Except for one Monmouth University poll that showed Dr. Ben Carson with a one-point lead in South Carolina back in early November, Donald Trump has led every poll in the Palmetto state since late July. Trump hasn’t just led in the polls, he’s dominated the competition.
If you average Trump’s support in all of the 23 different surveys of likely South Carolina voters that have been conducted over the past seven months, he averages a stunning 34.78 percent. Trump’s current lead over Texas Senator stands at 22 points. Trump has maintained a double-digit margin over his nearest competitor in South Carolina since mid-December.
Trump’s lead in South Carolina, combined with his big win in New Hampshire last week, would indicate that he’s in the driver’s seat for the Republican nomination. However, in Saturday night’s CBS News Republican presidential debate from South Carolina, Trump appeared to be anything but in control of the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
The previous frontrunners for the Republican nomination would have been content to sit back play it safe. How many times in the Republican debates of 2012 was Mitt Romney declared the winner of primary debate because his opponents either refused to go after him or because he was successful in brushing off their criticisms of his record or previous statements?
Trump used the ninth debate, and the first after trouncing the entire GOP field in New Hampshire, to moderate his position on foreign entanglements, Planned Parenthood funding, and he even blamed President George W. Bush for the country being attacked on September 11, 2001. Not only is the timing of all of this questionable with the March 1st SEC primary just around the corner, where one would think more conservative positions on foreign policy and social issues would be key, but the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia also puts a newfound importance on issues like abortion regulation, religious liberty, and Second Amendment rights.
As I watched the debate on Saturday night, I tweeted, “This. Is. Nuts. Either Trump is absolutely brilliant and knows something about the electorate nobody else does, or he’s imploding.” As with every Trump-induced controversy, it’s wise to give it a few days before predicting his imminent demise. Still as I write this on Monday afternoon, I still don’t know what to think of Trump’s debate performance. But for the first time, I think he has misread the Republican electorate.
The vacancy created by Justice Scalia’s unfortunate death resets the presidential race moving forward. Even if Trump is able to win South Carolina on Saturday, I still think his decision to criticize President George W. Bush on the 9-11 attacks, and more importantly his idiotic defense of Planned Parenthood funding, puts into question his judgment and temperament in a way that’s never been done before.
Trump was smart at the onset of Saturday’s debate to mention federal judges Bill Pryor and Diane Sykes as two jurists that he would consider nominating if he had the chance to do so. During the rest of the debate, however, Trump cast doubt on his ability to follow through on and actually nominate a conservative like Pryor, since the Democrats’ main objection to his previous federal nomination was because of his views on Roe v. Wade, which he called “the worst abomination in the history of constitutional law.”
Meanwhile, Cruz has used the uncertainty of the Supreme Court vacancy to point out previous things that Trump has said regarding abortion and Second Amendment rights. The Cruz campaign is out with a new TV ad called, “Supreme Trust” that closes with a statement that we cannot trust Trump on the serious issues like life, marriage, religious liberty, and the Second Amendment.
After defending Planned Parenthood in last weekend’s CBS News debate, the Cruz campaign released, “Currency,” an ad that rehashes the debate about Planned Parenthood treating the unborn like currency, and then featuring Trump saying, “Planned Parenthood serves a good function.” The Cruz campaign showed no signs of backing down after Trump held a press conference demanding that Cruz take down the ads. Infact, the Cruz campaign responded by releasing a third spot, this one called “Chance.” The lastest spot features Trump’s liberal record on partial-birth abortion, federal funding for Planned Parenthood and Hillary Clinton all in his own words. Cruz used similar ads in the lead up to the Iowa Caucuses to boost turnout of evangelicals while also peeling them away from Trump. The campaign is obviously using a similar concept in South Carolina and other southern states.
As the Republican race progresses, it’s already abundantly clear that Cruz is likely to benefit from the focus that will now be on the Supreme Court. Similarly, it is clear that Trump, will be the one candidate who the new focus on the Court will likely hurt. As is also always the case in presidential nomination fights, momentum also plays an important role, and if Trump is able to deliver another victory in South Carolina, his position as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination may be cemented, but he will not yet be a lock to win.
An awful lot will be decided when the polls close in South Carolina at 7 p.m. eastern. Just like in New Hampshire, we must wait and see if any of the Republican candidates can rise up to challenge Trump for the win, but who finishes in second and third place will be equally important.
Will Cruz, with the balance of the Supreme Court now in jeopardy, be able to consolidate support around his candidacy and be the only candidate to really challenge Trump’s lead? Or will Sen. Marco Rubio, who rebounded with a good debate performance, be able to capitalize on the endorsements of Rep. Trey Gowdy and U.S. Senator Tim Scott, two young and dynamic elected officials from key parts of South Carolina.
And while Jeb Bush and John Kasich, are considered to be long-shots at this point. Bush has the endorsement of Sen. Lindsey Graham and members of the Bush family, including former President George W. Bush, are also campaigning for him in the state. Kasich, meanwhile, has garnered ample media attention following his second place finish in New Hampshire.
South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary may not sort out who ends up being the GOP nominee, but it should help us determine who the challenger to Trump will be moving forward. If that answer for some reason is not clear on Saturday night, meaning Trump wins and not much separates the rest, Trump will continue to benefit.