After his solid, broadly based victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Donald Trump now holds a commanding position in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.More.
But Trump still faces two “known unknowns,” to borrow the memorable phrase from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, an architect of the Iraq War that Trump now excoriates. One is whether Trump has a ceiling of support. The second is whether, even if he does, any of his remaining rivals can unify enough of the voters resistant to him to beat him.
So far the evidence suggests the answers are: maybe, and not yet. Indeed over the first three contests, Trump’s two principal remaining opponents have shown mirror-image weaknesses. Texas Senator Ted Cruz has assembled a coalition of support that is too narrow; Florida Senator Marco Rubio is building a coalition that is too shallow.
As in his New Hampshire win earlier this month, Trump’s support in South Carolina transcended many of the usual fissures in Republican politics, according to exit poll results posted by CNN. The one big exception remained education: In each of the first three contests, including the Iowa caucus, Trump has not run as well among voters with a college degree as with those lacking advanced education. But because those white-collar voters have fragmented among many choices, none of Trump’s rivals is consolidating enough of them to overcome the New Yorker’s dominant position among voters without a college degree. The simple equation that Trump has consolidated blue-collar Republicans while the party’s white collar wing remains divided remains the most powerful dynamic in the race, even as Trump has failed to exceed 35 percent of the vote in any of the initial contests.
But actually, I like this passage from this last weekend's Los Angeles Times:
...two factors could conspire to give Trump the nomination.
First, his challengers continue to find reasons to remain in the race, and the longer the field remains crowded, the harder it is for any one of them to attract more voters than Trump in a given state. In fact, one of Rubio’s main arguments is that “the longer this goes on, the worse it’s going to be,” and therefore he is the candidate who can unify the party. A Bush aide said he dropped out in part to help the party unite behind an alternative.
Trump himself mocked pundits for saying his opponents’ votes combined could defeat him if some of them drop out.
“These geniuses,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “They don’t understand that as people drop out, I’m going to get a lot of those votes also. You don’t just add them together.”
Second, polls show an increasing number of Republicans have become comfortable with Trump leading the party’s ticket in the November general election. In the Fox poll, 74% of Republicans said they would be at least somewhat satisfied with Trump as president. That number was far smaller (43%) among all voters.
To beat back Trump, Cruz, who won the Iowa caucuses, will need to pick up wins in a slew of Southern state primaries held March 1, and hope other contenders drop out. But the Texas senator ultimately will have to persuade more voters to embrace his pure form of conservatism and reject Trump as a phony, a case he has been trying to make for weeks.
“If you are conservative, this is where you belong,” Cruz told supporters Saturday. “Because only one strong conservative is in a position to win this race.”
Rubio, who may have been helped by his endorsement this week from South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, has a different challenge. The Florida senator will have to begin winning states and hope that a majority of Republicans decide they want a more mainstream candidate, despite polls showing voters are looking to back those who have not served in government.
Rubio did well among GOP primary voters who said they wanted to vote for the best general election candidate, but only about 15% of South Carolina voters said that was a priority.
“If it is God’s will that we should win this election,” Rubio said Saturday night, “then history will say, on this night in South Carolina, we took the first step forward to the beginning of a new American century.”