If that title sounds a tad bit disingenuous, well… that’s because it is. We don’t have a new frontrunner in South Carolina (or anywhere, for that matter) but the race for third place has seen a rather abrupt shakeup. According to the latest set of numbers out of the Palmetto State, Trump is still way out in front with 32 percent and Ted Cruz is sitting in a mostly comfortable second place with 18. But once you drop down below the two default leaders, things have taken a turn. (The State)
But the race is uncertain as a dozen Republican candidates remain active with the start of voting in a little more than two weeks in Iowa on Feb. 1. The New Hampshire primary follows on Feb. 9.
Bush placed third at 13 percent, his largest showing of support in South Carolina over the past 15 polls dating back to August, according to results compiled by Real Clear Politics. Bush placed fifth or sixth in all but one S.C. poll taken since late September.
He supplanted Marco Rubio of Florida, who came in fourth at 11 percent, and retired Maryland neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who was fifth at 9 percent. Rubio leads Bush in most national and early-primary state polls.
The movement doesn’t seem to be coming at the expense of either Trump or Cruz, who are essentially holding steady at this point. As Streiff at RedState points out, the real loser here might be Marco Rubio.
The real news is in the race for third place. It looks like there are defections from Christie and Kasich that are ending up in the Jeb Bush camp.
The thing to keep in mind is that South Carolina has an open primary. The name of the game there will be GOTV. If, as many suspect, Trump’s poll numbers are buoyed by numbers of persons who haven’t voted regularly, this poll may be very, very soft. We’ll have a much better take on that after New Hampshire. The fact that Bush has increased his share of the vote from single digits into third place does not bode well for Rubio as those voters are probably established primary voters.
This is something for both the Trump and Cruz campaigns to keep an eye on, though I’m not talking exclusively about Jeb Bush here. Whether you’re looking at individual states or the national numbers, the top two are capturing a lot of the primary voting pie, but there are still a lot of potential votes scattered among the rest of this sizable field, as well as the soft supporters who may remain at least somewhat undecided until their own primary day draws near. It’s been an assumption from the beginning that “eventually” we’d see a lot of them drop out and the establishment vote would begin to crystallize around one challenger.
The problem is that eventually is taking its sweet time in coming. For the last month or so it seemed like the smart money was betting that the final establishment lane candidate would be either Marco Rubio or Chis Christie, but it’s hard to write off Jeb Bush entirely for that slot given the amount of money he’s still got behind him. Of course, this may wind up being a short term effect (restricted to South Carolina) of the cozy relationship between Bush and Lindsey Graham (who just endorsed him this weekend) but if those numbers start to stick he might still have a run at the big time.
The real question is whether or not there are enough votes left for for an establishment lane candidate to make it to 50%, even if everyone else dropped out. The South Carolina numbers aren’t all that much different from what we’re seeing around much of the rest of the nation. Nobody is at 50 by themselves, but Trump and Cruz combined are at or above the magic number. Neither of them are going to drop out any time soon with that level of support, but let’s assume that leaves 50ish percent of the vote in play. Could a Bush, Christie or Rubio really round up all of those votes without any of them defecting to either Trump or Cruz? If you think there’s a simple yes or no answer to that question I’d beg to differ. Yes, it’s true that Trump and Cruz are the consummate “anti-establishment” candidates so other voters may be looking for something familiar. That argues in favor of one of the 3rd place contenders getting to or near 50. But people are funny and some percentage of us always wind up preferring to back a winner even if they weren’t our first choice. I think the Trump / Cruz dynamic duo stands a good chance of vacuuming up some of those undecideds and the backers of some of the dead wood that eventually quits the race.
I guess what I’m saying is that it’s true that we’re within a couple weeks of the actual first votes being cast, but this thing isn’t over by a long shot. Donald and Ted need to keep an eye in the rear view mirror. Object there may be closer than they appear.