By Hastings Wyman –
The pundits – right, left and otherwise – have made their living in the past few months underestimating the prospects of Donald Trump’s presidential bid. But no matter how many times a supposed Trump “gaffe” or misstep occurs, the polls continue to show The Donald in first place among Republicans, across the nation and in the South.
A CBS News poll in mid-October showed Trump continuing to hold a sizable lead among Republicans – 27% to 21% for Ben Carson, 9% for Ted Cruz, 8% for Marco Rubio, 6% for Carly Fiorina and 6% for Jeb Bush.
More importantly, because the results of the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire tend to shift intra-party preferences in other states quickly and dramatically, Trump was holding on to significant margins in both of these key contests.
If Trump is still standing after New Hampshire, as the numbers suggest he will be, he’s likely to do very well in South Carolina on February 20. Trump had an impressive 20-point lead in the state over his nearest competitor in a mid-October CNN/ORC poll. He led with 38% followed by Carson’s 18% and Rubio’s 9%, with all others in smaller single digits. This result got anecdotal support at the State Fair in Columbia, where the most requested bumper sticker at the GOP booth was Trump’s, followed by Carson then Rubio.
This preference for the rebel and/or maverick GOPer continues the trend set in the Palmetto State in 2012, where the establishment Republicans’ choice had come in first for years, until Newt Gingrich won there four years ago, defeating Mitt Romney, who had the backing of Gov. Nikki Haley (R).
In South Carolina, as elsewhere, Trump’s continuing strength is rooted in his popularity with the average GOP voter. One experienced Republican operative says it “feels like we’ve reached a new chapter here… The assumption was that [Trump] would peak and then fade away. He’s peaked, but he’s holding steady.” He adds that if Trump went one-on-one with Bush or Rubio, he would probably lose. But he adds that Trump “could be the nominee.”
Trump’s success so far has depended almost entirely on his personal campaigning, his performance in the debates, and his appearances on Fox News, CNN and other television news networks. But he is now beginning to put together organizations on the ground in the key states in the South, particularly South Carolina, which has the first primary in the South. By mid-October, Trump had eight staffers in the state, with a campaign committee chaired by state Sen. John Russell (R), son of the late Gov. Donald Russell, and Ed McMullen, a prominent conservative activist. His state director is state Rep. James Merrill (R). He has subsequently hired campaign staffers in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
If Trump wins South Carolina in February, his victory may be a harbinger for what comes next in the rest of the South on March 1, the date of the “SEC” primary, named for the Southeastern Conference college athletic organization. That would set Trump up as a major force at the GOP’s national convention in Cleveland on July 18-21.
But none of this is set in stone.
Chuck Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, says that the outcome in South Carolina’s primary, ten days earlier than the Southern primary, might influence the result in Georgia. He adds, however, that “Trump leads today, but he’s not close to 50%. Right now, an awful lot of Georgia Republicans wouldn’t be sure” who they prefer. “As we get closer to March” their opinions will mean more. Moreover, the slate of GOP presidential candidates will probably shrink as more states hold their caucuses or primaries, with the potential for some coalescing behind candidates other than Trump.
Former Georgia state Republican Chairman Chuck Clay notes that the Peach State has been “a backwater” in previous nomination battles, but that this year, “being part of the super [Southern] primary might gin it up.” So far, Bush and Rubio have some presence on the ground in the state, with Trump competing mainly by his appearances. But Trump is playing the game with considerable acumen. In his October visit to Norcross, Trump was introduced by Herman Cain, who praised but did not endorse him. Some 7,700 folks attended the rally, which cheered his comments on immigration. And before his speech, in the type of Trump move that no one sees coming, he met with a group of 40 African-American pastors from around the country, who had traveled to the Peach State for the occasion.
The biggest state in the SEC primary, and the second largest in the nation, is Texas. Dr. Richard Murray, political science professor at the University of Houston, describes Trump as “one of the wildest wild cards we’ve seen… If he stays the course, if he is willing to invest in building a meaningful structure” on the ground in Texas and elsewhere, he could be formidable. Murray notes, however, that home-stater Ted Cruz “is very organized on the ground,” adding that “Cruz never led in any published poll” in the 2012 US Senate primary, “but beat Lt. Gov. [David] Dewhurst decisively in the primary and swamped him in the runoff.” Thus, concludes Murray, “Texas could be one of the tougher states for The Donald,” with Cruz standing a good chance of coming in first in the March 1 primary. However, Texas is not a winner-take-all state, so even should Trump win the primary there, other contenders, including Cruz, Bush and Rubio could get some delegates.
In Florida, which votes on March 15, two weeks after the SEC primary, Trump has enjoyed a steady lead among Republicans, even polling ahead of two of the state’s leading GOPers, US Sen. Rubio and former Gov. Bush. An early October Quinnipiac University poll in Florida gave Trump 28% of Republican registered voters, to 16% for Carson, 14% for Rubio and 12% for Bush. There is no guarantee what the Florida ballot will look like, however. Were either Bush or Rubio to withdraw and endorse the other, Trump could be in a battle. On the other hand, if Carson, who is also running strong in the South and nationally, should bow out, much of his support could go to Trump.
In preparation for the Southern votes, the candidates are beginning to buy television time. Bush’s Super PAC bought $17 million in TV time for late December and January, including significant buys in Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. And Rubio’s campaign has reserved $40,000 worth of time in Georgia, concentrated in Augusta and Savannah.
The cloud on the horizon for Trump’s candidacy may be his high negatives. A CBS News poll in October showed that 20% of Republican primary voters would not vote for him if he became the party’s nominee. And his negatives are more than twice that of either Rubio or Fiorina. Among all registered voters, 53% have an unfavorable opinion of Trump, the highest of any of the Republican contenders.
Nevertheless, Donald Trump, and to a lesser extent Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, are giving the old line Republican establishment a serious challenge. And the South, with its long-held preference for the rebels who shake their fists at the powers-that-be, may be the turning point that gives Trump a major boost toward the Republican nomination. Stay tuned!