The following are five takeaways and questions following the South Carolina GOP primary.
1. Let's face it — all traditional signs point to Donald Trump as the Republican nominee
If Donald Trump were any candidate other than Donald Trump, we'd be on the cusp of calling him the presumptive Republican nominee. No Republican candidate who has won South Carolina and New Hampshire has ever lost the nomination, and he also came within three points of winning Iowa.
It's true this is anecdotal and in reality there is a small sample size of presidential elections to say this means anything definitive, but at the same time, it's hard to see where Trump loses momentum. Though polling in the state can be notoriously bad, what polls we do have of Nevada show Trump with an edge — and voters begin to caucus on Tuesday, in less than three days after the South Carolina results were announced. That doesn't leave much time for rivals to blunt Trump's momentum. And then, after Nevada, there's only a week until the race moves into Super Tuesday — in which 11 states vote.
There's been a lot of speculation about whether Trump can take the nomination even if a majority of Republicans oppose him. But as long as the field remains crowded enough to allow him to keep racking up wins with a plurality of support, this question may never matter.
As discussed below, there's still some reason to believe that if anti-Trump support becomes consolidated then there would be enough of it to deny him the nomination. There is some evidence that Trump underperformed polling in South Carolina, after a week in which his deviations from conservatism were starting to get more scrutiny. Though his past stated support for socialized medicine, legal partial birth abortion, and gun control — among other failed conservative litmus tests — did not doom him in South Carolina, they likely deprived him of a bigger victory and perhaps could come back to haunt him down the road.
2. If Ted Cruz can't make it in South Carolina, can he make it anywhere?
Following his strong third place showing in New Hampshire, I declared Cruz the new front-runner in the GOP race. I did so, because I viewed South Carolina as tailor-made for him — a state dominated by evangelicals and very conservative voters. With many conservatives having dropped out of the race and Ben Carson badly hobbled, it seemed there for the taking, especially given how strong his turnout operation proved in Iowa.
But Cruz ended up not only losing to somebody with a liberal record in Trump, but also Sen. Marco Rubio, albeit by only a few hundred votes.
It's important to remember that consolidating support of conservatives isn't just fundamental to Cruz's strategy for winning the Republican nomination, but it's central to his strategy of taking the general election. The Cruz theory is that Republicans lose presidential elections when they nominate squishes like Bob Dole, Sen. John McCain and Mitt Romney and conservatives stay home. His argument has been, if the GOP nominates him, he can energize conservatives in November. But that argument is now a lot more difficult to make given that he couldn't beat Trump or Rubio in South Carolina.
All of this said, team Cruz has an argument to make that they're the most viable anti-Trump candidate. For all the talk of a resurgent Rubio post-South Carolina, consider this: Cruz is the only candidate who has beaten Trump, he beat Rubio in New Hampshire, and he was within a few hundred votes of Rubio in South Carolina, where Rubio had the endorsement of the popular governor, more popular senator, and popular congressman. So it's fair to ask, why is Rubio considered more viable at this point?
3. Rubio recovers, but how long can he go without a win?
After a disastrous fifth place showing in New Hampshire, Rubio recovered with what as of this writing looks like a solid second place showing. Most importantly, he put enough distance between himself and Jeb Bush, that Bush was forced out of the race. This now unlocks money, endorsements, and staff resources that should benefit Rubio as the race goes national.
I joked on Twitter earlier that Rubio was setting a record for giving victory speeches without a victory, but seriously, at some point, Rubio will have to pull off a victory rather than just a better-than-expected loss. Originally, his campaign talked about a 3-2-1 strategy to come in third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and then win South Carolina. Now that's turned into a 3-5-2.
Heading into Nevada, Rubio has a story to tell of having spent his childhood in the state, and he has been building a strong organization there. Also, in Iowa, Trump showed that his non-traditional organization could mean he underperforms polls in caucuses, where infrastructure is key. Should he win there on Tuesday, it would have the potential to reset the race.
But absent that, Rubio will be going into Super Tuesday on March 1 with four straight losses, and none of the 11 states voting that day can be seen as obvious places for a win. Rubio may be able to go 0-2, or 0-3, or even 0-4. But how does he recover if he goes 0-15?
All of that said, I want to offer one counterargument to a bit of conventional wisdom that's forming — that if Cruz and Rubio stay in, they prevent either one from emerging as the anti-Trump and thus make it hard for Trump to lose. There's also a way that one could see how Cruz staying in the race could benefit Rubio. What happens if Cruz splits the conservative, anti-Establishment/outsider vote with Trump, allowing Rubio to cobble together a coalition of more traditional Republican voters and somewhat conservatives? In a Trump vs. Rubio race, for instance, maybe a lot of conservatives riled up about immigration vote Trump. But with Cruz in the race, they can get somebody who wasn't part of the Gang of 8, and who is more conservative than Trump. Does Cruz absorb enough of these voters to actually help Rubio?
4. Republicans are tired of Bushes
If it weren't already obvious before Saturday, it should be clear that the Republican primary electorate has had enough of the Bushes. Whatever advantages Jeb Bush derived from his family, in the end, his last name — and voter distaste at the prospect of having a third president from the same family — was insurmountable.
Where the Bush last name wasn't toxic with voters, it clearly didn't do enough to move them. In the closing weeks of the campaign, Jeb trotted out his mom, and his brother came out of political retirement to campaign for him, and he got nothing out of it.
5. Kasich and Carson remain wild cards
Laugh if you want, but Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Ben Carson could still influence the outcome of this race. Combined, they accounted for roughly 15 percent of the vote. In closer southern races going forward, it isn't difficult to see, for instance, how Carson could do well enough to prevent Cruz from beating Trump in a few states.
Any Rubio path to the nomination would have to depend on racking up delegates on March 15, when Florida votes. That same day Ohio, a winner-takes-all state, carries 66 delegates — which should be in Kasich's back pocket. But imagine an alternative scenario under which Kasich drops out, endorses Rubio, and delivers him Ohio, paving his way to victory? Could that form the basis for a Rubio-Kasich ticket?