Trump, for his part, has attracted only a handful of conservative defenders including author Ann Coulter, talk show host Laura Ingraham, and the Breitbart web sites. Trump also was the runner-up for the endorsement of the Tea Party Patriot Citizens Fund, which ultimately went to Cruz. Even Rush Limbaugh, who has criticized but not ostracized Trump, found himself fending off complaints from callers this week disappointed he has not done more to rally conservative opposition to the businessman.
Despite this phalanx of organized resistance, exit polls in New Hampshire showed Trump comfortably carrying not only moderates, but also voters who described themselves as somewhat and even very conservative. Trump also narrowly carried the one-fourth of New Hampshire Republicans who self-identified as evangelical Christians. In Iowa, the entrance poll showed that Cruz did beat Trump among evangelicals and very conservative voters (many of whom are also evangelicals).
But conservative anxieties have spiked this week because of the flurry of South Carolina polls consistently show Trump leading in the state whose past winners have captured the GOP presidential nomination in every contested race since 1980 except 2012. Most surveys here have shown Trump holding a double-digit lead and winning comfortably among conservatives and evangelical Christians, who comprised about three-fifths of GOP primary voters both in 2008 and 2012. The exception could be significant: The latest poll, an NBC/Marist survey released Friday morning, showed Trump only leading Cruz by five percentage points overall, by three points with evangelicals, and just running even with conservatives.
South Carolina is not the most right-leaning state on the GOP landscape and it has usually favored mainstream contenders (like George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush and John McCain) over the most conservative alternatives. Yet ever since moving into its privileged position as the third contest on the Republican primary calendar in 1980, the state has proven a telling microcosm of the entire GOP primary electorate. And in 2012 very conservative voters constituted a larger share of the vote in South Carolina than in such other key tests as Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Arizona. If Trump can win here—and particularly if he can reprise his New Hampshire success at capturing the plurality of blue-collar evangelicals without college degrees—he will be well positioned to threaten Cruz across the Southern, border and Midwestern states that vote in early March, potentially crushing the Texan’s candidacy. Even if another candidate—Marco Rubio, John Kasich, or less likely, Jeb Bush—could eventually unify the remaining voters resistant to Trump, that might well happen too late to stop him.
That prospect underscores the import of Trump’s success among conservatives in general, and evangelicals in particular, despite steady criticism from institutions that have long been viewed as influencing their preferences. The dynamic has many scratching their heads here in “the upstate” of South Carolina along the I-85 corridor around Greenville, the conservative counterweight to the more moderate Lowcountry centered on Charleston.