Trump won the battle for South Carolina – but may lose the war

Donald Trump won the South Carolina primary
Donald Trump won the South Carolina primary - Paul Sancya /AP
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The Republican presidential race, such as it was, effectively ended Saturday night in South Carolina. Donald Trump’s 20-point landslide in Nikki Haley’s home state clearly demonstrates he’s the GOP’s overwhelming choice. It also points to his continued vulnerability in November’s general election.

Trump won the nomination so easily because he captured the GOP base and never lost hold of its less intense conservatives. That’s something of a shock, as in 2016 Trump was the choice of the GOP’s moderates and was opposed by its very conservative voters even at the end. But his presidency’s conservative bent – tax cuts, tough on Iran and China, pro-life Supreme Court picks – converted the doubting Thomases. The man who got only 29 per cent of South Carolina’s very conservative voters in the 2016 primary won a whopping 84 per cent of them on Saturday.

Haley had only one chance against this ideological juggernaut: whip up excitement among non-Republican moderates while convincing less intense conservatives that Trump was too risky to choose again. That’s what she tried to do over her non-stop three-week campaigning, but she failed. Turnout was only a few thousand voters higher than in 2016; moderate independents mostly sat out this chance to oppose Trump. Haley did much better among the GOP’s “somewhat conservatives,” but still lost this cohort to Trump by 16 points.

She remains in the race, but she can’t possibly win a majority of delegates at this point. Many states voting on or before Super Tuesday will award all or most of their delegates to the candidate who gets 50 per cent or more of the vote. That means she will be effectively locked out of delegate-rich California and Texas, and will likely get no delegates in Idaho, Alabama, and Oklahoma. That alone would get Trump to roughly 500 of the 1,215 delegates he needs to prevail. He’ll easily garner the rest over the ensuing contests.

Haley is likely staying in the race to win enough delegates to push Trump toward compromising on matters she cares about, such as aid to Ukraine. She can still have her name placed into nomination if she wins five states, and Super Tuesday includes a number of moderate states where she could pull off an upset. If she gets there, she can trade a unanimous nomination and endorsement speech in prime time for policy concessions. It’s a long shot, but the alternative is to simply throw in the towel now and fade away.

Trump’s triumph carries with it clear warning signs, however. He remains perilously weak with college educated and moderate voters, the very people who back less controversial Republicans for governor or Senator. Haley won college-educated voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina and will likely do so again in a majority of Super Tuesday states. She also wins among self-described independents and moderates. His MAGA minions think they represent “real America,” but they are actually only a large, vocal minority.

Those supporters might be in for a rude awakening once the general election campaign starts in earnest. Trump has stayed away from the abortion issue since the Dobbs decision and has at times signaled opposition to the pro-life movement’s core desire to ban first trimester abortions. Moving overtly to the center on abortion after the convention – perhaps by explicitly stating his support for the continued national distribution of the abortion drug mifepristone – would infuriate the people who gave him the nomination. Trump, however, likely knows they wouldn’t abandon him given how much indebted Biden and the Democrats are to the abortion rights lobby.

He will have to do something, however, to change the minds of moderates who angrily opposed him in 2016 and 2020. President Biden has been banging the drum about Trump and “MAGA extremism” for months already. He will take every opportunity to remind these voters exactly why they dislike Trump. That worked in the midterms against MAGA-friendly Republicans and could work again.

Trump’s apparent strategy – bang his own drum loudly about Biden’s shortcomings in office – is not attracting these voters so far. He leads Biden but that’s primarily because Biden’s numbers are so low. Trump rarely gets a higher vote share than the 46 per cent he received in his prior two campaigns. Many moderates don’t want either man, but it’s not at all clear that when they are forced to choose this fall that they will reluctantly prefer Trump.

Trump’s staying power amidst political adversity remains a marvel. He seems to have the undying loyalty of the Republican Party and perhaps 45 per cent of America. In the world of business where he came from, 45 per cent market share makes you rich. In politics, however, it makes you a loser. It remains unclear whether Trump understands this and is willing to do the things necessary to win.

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