SPARTANBURG, S.C.—Donald Trump pulled off a big win in South Carolina Saturday night, pulling in about a third of the vote and far outpacing any of his rivals. But by the time he took the stage—less than two hours after the polls closed—Trump was already looking past the Palmetto State, talking about it like an old but distant friend.
“We will never, ever forget South Carolina,” Trump promised. “I just wanted to say, an amazing place is South Carolina,” said his wife Melania, who seldom speaks on the stump. “Congratulations to my husband, he was working very hard. And he loves you, we love you, and we’re going ahead to Nevada and we’ll see what happens.”
Trump ticked off the key elements of his platform—the border wall, a stronger military, winning at trade, and defeating ISIS. He added in a few extra goodies for the local audience. Trump promised to keep the federal government out of local schooling decisions. And while he said he’d get the military the equipment it needed, he also promised to kill costly pork projects whose only constituency was in Congress. (While he didn’t use the phrase, it was an unusually direct hit on the military-industrial complex.)
Then Trump got to the meat of the matter, vowing to win in Nevada on Tuesday, and on Super Tuesday, March 1: “Let’s put this thing away!”
Is Trump, in fact, unstoppable now? Especially after a resounding victory like the one he notched in South Carolina—the polls hadn’t even been closed for 45 minutes when the race was called for him—the scenario that seemed like fantasy just a few months ago comes closer to reality.
Trump’s success has become so familiar that it’s hard to remember just how improbable it is. He won South Carolina after a bizarre few weeks, in which he accused former President George W. Bush of lying about the war in Iraq and failing to prevent September 11, feuded with Pope Francis, and told an offensive, apocryphal story about U.S. soldiers desecrating Muslim corpses in the Philippines. Those were only the most recent incidents.
But just like every other supposedly career-ending gaffe, they did nothing to knock him out of the lead. And with each passing week, the Republican establishment has less and less time to consolidate around a candidate who can best both Trump and Ted Cruz. Will Trump’s huge South Carolina win drive more Republicans to just give up and get in line behind him, or will it inspire a fevered, redoubled effort to knock him out?
The GOP field got a little smaller Saturday night when Jeb Bush announced he would end his campaign, following a fourth-place finish. There’s speculation that Ben Carson, who ended up a distant sixth, might drop out too, but he and John Kasich both vowed to go on—for now at least. (Trump made no mention of Bush’s departure, which deprives him of his favorite punching bag, but he did congratulate his rivals—including Cruz, with whom he carried out an especially bitter war of words this week. “It's tough, it's mean, it's vicious, it's beautiful,” he said. “When you win it's beautiful.”)
Marco Rubio is the clear favorite for that establishment slot, and he appeared to have eked out a very tight second-place finish over Cruz Saturday night. "This has become a three-person race, and we will win the nomination," he said. “If it is God's will that we should win this election, then history will say that on this night in South Carolina, we took the first step forward in the beginning of a new American century.” Cruz, for his part, insisted his campaign had “defied expectations” and was “effectively tied for second place," a claim Rubio would no doubt dispute.
Given that he was polling third, Rubio presented this as a moral victory, but it comes with asterisks. Despite the support of many of the most popular Republican officeholders in the state—Governor Nikki Haley, Senator Tim Scott, and Representative Trey Gowdy—he finished more than 10 percent behind Trump, trailing by tens of thousands of votes. Rubio still hasn’t managed to finish closer than a distant second in any contest, though he’s expected to do well in Nevada. So much for his plan to finish third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and win in South Carolina.
In his speech, Trump mocked the idea that the shrinking field would help out the beleaguered establishment. “They’re geniuses!” he mocked. “They don't understand that as people drop out I'm going to get a lot of those votes also.”
That’s almost certainly true. Once pigeonholed as the candidate of white grievance politics, Trump has expanded his coalition as the election goes on. The crowd at the Marriott here couldn’t be easily characterized: There were guys in blue jeans and NRA hats, and carefully made up, bejeweled middle-aged women. There were guys in carefully tailored suits and kids in cowboy hats. The only consistent thread running through the supporters was that most (though not all) were white. Exit polls show the breadth of his coalition in the Palmetto State, too. Trump won men and women, veterans and non-veterans. He won across the state, in all five regions. He even won a plurality of evangelicals, though Cruz edged him among strong conservatives.
Some analysts had questioned whether Trump could win in South Carolina—a state with southern gentility and a sense of decorum. There’s no question that Trump’s behavior gave some voters pause, but in the end many of them found their admiration for Trump’s bluntness overcame their hesitations. Time and again, journalists have asked where Trump’s appeal lies, but the answer seems simple: Republicans feel that he’s willing to articulate exactly what they see wrong with the country, without any of the hesitations or hangups of other candidates.
“It’s his honesty. His bluntness. His non-political correctness,” Mike van Houten, who’d come from nearby Greenville, told me. Van Houten liked Cruz, too, and spoke highly of him; he’d hated to watch his two favorite candidates feuding. Across South Carolina, people offered variations on that sentiment. Several people told me the reason they back Trump is simple: “He tells it the way it is.” They praised his eagerness to reject any signs of political correctness. Even if they didn’t agree with everything he said, they felt he was genuine, and hadn’t been bought by donors.
Of course, such sentiments infuriate many other Republicans—the ones who don’t support him. They point out his long record of changing positions. They note that despite what Trump says about self-funding, he’s put almost no money into his campaign while taking in millions in donations. (He’s also run a lean campaign.) They say that while political correctness is a plague, there are some things that really are unacceptable—and which, by the way, will hurt the GOP’s chances in a general election.
But that willingness to push things over the line and piss off the right people is an asset for people supporting Trump or considering him—even the ones who wish he’d tone it down a little. “Trump has brought up everything we feel,” Helen Mahoney said in Charleston, even as she added, “I don’t like the way he says it.” Standing right behind her, Mary Prentice concurred: “I don’t think he shows enough respect, but I love how he pushes back on this PC stuff.” At Trump’s victory party on Saturday, there was more of the same. “As a Southerner, I like a little more charm,” one woman said. But: “He is his own man. He isn’t bought.” That was enough to convince her to back him.
The Republican campaign heads to Nevada next, where polling is sparse and unreliable, but Trump has large leads in the few polls that have been taken. Next up after that is March 1, when a slew of Southern states, and a few others, hold their primaries. Trump carries solid momentum, and the South Carolina win shows he can romp, even in states that are highly evangelical or prize a politesse far removed from his New York bluster. Meanwhile, the rest of the Republican Party still hasn’t figured out any strategy to stop him.
The reasons why many of them still want to stop him are apparent, though. Trump continues to do and say outrageous things—the sorts of comments that would likely make him toxic in a general-election campaign. It’s hard to imagine him winning many black or Hispanic votes, as the very Caucasian crowd in Spartanburg attested.
“I love them, they love me,” Trump insisted about Hispanics. But in the back of the room, a few Hispanic workers at the hotel watched, bemused, as he spoke. What did they think of the speech? “Trump,” one shrugged. “No sabe nada.” He doesn’t know anything.