Smug pundits, Washington insiders and fierce opponents who all held out hope for a surprise Trump collapse will wake up Sunday morning living in what is now unquestionably Donald Trump’s world.
The double-digit rout of his closest challengers in the South Carolina GOP primary marks the return of Trump’s air of inevitability, briefly called into doubt by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s upset victory in Iowa.
As of Saturday evening, Trump had won 32.5 percent of the vote, a full ten points ahead of Sen. Marco Rubio, who had 22.5 percent. Cruz was at 22.3 percent and Jeb Bush, Gov. John Kasich, and Ben Carson were all stuck between 7 and 8 percent.
Bush withdrew from the race after his single-digit showing, which is good news for Rubio. Now, much of the GOP Establishment will be primed to unite behind Rubio in a last-ditch attempt to stop the Trump train.
For Cruz, the reestablished dominance of Trump poses the greatest short-term threat. Cruz has long targeted the March 1 Super Tuesday for his breakout moment with big victories across the south. The so-called “SEC Primary” on Super Tuesday includes eight southern, evangelical-heavy states. On paper the states are ideally suited to a Cruz sweep.
Cruz Defiant in South Carolina[lz_jwplayer video=”HhxkQgIV” ads=”false”]
But so was South Carolina.
The large win by Trump will likely send a wave of worry over Cruz supporters and strategists. Trump won evangelical and conservative voters in South Carolina, the two key groups among the SEC states. The Texas senator still has the best organization of any campaign in those key southern states that vote on March 1, but Super Tuesday now looks set to be more of an Alamo moment for the Texan than his moment to seize the front-runner banner.
Trump wasted little time in targeting the big SEC states. Trump mentioned the size and enthusiasm of his crowds in Alabama and Oklahoma, and referenced the SEC primary several times during his speech.
Trump Declares Victory[lz_jwplayer video=”nti02hQf” ads=”false”]
He knows a commanding finish in the SEC primary could mean the end for Sen. Cruz, long Trump’s most resilient opponent, leaving only Rubio in Trump’s path to the nomination.
Rubio, who of the top remaining contenders is the only one not to have won a contest to date, already had the strength of the Establishment at his back Saturday night. South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, Sen. Tim Scott, and Gov. Nikki Haley all took the stage with him during what seemed like a victory speech despite the fact that he was still struggling for second place.
Rubio Calls it a Three Person Race[lz_jwplayer video=”Zuh3ZxEm” ads=”false”]
The exit of Jeb will bring a surge of campaign cash from frantic Establishment donors. But Rubio and his campaign will still be hard pressed to find a clear path to victory, even with that influx of cash and D.C. insider backing.
Rubio trails Trump and Cruz in most available polls of SEC Primary Super Tuesday states, and in a Friday poll of Republican primary voters in Nevada as well, where GOP voters will caucus Tuesday.
Rubio strategists and supporters point to March 15 as a potential breakout, comeback day. March 15 is the first day of winner-take-all primaries in large, delegate-heavy states, including Rubio’s home state of Florida. But in the most recent poll of Florida Republican voters from CBS News, Rubio still places third at 18 percent, a full 23 points behind Trump.
Trump leaves the Palmetto State one very big step closer to securing the nomination. In a nuanced preview of the general election, the now-solid GOP front-runner during his victory speech Saturday night gave a big shout-out to the police force in America. In doing so, Trump dramatically contrasted himself with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who has openly vilified police in a naked pander to the Black Lives Matter movement.