In results that sharpen the outline of the presidential race, Donald Trump won South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary Saturday, while Hillary Clinton turned back Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Nevada Democratic caucuses.
Trump thanked a jubilant crowd Saturday evening for his decisive victory. “When you win, it’s beautiful,” he said. “And we are going to start winning for our country.”
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, once considered a major contender, had suspended his campaign just moments earlier. He finished far behind Trump and at least two other candidates.
“The people of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina have spoken, and I really respect their decision,” he told disappointed GOP supporters.
Trump’s primary triumph makes him the clear favorite in the Republican race. But many party figures remain deeply worried about Trump as their nominee, and the South Carolina results may prompt them to coalesce around one or two alternatives in the upcoming primary states.
That may force anti-Trump Republicans to choose: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas or Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Both competed for second place Saturday. At midevening, the race for second place was too close to call.
Clinton’s Democratic victory margin was small. But a loss, just days after her crushing defeat in New Hampshire, would have been a crippling setback for her campaign.
Instead, Clinton moves into the next primary states as her party’s front-runner once again. She received the support of 53 percent of Nevada’s caucusgoers, according to media estimates, while Sanders picked up 47 percent.
“I am so thrilled and so grateful,” Clinton told cheering supporters in Nevada on Saturday afternoon. “Some may have doubted us, but we never doubted each other.”
More than half of all states, including Kansas and Missouri, will cast presidential preference votes in one party or both between now and March 15. Each party’s complicated delegate allocation rules make it unlikely any candidate can amass a majority by that date.
But Saturday’s results clarify the dynamics of the next 3 1/2 weeks. For Democrats, it’s advantage Clinton.
For Republicans, it’s Trump — and someone else.
Trump will be favored in most states holding primaries on the first three Tuesdays in March.
“Trump has literally, I think, created his own lane,” Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said Saturday at the state’s Republican convention in Overland Park.
Many Republican officeholders believe Trump still has a ceiling of support — about one-third of the Republican electorate.
“He’s kind of stuck at 35 percent,” said Missouri Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican. “Most of the party is voting for someone other than Donald Trump.”
But Republicans also know Trump could win a substantial number of convention delegates unless the GOP field shrinks to three candidates or fewer.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich has vowed to take his campaign to March primary states, but he remains a longshot. Physician Ben Carson isn’t believed to be competitive in upcoming states.
Cruz and Rubio have the money and energy to continue their campaigns, but Republicans worry they may split the anti-Trump vote in their battle for second place.
Neither will be pushed from the contest by mid-March, however. That suggests, barring an unforeseen event that severely disrupts the dynamics of the race, the nomination is now Trump’s to lose.
Such an outcome was inconceivable just six months ago. Many political pros thought Trump wouldn’t survive past the first contest in Iowa.
Instead, he continues to assemble an unlikely but apparently sturdy coalition of disaffected Americans attracted to his bombastic speeches and aggressive campaigning style.
In the week leading up to the South Carolina primary, for example, Trump argued with Pope Francis, seemed to endorse a critical component of the Affordable Care Act and claimed former president George Bush lied about the Iraq War. He suggested Bush bore the primary responsibility for the 9/11 terror attacks.
None of those claims, often attributed to Democrats, deterred thousands of South Carolina’s Republicans. It’s the central riddle of the 2016 race — why is Trump performing so well with GOP voters?
“He’s telling the party that they’ve been doing things wrong,” Trump supporter Les Roediger said at Saturday’s Kansas GOP convention. “They need to listen to the people and what they want and get out of the little government cliques they have.”
It’s “throw the bums out,” said Mark Anthony Jones, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Committee. “The Republican Party in Washington, D.C., has no idea what the grassroots people on the ground believe or think.”
That kind of talk fascinates mainstream Republicans — and scares them. They admire the energy and enthusiasm Trump brings to their party, and many share the view that Washington appears to have lost touch with many voters’ concerns.
But they’re privately worried Trump’s critique could go too far. Republicans, they whisper, shouldn’t endorse a Democrat-in-GOP-clothing — that could hurt incumbent Republicans like Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who faces a challenge from Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, a Democrat.
Blunt’s own view of the Trump phenomenon is lukewarm at best. “A lot of pent-up anger that people want to vent in some way,” he explained Friday.
The fear of a Trump nomination has started to move some GOP officeholders off the endorsement fence, a trend that is likely to grow as other states hold primaries and caucuses.
U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas has endorsed Cruz, still a favorite among social and religious conservatives. Cruz has tried to co-opt Trump’s outsider support, an effort likely to escalate.
“I’ve been on the receiving end of a system that doesn’t want to change,” Huelskamp said Saturday. “It’s a status quo town, and I believe Ted Cruz is the one who’s proven most likely to change it.”
Cruz is well financed and is likely to perform well in Southern states that hold primaries in early March. His popularity may complicate Rubio’s path, potentially clearing the way for Trump.
“I have no idea what Donald Trump would do,” said U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican. “That sort of indicates why my preference … is Marco Rubio.”
Rubio supporters expect the Floridian to campaign in Kansas ahead of its March 5 caucuses. Republicans at Saturday’s convention think Cruz and Trump will also appear in the state and may campaign in Missouri before its March 15 primary.
South Carolinians, beginning to recover from their state’s GOP primary, must now deal with Clinton and Sanders and the Democratic primary Feb. 27.
“We are bringing many working people and young people into the political process in a way we have not seen in a very long time,” Sanders said Saturday.
He promised to compete in the coming primaries and said he might win in several upcoming states. He criticized political action committees, which he argues have corrupted the political process.
“The wind is at our backs,” Sanders said. He predicted he would win the nomination, a historic upset, he said.
But Clinton is a strong favorite in the South Carolina primary, and the Nevada results are unlikely to disrupt that momentum.
She has significant support in the African-American political community. She picked up an important endorsement from U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina on Friday.
“Hillary Clinton is a fighter,” he said.
Sanders remains well financed — many of his supporters, unlike Clinton’s, have yet to hit the donation ceiling and can give more if they choose to do so. He also retains the enthusiasm of his younger volunteers, who have backed his candidacy in previous contests.
But Sanders’ aggressive liberalism will be a tougher sell among Democrats in more conservative states in the South, as well as in Kansas and Missouri. Clinton has paid staff in both states and has opened campaign offices in both.
And Sanders can’t rely on retail politics — rallies and speeches will mean less than organization and media savvy. States like Texas and Florida are different campaign challenges than Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.
Few expect Sanders to back down from the challenge, however.
Clinton appeared Saturday to be turning her attention from Sanders to a broader general election audience. She referred to the new vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, an issue that may dominate the campaign in the fall.
But both candidates mentioned the reality that faces the surviving contenders in both parties. The trail didn’t end Saturday — it lengthened.
Sanders is traveling to South Carolina.
Clinton? “I’m on my way to Texas.”