The final hours before the close of the polls in South Carolina were marked by a surprising amount of controversy from Donald Trump – even for him. Trump declared a unilateral boycott of one of the most profitable companies in the United States, Apple, in protest of the firm’s decision to buck a Department of Justice request to cooperate in a counterterror investigation. He became the subject of an oblique rebuke from Pope Francis himself. He attacked the Republican Party’s last sitting president, George W. Bush, and entertained conspiracy theories about the Iraq War and the September 11 attacks. He embraced the insurance mandate within the Affordable Care Act. He endorsed torture outright and spread disgraceful untruths about World War I General Jack Pershing that served only to titillate the bloodthirsty and the bigoted. Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, the night was an early one. The networks called the South Carolina GOP primary for Donald Trump just minutes after the polls closed.
For the anti-Trump wing of the party, the spin is on. To hear their individual supporters tell it, their man is the only viable Trump alternative, and every candidate seems set to press their claim to the title. Ted Cruz enjoys the support of the party’s conservative stalwarts, its most popular entertainers, and evangelicals. Marco Rubio has emerged as the GOP’s most electable candidate, as demonstrated by the number of voters who dub him such in exit polls. The sanctimonious and vaguely messianic John Kasich, who barely even contested South Carolina, has dubbed it a “four-way race” and is moving on to Massachusetts, Michigan, and Ohio. There is also Ben Carson. The race will muddle on without Jeb Bush.
“I’m proud of the campaign that we have run to unify this country,” Bush told his supporters following a disappointing performance in the first three states to vote. “Tonight I am suspending my campaign.” Jeb Bush is a decent man, and he deserved better from the party to which he and his family have devoted their lives. He might have been remembered as a spoiler who spent millions in the effort to destroy his protégé, Marco Rubio, but that is a fate he will avoid if only because the Florida senator’s striking resilience to attacks on his personality and record.
Bush will leave the race with his dignity and reputation intact. For those who hope to see the former Florida governor join the critical mass of Republicans in overtly backing Rubio to serve as the only candidate who can defeat Trump and Cruz, unite the Party, and emerge victorious in November, they should abandon that notion right now. If Bush had not entered the race in December 2014 with the aim of using brute force and millions in donations to force the party’s rising Tea Party stars into submission, there might never have even been a Trump campaign. The polls suggest that Bush’s voters will move in Rubio’s direction naturally, and Bush doesn’t need to force it. His heavy hand has already been far too omnipresent in this race.
But is any of this speculation even necessary? Is there even a GOP race anymore? Does Donald Trump, having won two of the three earliest contests, have anything left to prove? Isn’t the race his to lose? The answer to these questions is no. Barely 4 percent of the delegates that will be awarded before the party descends on Cleveland in the summer have been awarded. Marco Rubio’s detractors within the conservative movement will balk at the notion that the candidate’s failure to win any race still leaves him a viable alternative to either Cruz or Trump, but Bush’s campaign suspension does reset the playing field quite a bit. If it wasn’t clear before Rubio secured the endorsements of disparate figures in South Carolina like Governor Nikki Haley, Senator Tim Scott, and Representatives Trey Gowdy and Joe Wilson, the party is behind him. Considering Rubio’s face-plant in New Hampshire just a few weeks ago, the fact that so many Republican officeholders still consider him viable and are willing to put their reputations behind that theory speaks to the Florida senator’s resilience. That’s not a media narrative. It’s not a conspiracy theory that lacks evidence to support it. The party still decides, or at least it tries to. And it has decided on Rubio. Expect that trend to accelerate.
Now, if there is one lesson 2016 has taught us, it is that the party doesn’t always win. The GOP’s “establishment” is schismatic and sectarian. It could not impose any discipline on this field before tonight, and it won’t be able to do so tomorrow. Bush’s exit from the race allows Rubio to consolidate some of that field, but John Kasich appears disinclined to hear the bugles sounding the retreat. He is ready to hoist himself up on the cross for the cause of compassionate conservatism, and no amount of cajoling will coax him down. The GOP “establishment” exists, but it is not a monolithic force with outsize influence over the nominating process. They might lose, and John Kasich may be the instrument of their destruction. Furthermore, even if Rubio got the opportunity to test his mettle in a three-way race, it is unclear that he would prevail. But the odds are better than they were on February 19 that he’ll have that opportunity.
The hour is, however, getting late. Rubio lost a critical opportunity to force his competitors out of the race in New Hampshire, and he’s got a lot of ground to make up. Though it is becoming an apocryphal assertion, fate still favors those Republican Party presidential candidates who act like Republicans. For pundits heaping scorn on those who continue to doubt Trump’s inevitability, they should look at the voting results. Trump has demonstrated that he draws approximately the same range of support in the Midwest, the South, and the Northeast. He is running a campaign that more resembles that of a boilerplate 20th Century rustbelt Democrat than an Obama-era conservative. He continues to appeal more to moderate Republicans than “very conservative” voters, and “late deciders” consistently back Trump’s rivals in substantial numbers. As the field winnows, Trump is the least likely candidate to benefit.
Any neutral observer must concede that Donald Trump is still best positioned to win the Republican presidential nomination, but it’s a new day tomorrow. The anti-Trump wing of the party better be ready to make the most of it.