SPARTANBURG, S.C. — For months, Donald Trump's antagonists in rival campaigns, in the GOP establishment and in the punditocracy have believed the time would come, someday, when Trump would say something so outrageous, so over-the-top, so out there that the scales would finally fall from his supporters' eyes and the Trump candidacy would collapse. The South Carolina campaign, some believed, would be that time. After all, in the course of a week, Trump had dumped all over popular former President George W. Bush, had said good things about Planned Parenthood, and had gotten into a weird tiff with the pope. Surely now…
But no. Despite it all, Trump surged to a ten-point victory here in South Carolina Saturday. And talks with Trump voters who came to the Spartanburg Marriott to celebrate suggest that the very statements that drive Trump's critics to distraction actually serve to strengthen his position with his supporters.
At the Marriott, I asked Trump voters the most basic question: Why did you pick Trump over the other guys?
"The big reason is honesty," said Lori Jagla, of Woodward, S.C. "The more I hear everyone else going, 'Isn't he going too far?' the more [I think], 'No, you just wait, you get into America, and it's not too far. It's what we're thinking.'"
"Because he's honest," said Nicki Cox, of Greer.
"Doesn't mince words," said Angela Griffin, of Spartanburg.
"I don't even care what his views are, I just care that there's a better chance that he's going to do what he says than the other guys," said Robert Daughenbaugh, of Mauldin. "I mean, you know they're all liars. End of story. They're all liars."
It's not that Trump's supporters agree with everything he has to say. They don't. It's that they see strong statements from Trump as proof of strong conviction on his part, and when he says something that causes his critics to go nuts, they see that as proof that Trump is saying not just something that needs to be said but something that he himself believes. So they view him more strongly than ever as an honest man who tells it like it is.
Trump didn't win across the board, but it was close. According to exit polls, he won men and women. He won voters who are evangelical Christians and those who are not. He won veterans and non-veterans. He cleaned up among the 46 percent of voters who do not have a college degree and nearly tied Marco Rubio, 25 percent to Rubio's 27 percent, among those who do. He won among voters who think terrorism is the top issue, and among voters who think the economy is the top issue, and among voters who think immigration is the top issue, and tied Rubio and Ted Cruz among voters who say government spending is the top issue.
In at least one area, Trump invented an issue and then dominated it. The exit polls show that 74 percent of South Carolina Republican voters support a policy of temporarily banning Muslims from entering the U.S. Trump won big among that group.
Trump also won against the opposition of pretty much the entire South Carolina political establishment. In the last couple of days of the campaign, popular Gov. Nikki Haley and popular Sen. Tim Scott and popular Rep. Trey Gowdy traveled the state together with Rubio, presenting themselves as a "new conservative movement" (Haley's words) that would sweep Rubio to victory. Gowdy and Scott developed a buddy comedy routine, and Scott at times seemed almost giddy introducing "Marco Rooooooooooooooobio!"
It didn't work. Just 25 percent of voters said they thought Haley's endorsement was important. And of the 75 percent who didn't, Trump won by a dozen points. Finally, another pillar of the state political establishment, Sen. Lindsey Graham, endorsed Jeb Bush. When the televisions at the Trump victory party mentioned Graham's name, there was loud and lusty booing. It was much louder than any catcalls directed at Bush's withdrawal speech.
The crowd at the Marriott Saturday night was deeply anti-establishment, but their hostility to entrenched power was of recent vintage. Many had supported mainstream Republican candidates for years and felt they had nothing to show for it. Trump is their opportunity to change course.
"I went into a couple of weeks' depression when Mitt Romney lost," said Doug Moore, of Greenville. "I'm just tired of the politicians. I'm tired of the establishment. I voted establishment for most of my life. I voted for both Bushes, I voted for Bob Dole, John McCain, Romney. I'm just ready for something different, somebody who'll actually get in there and make a change."
Of course the establishment — the party leaders who gave the voters Bush, Dole, et al — was planning its counterattack, even as Moore spoke. Their idea is that if the GOP presidential field can only be cleared, then the failed candidates' support will go to Rubio, who will then defeat Trump one-on-one. Trump has heard it often, so much so that he devoted part of his victory speech to it. "A number of the pundits said well, if a couple of the other candidates dropped out, if you add their scores together, it's going to equal Trump's," he said. "They don't understand that as people drop out, I'm going to get a lot of those votes also."
It might happen. But at the moment, the fact is that Trump placed second in Iowa, won New Hampshire by 20 points, and has now won South Carolina by ten. In an alternate-universe scenario, the GOP establishment would declare that the people have spoken and the party must unite behind the clear winner.
Obviously that won't happen with Trump. But his voters in South Carolina don't care. "I think we need a stick of dynamite in Washington," one of Trump's supporters told me a few days ago at an event in Walterboro. "I think he's it."