OPINION: Trump’s Win in South Carolina Is a Warning Not a Triumph

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AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Donald Trump won the South Carolina GOP primary Saturday night, defeating former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley by 20 points.

A lot of the commentary on the right is triumphalist. Trump convincingly beating a popular former governor on her home turf is an accomplishment.

But this kind of talk is nothing more than cheerleading with a dose of whistling past the graveyard tossed in.

This is why I think air raid sirens should be going off inside the Republican Party at all levels rather than a vigorous round of self-congratulation.

More Votes Were Cast Than In 2016

Last night, about 755,800 votes were cast in the Republican primary. That is up from 737,900 in 2016. Why this is significant is that the 2016 primary was hotly contested, and the 2024 primary was essentially a pro forma affair where the winner was known in advance. By comparison, 539,300 Democrat votes were cast in the contested 2020 Democrat primary but only 131,500 in 2024. 

Something brought extra people to the polls. I’m sure some will argue that some showed up to show their support of Trump. Being an “open primary” state, South Carolina muddies the water, and some claim that the Haley vote was Democrats she recruited. Some of that may be true, but the bigger question is why Democrats would show up to vote for Haley when polls indicate she is a much stronger general election candidate than Trump. I’d suggest that a lot of people, particularly Republicans, who didn’t support Trump showed up to send a message. 

Trump’s Support Was Declining

Trump’s polling softened as the primary approached.

Both Trump and Haley got major bumps in polling when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis dropped out. By the time of the primary, Trump had lost four percentage points from his all-time high. Trump’s vote total in South Carolina was lower than the last polling average. While Trump’s final polling was a mere 0.7 percentage points higher than his “DeSantis bump,” Haley’s was five points higher.

Given the context of the race, this is not a sign of Trump consolidating support. In South Carolina, he increased his vote percentage by only five points over his New Hampshire results despite the field narrowing to just two candidates.

Trump Lost Metropolitan and Suburban Areas “Bigly”

The most ominous message last night was that Trump got beaten like a rented mule in metropolitan and suburban areas.

About 80 percent of the US population lives in metropolitan or suburban areas. Trump lost those areas in South Carolina in a big way. That calls into question Trump’s ability to appeal to those voters in sufficient numbers to carry swing states.

What Didn’t Happen

There is no sign that the GOP is starting to coalesce around Trump’s candidacy because there is no sign that the Trump campaign wants that support.

The key element missing from Trump’s campaign is any hint that it recognizes that he needs the support of voters who are not Trump loyalists to win. Indeed, Trump’s campaign seems more fixated on maligning Haley and even DeSantis, who is no longer in the race, and their supporters than building bridges. The operating principle seems to be that they think no matter the lies, abuse, and invective directed at them, everyone will come home to Trump in November because of Biden. I think this underestimates the degree to which many Republicans and conservatives actively dislike Trump and how many will vote for Joe Biden on not voting the top line on the ballot rather than supporting Trump.

Trump Continues to Surround Himself With Garbage People

The striking thing about all of Trump’s political campaigns, from 2016 through today, is the number of garbage people he attracts. All campaigns attract grifters and psychopaths, but there is something about Trump that acts like Velcro for the lint of awful people. I’m not going to call any names here, but you know who you are. I’d never thought it possible that the leading candidate’s surrogates would have accused Casey DeSantis of faking breast cancer to gain sympathy. Trump’s surrogates peddling a decade-old and discredited story of Haley’s marital infidelity was one of the most loathsome displays in modern American politics, if not in conduct, then in raw hypocrisy considering Trump’s personal life. In a more genteel era, that sort of trash would’ve been shopped to a Democrat media outlet instead of the candidate making it from the dais at a campaign rally.

Last night, one of Trump’s unhinged influencers was attributing Haley’s loss to her alleged adultery.

Final Word

Here, the issue is less the psychopathic rabble that has been given an imprimatur to represent Trump’s campaign on social media but Trump’s unwillingness to stop his scorched earth campaign and try to build bridges. Joe Biden cruised to a 96 percent win in South Carolina earlier in the month despite his rather obvious infirmity. At this point in the campaign, even with Haley still in the race, Trump should bring 70-80 percent of the GOP home. He’s not. 

His campaign celebrating this as a major victory shows they are either out of touch with reality or are afraid to voice the obvious problem, which is that Trump’s support comes from a portion of the minority of voters who voted for him in 2020. That can win him the nomination, but it won’t win him the election.

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