What We Learned From the South Carolina Primary

A little more than 1,000 votes made the difference between second and third place for Cruz. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
A little more than 1,000 votes made the difference between second and third place for Cruz. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
Posted February 21, 2016 at 5:38am

Donald Trump established himself as a solid favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination after taking a third of the vote in South Carolina and leaving Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz fighting for second, 10 points behind.  

A win in Nevada on Tuesday would propel Trump into the March 1 primaries, with nearly a third of GOP delegates up for grabs, where he already holds a solid lead in several states. Cruz finished around a thousand votes behind Rubio in a state that he was at one time banking on. But he couldn’t capture the state’s large evangelical vote, which doesn’t bode well for the March 1 primaries, where he was seen as the evangelical favorite.  

Jeb Bush’s withdrawal from the Republican presidential race narrows the establishment vote between Sen. Marco Rubio, who bounced back from a disappointing fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, and pesky Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who’s looking ahead to March primaries in Michigan and his home state.  

Here’s what we learned from Saturday:

“The clock is now ticking faster against establishment Republicans as Donald Trump begins to knock down the early primary states.  With his win in South Carolina, Trump is quickly building solid momentum like a rolling bowling ball running fast down the lane once again knocking Ted Cruz and everyone else to the side.

“The stakes are getting higher and Jeb Bush made the right decision to drop out for the good of the establishment wing of the party. We will likely see the floodgate of donors and grassroots support now shift over from Bush to Marco Rubio.

“However, he also desperately needs John Kasich to drop out to further consolidate the field if Rubio to help him have a good shot at taking any of these upcoming states. It remains an open question whether or not Trump can be stopped in his tracks.

“If the past is prologue that could be tough to accomplish, but the race is growing deadly serious and tough decision by Katich needs to be made imminently.”

— Ron Bonjean, a veteran GOP strategist and former top Capitol Hill communicator

— John Brabender, a former Rick Santorum senior strategist

“Can Trump be stopped? He needs 1,144 delegates to do win the nomination. It's a three-person race now. Jeb dropping out helps Rubio.  Kasich staying in through Ohio will hurt Trump.”

— A southern-based Republican strategist

“Winners tonight are Trump and Rubio. Losers are Bush and Cruz. If 74% of the South Carolina vote tonight is evangelical and Cruz is pulling about 22% of the vote, someone explain how he beats Trump anywhere?”

— Bruce Haynes, president of Purple Strategies

“Trump will continue to win, like any frontrunner, until candidates focus on defeating him and winning rather than running for second and third place. There are no lanes nor benefit in second, third or fourth unless it helps you win.

“Did South Carolina care that Rubio came in fifth in New Hampshire? No.

“If Mitt Romney hadn't focused on winning Florida after losing South Carolina but played for a comfortable second, he would have come in second. He fought every day. He won. That's what anyone will do who will win.”

— Stuart Stevens, a former Romney adviser

"Certainly Trump deserves a ton of credit for two big wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina; that gives him lots of momentum going into March and that is obviously important.

“But there is a long way to go before we can safely say who the GOP nominee will be, especially if the field starts thinning and we get down to two or three candidates.

“It took Romney until May 2012 to sew up the nomination with a smaller, weaker field, so I think it's still far too early predict a winner for the GOP nomination."

— Ian Prior, the communications director at the Karl Rove-aligned group American Crossroads