September 18th, 2020


How Donald Trump won South Carolina

Philip Bump

By Philip Bump

Published Feb. 22, 2016

Donald Trump's win in South Carolina is much, much bigger than his win in New Hampshire. We don't yet know the margin by which Trump won -- votes are still being counted -- but we know it won't match his 20-point victory in the Granite State. That doesn't matter. What matters is how Trump won -- and what it suggests about states further down the line.

Preliminary exit poll data from South Carolina suggested a Republican electorate that looked a lot more like Iowa than New Hampshire. In Iowa, Trump had a small lead going into the election, but was passed by a strong push from Ted Cruz that mobilized evangelical and conservative voters.

Those voter groups turned out heavily in South Carolina, too. More than seven in 10 South Carolina Republican primary voters told pollsters that they were born-again or evangelical Christians. Those results may shift through the night, we'll note, but that figure is slightly higher than in 2012, when 65 percent of Republican primary voters identified themselves that way.

This should favor Cruz. In Iowa, Cruz won evangelicals by a 10-point margin. But this is where South Carolina was not like Iowa, since it appears that Trump and Cruz are running about even. That makes a huge difference.

An even higher percentage of the electorate -- about 8 in 10 -- identifies as "very" or "somewhat" conservative, up from 68 percent who said the same in 2012. Conservatives are another group that tends to favor Ted Cruz. But here too, Trump appears to have done better than in Iowa, winning a quarter of the "very conservative" vote to his one-fifth in Iowa.

About a fifth of the electorate identified as moderate, a group for which a number of candidates are vying. Here, Trump appears to have won a plurality of the vote, about 3-in-10. We noted earlier this week that Trump appeared to have locked up the vote of those who would normally vote for the moderate/establishment candidate. Thanks in part to how that vote was split among competitors, it seems as though that was the story on Saturday, too.

It seems as though Marco Rubio's late endorsement by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was not important for most voters, incidentally. Roughly seven in 10 Republican voters say the endorsement of Rubio was only a minor factor or was not factor at all in their primary vote. This reinforces the idea that the traditional way of winning a campaign, the un-Trump way, isn't doing much good in 2016.

We're still early in the delegate fight, but South Carolina gives Trump a lot of delegates. If he wins every congressional district, he'll add 50 to his total, about as many as were awarded in Iowa and New Hampshire combined. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz made a late run at Trump, each getting about 3-in-10 votes from those who decided in the past week. But Trump had big support from earlier in the campaign, so he held on. Again, those delegate allocation rules mean that a one-vote Trump victory is as good as a 100 percent Trump victory.

This is the key, though: Trump held on. This was an electorate that should have favored Cruz; it didn't. This was a race that was close, so Cruz's superior ground operation should have pushed him to victory; it seems that it didn't. This was a race that was getting tight right at the end, putting Trump's lead at risk; it wasn't. Donald Trump won a state that is not very much like the state that everyone knew he would win. Cruz's only hope was to win in the South. He just lost there.

In other words, unless some of those moderate candidates get out of the race -- and quickly -- Donald Trump is well-positioned be the Republican nominee for president.

We couldn't say that after New Hampshire.

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