How is it possible to have presidential contests in Nevada and South Carolina that are both appealing and appalling to conservatives?
Let’s review Saturday’s results.
In Nevada’s Democratic caucuses, Hillary Clinton struggled for a third consecutive time. As in Iowa and New Hampshire, she blew a double-digit lead (25 points, only a month ago), walking away with what looks like a five-point win over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Again, Clinton had difficulty in pumping up her base (she can thank Sen. Harry Reid and a last-minute labor push for getting her over the top). As per usual, she didn’t connect with millennial Democrats and voters concerned about her integrity.
Clinton may go on to win the Democratic nomination. On paper, a competition that moves to the South, beginning next Saturday in South Carolina, works to her advantage given the heavily African-American electorates that await her there.
Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign can’t wait to bid adieu to a February in which the candidate hasn’t run so much as she’s lurched.
Pre-Nevada, Hillary’s national lead over Sanders evaporated. Showing none of the certainty of a repeat presidential candidate, Clinton has fiddled with her core message (I’m a progressive who likes to get things done”) with the same frequency that she changed hairstyles back in the 1990’s.
The bottom line: despite winning Nevada, Clinton’s long-term prospects remain shaky.
And that should elate conservatives.
Now, for the appalling: a Republican primary in South Carolina that had little do with conservative principles, ideas or values.
The complaint here isn’t that Donald Trump won. Or, that his dominance again defies common sense: only a single-digit number of South Carolinians told exit pollsters that Trump shares their values; the twice-divorced candidate split the evangelical vote with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
The concern: the nature of how Trump goes about his business – the king of noisy bandwidth, his bombast and calculated fights for months now have dominated news cycles, streamed ceaselessly on social media, and stifled any chance at a calm, rational, issues-driven conversation on the Republican slide.
South Carolina was yet another casualty. The primary was an opportunity to discuss what exactly the conservative movement embodies these days. Now, the moment’s passed.
To the need to broadening the party’s appeal to win national elections, there was a chance to showcase Gov. Nikki Haley (the nation’s only female Indian-American head of state) and Sen. Tim Scott (one of only two African-American senators).
Both supported Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who dominated the exit-poll electability question. Both played cameos roles compared to the candidates’ infighting.
South Carolina leads the nation in direct foreign investment and has a veteran population 25 percent larger than the national average. Last year, the state dealt gracefully with three divisive issues: lowering the Confederate flag at the state Capitol; a mass shooting at a black church in Charleston that led to an outpouring of calm, not violence; the fatal police shooting of black man in North Charleston that likewise didn’t turn into urban riots.
So where was the conversation regarding growing the economy, the perils of union over-reach (West Virginia, like South Carolina, becoming a right-to-work state this past week), a more coherent foreign policy and a more united society across racial and ideological lines?
The answer: they all were smothered by Trump’s antics – and a malady best described as Candidate Derangement Syndrome.
During the course of the GOP’s 10-day road trip down south, Trump threatened to sue Cruz over an ad claiming the GOP frontrunner once supported abortion rights. Trump went mano-a-mitre with Pope Francis over building a border wall. He blamed George W. Bush for the 9/11 attacks, insinuating that the former president lied his way into the Iraq invasion. Trump even called for a boycott of Apple products so long as the computer refuses to hack into a dead terrorist’s iPhone.
The media ate it up.
Not surprisingly, the primary played into the stereotype of South Carolina as a political circus.
In fairness, Trump’s not the only offender here. Cruz and Rubio spit-balled each other over character flaws, policy inconsistencies and sloppy photo-shopping. Jeb Bush went after Trump in defense of his big brother and in vain hopes of jump-starting a campaign that ended not long after the polls closed.
The question moving forward for conservatives: is this the way it’s going to be until someone earns 1,237 delegates and the party’s nomination?
With three primaries down and another 17 Republican contests to be held over the course of the next two weeks, look for the following dominos to tumble.
Bush. There’s a saying in Silicon Valley: “WFIO”. It stands for “We’re F---ed, It’s Over.”
Credit Jeb Bush with recognizing in an instant that his campaign was over. His concession speech was dignified and without a trace of bitterness – rarities in this age of harsh politics. Other candidates who’d spend nearly $81 million in ads ($15 million in South Carolina) with only four delegates to show night not have been so graceful.
Now, the political question: how quickly does Bush throw his organizational and financial weight behind Rubio? It’s a good question, as relations between the Floridians are strained, but nowhere near Bush’s animosity for Trump.
Rubio. As was the case after his third-place finish in Iowa, opportunity knocks. So how does Rubio capitalize on newfound moment? Look for an infusion of cash and a spate of endorsements. Rubio’s priorities in the weeks ahead: amassing delegates on March 1 (much easier now that Bush is out of the race), winning Florida on March 15.
Meanwhile, circle this date: Feb. 25. It’s the next GOP candidates’ debate – University of Houston, CNN and Telemundo moderating. And it’s Rubio’s next chance to shine as the establishment’s alternative to Trump and Cruz.
Cruz. Six March 1 states line up as targets for Cruz – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and his home state of Texas. For Cruz, the goal is to stay close to Trump by winning as many delegates as possible in these winner-takes-most states that allot the delegates proportionally.
The key figure for Cruz and Rubio, presuming Trump continues to run in the low- to mid-30’s: 20 percent, which is the threshold required in most states in order to earn delegates.
Trump. Yes, he won. Decisively so.
But as the attention focuses on three candidates, does Trump’s share of the pie expand? Trump’s support so far: 24.3 percent in Iowa; 35.3 percent in New Hampshire; 33 percent in South Carolina.
For those who see Trump as a media-savvier version of Pat Buchanan’s insurrection back in 1992, this reminder: Buchanan peaked at 37.5 percent in New Hampshire; he then had trouble cracking 30 percent. The protest movement had a ceiling.
Unlike Buchanan’s run, Trump is actually winning states. Whether he can get to 40 percent and beyond: it’s the difference between a race that could be over by Easter Sunday or an unsettled national convention in July.
With the Republican race staying in the South through March 1, perhaps it’s best to remember a NASCAR adage about the pushing and shoving and fender-bending that occurs along the speedway: “rubbing’s racing”.
That’s true in this Republican field, even if the process rubs conservatives the wrong way.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he analyzes California and national politics. He also blogs daily on the 2016 election at www.adayattheracesblog.com. Follow him on Twitter @hooverwhalen.