As David A. Graham posits on The Atlantic, Is Trump Unstoppable?
Trump’s success has become so familiar that it’s hard to remember just how improbable it is. He won South Carolina after a bizarre few weeks, in which he accused former President George W. Bush of lying about the war in Iraq and failing to prevent September 11, feuded with Pope Francis, and told an offensive, apocryphal story about U.S. soldiers desecrating Muslim corpses in the Philippines. Those were only the most recent incidents.
But just like every other supposedly career-ending gaffe, they did nothing to knock him out of the lead. And with each passing week, the Republican establishment has less and less time to consolidate around a candidate who can best both Trump and Ted Cruz. Will Trump’s huge South Carolina win drive more Republicans to just give up and get in line behind him, or will it inspire a fevered, redoubled effort to knock him out?...
...Some analysts had questioned whether Trump could win in South Carolina—a state with southern gentility and a sense of decorum. There’s no question that Trump’s behavior gave some voters pause, but in the end many of them found their admiration for Trump’s bluntness overcame their hesitations. Time and again, journalists have asked where Trump’s appeal lies, but the answer seems simple: Republicans feel that he’s willing to articulate exactly what they see wrong with the country, without any of the hesitations or hangups of other candidates...
...Of course, such sentiments infuriate many other Republicans—the ones who don’t support him. They point out his long record of changing positions. They note that despite what Trump says about self-funding, he’s put almost no money into his campaign while taking in millions in donations. (He’s also run a lean campaign.) They say that while political correctness is a plague, there are some things that really are unacceptable—and which, by the way, will hurt the GOP’s chances in a general election...
With Jeb out, his meager portion of the party voters - roughly the eight percent he'd won last night - are going to have to move somewhere between the remaining candidates. Considering Jeb's people weren't huge fans of Trump Cruz Rubio Carson or Kasich to begin with, where WOULD they go next?
Rubio had been traditionally the "second choice" for a lot of the primary voters, so he's a likely fall-back candidate. Jeb's people are least likely to go to the candidate - Trump - who denied their boy at every turn, and Rubio's the one "Establishment" candidate left in a key position to stop The Donald.
However, Jeb's backers might not be in love with Rubio - seeing him usurping his mentor's chance in the spotlight, and may view Rubio's lack of experience as a negative - and may go elsewhere in spite, which benefits Kasich as the one Establishment candidate with an actual record and projected bipartisan appeal that could attract moderate/independent voters during the general election cycle. It's very unlikely Jeb's voters will go to the extremist candidates like Cruz and Carson.
If Trump does get any boost from Jeb's departure, it will be from the group of voters who hover on the fence between Undecided and What the Hell. These are the voters who don't entirely care for the issues, only that their interests are protected by THEIR tribe (those who vote Republican/Conservative because it's ingrained into their nature). In that regard, they don't care for who actually wins, they only vote for the "winner". This is where the Big Momentum - where the candidate in the lead builds on that lead because voters will fall in line - comes into play, and something that may well start pulling even more undecideds into line.
Trump's victories so far are dominant but not overwhelming: he's getting about a third of the votes, which isn't exactly getting a 50-percent-plus super-majority of the results that a truly unstoppable campaign would be getting in a multi-candidate race.
Nate Silver and other pollsters keep pointing to the fact that Trump has a hard ceiling, that his appeal goes only so far:
...What did the Trump skeptics find to like about South Carolina? Quite a lot, actually. They’d point out that Trump faded down the stretch run, getting 32 percent of the vote after initially polling at about 36 percent after New Hampshire, because of his continuing struggles with late-deciding voters. They’d note that Trump’s numbers worsened from New Hampshire to South Carolina despite several candidates having dropped out. They’d say that Rubio, who went from 11 percent in South Carolina polls before Iowa to 22 percent of the vote on Saturday night, had a pretty good night. They’d also say that Rubio will be helped by Jeb Bush dropping out, even if it had already become clear that Rubio was the preferred choice of Republican Party “elites...”
...The idea that Trump has a ceiling — or to be more precise, will encounter a lot of upward resistance as he seeks to gain more support — is not some type of special pleading. Instead, it’s a point the Trump skeptics have raised from the very earliest stages of Trump’s campaign. And they’ve seen some evidence to validate it from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, along with recent polling.
Trump does have the highest Unfavorable numbers among the remaining candidates in the field - higher than Hillary, and was higher than Jeb (who never found the love) - so there is merit to the idea Trump can't appeal far enough in a tighter, two-man race: that Trump can only get 35 to 40 percent across the board, meaning against a candidate who can get the remaining 60 to 65 percent can win. Which is probably why Kasich is going to be getting a lot of pressure from the party elites to drop now and give Rubio more firepower to overtake Trump in the polls and possibly win the majority of delegates.
But there's a problem with that solution: This likely won't be a two-man race anytime soon. Ted Cruz is too driven to just give up right now: he's been close on his own, and running his campaign on his own terms. The possibility of Trump flaming out on his own - only Trump can stop Trump - gives Cruz a possibility of getting all those Trump voters (as he's the only candidate even over Carson that can appeal to Trump's supporters). And Cruz doesn't owe the Establishment any favors, and there's little they can offer him to step aside.
With Carson promising to stay in it, and with Kasich likely sticking in the race at least until Ohio - where Jeb's eight percent last night was him going down, Kasich's eight percent is a plus - in the likelihood Rubio crashes, we may not see a two-man race until it's too late.
This is where my earlier argument about a large field of candidates favoring the GOP Establishment - because it could have forced the race into a contested "brokered" convention - turns out to have been wrong. A lot of it was because I got the math on delegate counts wrong. I thought going in that a good number of state primaries would be proportioned out to the winners a certain way, so that where Trump's thirty-percent would give him an edge but not the outright numbers to win it all. Instead, as I found out awhile back, there are enough states that are Winner-Take-All like South Carolina, and a lot of states have Threshold rules that cut off candidates who fail to get over a certain (15 or 20) percent of voters.
If we look at how South Carolina turned out, we can get a decent idea how the other Winner-Take-All states could do. Trump won overall, and then also won the districts/counties portioned off as lovely parting gifts to the also-rans. Anyone who wins the state overall is bound to win a lot of those districts, after all.
All of a sudden, Florida's 99 delegate count is looking like they are Trump's to lose. Any WTA state in Trump's pocket is that way. A lot of the Threshold states do.
This is the Republicans' own damn fault. Back when they figured their Establishment candidate (hi, Jeb) needed to secure early enough to leave no doubt, they likely scheduled and schemed these Primaries to work they way they do to prevent potential usurpers from bleeding away too many delegates too early. Instead, Jeb ran flat from the get-go, and Trump jumped out of nowhere with his harsh anti-immigrant campaign in such a way the rest of the field couldn't block him. Trump sucked out all the oxygen in the room and everyone else has been playing catch-up since.
For all the talk that Trump has a ceiling, the fact is that ceiling is still pretty damn high in the Republican field. He's looking at 35 percent average, and he is likely to garner one or two percent more of the undecideds with each successive Primary who will go with the alpha dog just to fall in line. If he's losing support, it's going to go to a candidate in Rubio who still has his detractors. And Cruz is sitting there with no sign of dropping out, likely keeping 20 to 25 percent to his "lane" that could prevent Rubio from passing Trump.
Trump doesn't have to win over fifty percent of the Republican voters in the Primaries. He just has to win enough of them to win each state, and to win them in a way the delegates don't get parceled out. Trump just has to win.
It's not that Trump is a winner in real life - given all his business failures, he's not - it's that he's a good con artist. And con artists know how to fake winning.
This is not good for the nation. For all the jokes, and sarcasm, and horror stories about our political leaders being con artists, in truth most of them are reasonably effective or at least respectful of the Game. Trump isn't: he's the kind of con artist who bluffs and bullies and never cares for the results save for what he gets out of the bad deals.
Trump is getting thisclose to being President. This is not good at all.