The Thrilla in South Carolinna (Sorry)

(Author’s note: This is PPFA’s 100th post at WordPress! [Here was the first… on Trump, of course] Not bad for five months of work. There has been an uptick in readership these last couple weeks, thus my ongoing efforts. Thanks so much for reading. ) 

We’re just four days from our next pair of contests. On Saturday, the Democrats will have their Nevada caucuses, which I’ll examine later in the week, and the Republicans will hold their South Carolina Primary, which I can’t wait any longer to talk about, especially after Saturday’s raucous debate.

Thanks to the hilariously hapless Jim Gilmore clearing the field, we have just six contenders remaining. And since of those six is Ben Carson, we have just five contenders remaining.

I don’t mean to be too critical of the good doctor, but he was one of the worst candidates I’ve ever had the frustration of watching. Okay, maybe that was critical, but he never — not once — impressed me as a presidential candidate. It pains me to admit that even Donald Trump has his moments. (Not accepting outside money, allowing for the possibility that the last Republican administration may have also contributed to the decline of our country, pointing out some hypocrisy on eminent domain, giving me endless fodder, etc.) Ben Carson had no moments outside of some debate-stage gregariousness. He was the emptiest shirt on every debate stage he mounted, and I was rarely convinced he had command of any of the issues in the plethora of interviews he gave. He was banking on conservative evangelical support, but the latest polls out of South Carolina have him at about half the strength of John Kasich, whose entire campaign was geared toward moderate, secular, northern New Hampshire. Carson has had a massive fork sticking out of his back for months, and I don’t think I’ll mention him again until his imminent and overdue withdrawal from the race, which I suspect takes place on Sunday or Monday (or, as the Cruz Campaign calls it, three weeks ago).

No, we only have five true contenders remaining: Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Bush, and Kasich. Will South Carolina help us further winnow the field? Let’s take a look at some South Carolina scenarios.

There are four races to keep an eye on:

  1. Trump vs. Cruz
  2. Cruz vs. Rubio
  3. Rubio vs. Bush
  4. Bush* vs. Kasich

*Bush and Trump are constantly fighting, but they’re also not jockeying next to each other for the moment.

The order I listed them is also the pecking order in the polls. Trump is hoping to hold off Cruz for first, while Cruz wants to catch Trump or at least hold off Rubio for second. Rubio targets a top two finish, but he really doesn’t want Bush to pass him for three. Bush would be thrilled with a top three finish, especially if it means finishing ahead of Rubio, but really needs to avoid finishing in fifth behind Kasich. Kasich, similarly, has his eye on finishing ahead of Bush in order to force him out the race and advance to face Rubio in the Republican Primary bracket:

Bracket 2

Kasich is hoping for a Bush fifth place finish so discouraging that he drops out before Super Tuesday or right after it as a result of the subsequent showing that day. John Kasich would then be the last governor standing and the last moderate in the race, which is his only viable path to reach the convention with strength.

As for the jockeying in the South Carolina horse race, let’s take a look at each match-up:

1. Trump vs. Cruz for first place. It’s hard not to like Trump here. Let’s look at the Huffington Post trendlines over the last month (Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Bush, Kasich, Carson):


It doesn’t seem that Trump can be caught. Five of six candidates have trended up as they gobbled up the support of the dearly departed, but that just means the status quo has generally been kept between them.

I thought Trump had his craziest debate yet, but his reckless performances haven’t hurt him to this point, and they usually further galvanize his supporters who think I don’t get it. They’re absolutely right. I don’t.

Trump is on his way to winning South Carolina and who knows what else after that. Cruz is giving it a go against him, repeating his Iowa playbook by ridiculing Trump’s background and his short, pandering record of conservatism, but an 18-point average lead in the polls is too much to overcome. Instead, Cruz needs to worry about another battle…

2. Cruz vs. Rubio for second place. This battle is closer. Whereas Trump holds an 18-point average lead over Cruz, Cruz’s lead over Rubio is just 2. If Cruz slips from his position, he risks becoming an afterthought for many southern voters before Super Tuesday, which is dominated by southern states that could overwhelmingly vote for Trump over him if they don’t see him as viable. Cruz needs to appear like Trump’s top rival heading into March. Rubio, meanwhile, is looking to regain the mojo he so dramatically lost in New Hampshire. A third or fourth place might not do that. He’ll have finished third or worse in the first three states while Trump and Cruz each have at least a win and top threes. Both recognize the importance of these South Carolina results and have strengthened their attacks on each other. Still, while Rubio would love a second place finish, he’s also worried about…

3. Rubio vs. Bush for third place. There couldn’t be a more titanic third place match-up. The stakes are high not only because South Carolina sets up the rest of the South on Super Tuesday, but because these two candidates want so desperately to be the last establishment man standing in order to consolidate its support and money. There’s a strong chance South Carolina’s results set up every domino the rest of the way for these two. If Rubio bounces back strong in SC and finished significantly ahead of Bush, the sitting Florida Senator can probably knock out the former Florida Governor on Super Tuesday itself, and then inherit his considerable financial backing. But if Bush finishes ahead of Rubio, it would all but cement Rubio’s collapse from inevitable establishment candidate after Iowa to a campaign in a free fall. Bush, meanwhile, would have taken over Rubio’s “candidate on the rise” strategy. It might not be the 3-2-1 evolution that Rubio had planned, but 6-4-3 is still heading in the right direction.

With March 15’s Florida Primary looming, each candidate would love to eliminate the other in order to consolidate Floridians and beat Trump in their weighty home state. Seeing these stakes, Jeb has called in President Bush, who is popular across the South and with the military, of which there is a high presence in South Carolina. Of course, Bush ending Rubio’s campaign might be too hopeful. In the meantime, he needs to also be concerned with…

4. Bush vs. Kasich for fourth place. Even after Kasich’s New Hampshire pop to second place, I did not expect him to do any better than fifth place in South Carolina. His campaign was just too moderate to catch on in southern conservative states, I thought. Wrong I was! Kasich has shown admirably in Palmetto State polling since the New Hampshire Primary:


Nearly a 10-point average?? Wow. And that 15 had him in third over Rubio and Bush. There’s a chance I might have to restructure these battles by Saturday, as we could be looking at a three-way race for third place, with Bush potentially falling to fifth (much to the delight of Kasich and Rubio).

Kasich’s strategy has been to avoid the infighting that has marked Trump and Bush, Trump and Cruz, Cruz and Rubio, and Rubio and Bush. Instead, he’s hoping his more positive message can win him strong enough support to survive to the Ohio Primary. His longterm strategy, as suggested by the bracket, is first to outlast Bush to be the last remaining governor, and then to outlast Rubio to be the last remaining establishment candidate. Bush, of course, hasn’t taken kindly to Kasich moving in on his governor turf.

What a melee! The exciting primary season continues.


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