In possibly the least surprising development of the 2016 presidential race, Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator who dropped out of the race on Monday, never managed to gain traction. He was running on the most unpopular platform imaginable: more war, less Social Security. His zeal for bipartisanship, support for climate-change legislation, and unwavering advocacy for immigration reform all put him profoundly out of step with his party's base. His knack for a quip, and for bucking GOP orthodoxy, enlivened the undercard debates and delighted the media, but actual Republican primary voters gave him the cold shoulder. In most polls, he struggled to reach 1 percent.
So what was it for? Many observers originally speculated that Graham was running a favorite-son campaign aimed at preventing a hard-line conservative from winning the important, third-on-the-calendar primary in his home state of South Carolina. (This would presumably make it easier for an establishment Republican to get through the primaries.) But while Graham beat back the hard right and won 56 percent of the vote in his Senate primary last year, polls showed South Carolina Republicans far less enthusiastic about his presidential prospects. Monday is the deadline for candidates to drop out and have their names taken off the South Carolina primary ballot, so by getting out now, Graham avoids a potential humiliation.
Graham's exit frees up a significant chunk of the South Carolina Republican establishment to get on board with other candidates. It also frees up the endorsement of his Senate BFF John McCain, who still has a lot of fans in New Hampshire. As a panicked GOP establishment continues to fail to confront still-national-frontrunner Donald Trump, Graham’s exit could contribute in some small way to allowing another candidate to consolidate mainstream GOP support.
Despite his low polling, Graham did have an effect on the race, as my colleague David Graham (no relation to Lindsey) notes. The recent terror attacks in France and California made his foreign-policy expertise all the more relevant; in last week’s debate, he seemed on the brink of tears as he urgently pleaded for a more aggressive U.S. military strategy. (Graham’s ultimate goal with his campaign may have been to put himself in position to be picked as Secretary of Defense, which seems like a distinct possibility, depending, of course, on who wins the nomination—and the presidency.) And Graham never minced words when it came to criticizing Trump, giving voice to the things many others in the party thought but were afraid to say.
Ultimately, though, Trump’s campaign is thriving and Graham’s is over. Trump will no doubt claim this is yet more proof that it’s unwise to take him on, something fellow failed candidates Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal also showed. Trump’s platform—less war, less immigration, more Social Security—is the polar opposite of Graham’s. You can’t really claim that Graham succeeded in pushing the party toward his views when that’s the case.