a presidential run. If history is any guide, Trump’s win sets him up for success: No other candidate in modern times has won two of the first three early nominating contests without winning the Republican presidential nomination.
The scope of Trump’s win was impressive: With 99 percent of the vote in by 10:18 p.m. Eastern time, Trump led in all but two counties. Rubio led in those counties, Richland, home of Columbia; and Charleston County. Trump led in six of South Carolina’s seven congressional districts; preliminary results suggested he would pull ahead in the seventh and final district, giving Trump control of all 50 delegates up for grabs in South Carolina.
Vote totals also further winnowed the Republican field, leaving former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush behind despite nearly $100 million in television advertising spent on his behalf. Bush, seeking to become the third member of his immediate family to win the presidency, ended his campaign Saturday after finishing with just under 8 percent of the vote.
The strong showings from Trump, Rubio and Cruz illustrated a Republican Party divided into three factions ahead of the faster-paced schedule of nominating contests in March: The five remaining candidates in the race are competing for constituencies who might conveniently be characterized as establishment voters, values voters and change voters.
Trump, the winner of two primaries and second-place finisher in Iowa, is the clear leader among Republicans hungry for change. Nearly half, 47 percent, of South Carolina Republicans said they wanted the next president to come from outside the political establishment; Trump won 61 percent of those voters. Among the 31 percent who said they were looking for a candidate who could bring change to Washington, Trump took 45 percent of the vote, more than twice what either Cruz (19 percent) or Rubio (16 percent) scored.
Cruz is trying to coalesce the values voters who play such a significant role in Republican primaries, especially in Southern states. He won by ten points among the 38 percent of South Carolina Republicans who called themselves very conservative, and by ten points among voters who said they most wanted a candidate who shared their values.
And Rubio is making his case as the candidate who appeals most to the Republican establishment, voters who may be most concerned with picking an electable candidate. Among the 15 percent of Republican voters who said they most wanted a candidate who could win in November, Rubio won a whopping 49 percent. Rubio also won among the 48 percent of Republican voters who said the next president should have experience in politics, by a 36 percent to 31 percent margin over Cruz.
But where Trump has consolidated his place among voters seeking change, Rubio and Cruz are both struggling to lock down their respective lanes.
Though Bush dropped out, Ohio Gov. John Kasich has demonstrated little appetite for ending his bid; he spent Saturday night at a town hall meeting in Massachusetts, one of the 14 states where Republican nominating contests will be held on March 1. Kasich, the most centrist candidate in the race, makes Rubio’s path to becoming the sole remaining establishment front-runner all the more difficult.
Cruz, too, faces an obstacle before he is able to lock down the voters most likely to support his campaign, in retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Carson took 7 percent of voters who identified themselves as born-again evangelical Christians in South Carolina, voters who might otherwise flow to Cruz.
Despite finishing last, with just 53,000 votes, Carson said Saturday he would not leave the race, a hurdle that significantly complicates Cruz’s path to the presidency ahead of Super Tuesday primaries in which Cruz banks on winning a significant number of delegates from Southern states.
After South Carolina the race for the Republican presidential nomination becomes much more nationalized, a contest dominated less by town hall meetings and more by television appearances and paid media. Nevada Republicans will vote in caucuses on Tuesday, though only three candidates — Bush, Rubio and Cruz — had any serious ground presence in the Silver State, Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) told Morning Consult on Saturday.
A week later, 14 Super Tuesday states ranging from conservative Georgia and Oklahoma to liberal Massachusetts and Vermont and libertarian Idaho and Alaska cast ballots. In each case, delegate allocation rules suggest that a deeply divided GOP field is becoming less likely to produce a clear leader when Republican delegates arrive in Cleveland for the party’s convention this July.
The pace of the primary campaign is about to pick up. The clarity Republican Party officials hoped to achieve before national primaries began has not come to pass.