Donald Trump cruised to a double-digit win over the Republican field on Saturday in South Carolina. It was his second straight easy win – coming 11 days after he swept the New Hampshire primary by nearly 17 points.
Those back-to-back victories coupled with Trump’s second-place finish in Iowa’s caucuses – in which he took the second-most votes of any Republican candidate ever – affirm a very simple yet still not fully grasped fact: Donald Trump is the heavy favorite to be the Republican presidential nominee this fall.
Let’s start with the delegate math through the first three votes. Trump won all 50 of South Carolina’s delegates Saturday, bringing his total delegate count to 67. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is in second place with 11 delegates. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has 10. Of the 102 total delegates allocated in the race to date, Trump has won 66 percent.
Now look forward. On Tuesday, Nevada will hold its Republican caucuses. According to a CNN-ORC poll released Wednesday, Trump leads in the Silver State by almost 30 points – an edge likely to hold steady or even grow in the wake of his convincing South Carolina win.
Then comes the March 1 “SEC” primary, when voters in 13 states across the country, including seven Southern states, cast their ballots. And polling puts Trump first in most of them. If he sweeps these states, or comes close, he will have a massive delegate lead that even winner-take-all delegate-allocation states such as Ohio and Florida, both of which vote March 15, won’t be able to erase.
Substitute any other Republican in the race into Trump’s current position. There is a 100 percent chance that that person would be touted as the prohibitive favorite or the odds-on nominee. Imagine Rubio – with a third-place finish in Iowa, fifth-place finish in New Hampshire and barely second-place finish in South Carolina – with the same poll numbers as Trump in Nevada and beyond. The coronation would be on.
Why isn’t Trump getting the credit and coverage he deserves? Because, at root, there is still a belief within the party establishment and the ranks of the media that he will somehow implode or that voters will “wise up” or “get real” – or something. The problem with that theory is that Trump has done lots and lots of things that (a) can be described as “gaffes” and (b) would have ended or severely compromised other campaigns. Yet none of it has touched him.
In fact, his willingness to say anything, no matter the underlying facts, seems to affirm to his supporters just how “independent” of the political system he really is.
One example: Trump spent the week before the South Carolina primary savaging George W. Bush and insisting that the 43rd president didn’t keep the country safe because the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, happened on his watch. Not only is that sort of rhetoric verboten within the Republican Party, but it was widely considered especially noxious in a state where the Bush family remains very popular.Yet, of the 1 in 5 South Carolina Republican voters who were either veterans or had a military veteran in their house, Trump crushed the competition.
Ask yourself: What could Trump possibly do or say that would somehow be seen as a large enough mistake to cost him large amounts of support?
Given the steadiness of his numbers, the idea that Trump will either derail himself or be derailed seems like the most wishful of thinking by establishment Republicans. Ditto the idea, which I still hear nearly every day in Washington, that the establishment will “figure out” a way to stop Trump. Trust me: If they could have stopped Trump, they would have done it a long time ago.
Even after former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush bowed out of the race after his disappointing South Carolina finish, the establishment vote remains split between Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. And even if Kasich gets out sometime soon – my guess is he won’t – I remain unconvinced that the establishment vote, even when totally unified, is enough to beat Trump.
Wishful thinking is not the same thing as plausible strategy. And at this point, it appears that wishful thinking is what has been keeping Trump from getting the coverage he clearly deserves as the undisputed front-runner for the Republican nomination.
Front-runners can, and do, lose on occasion. And it’s possible that Trump – perhaps when or if the race narrows to a one-on-one contest with Rubio – loses.
But it is an undeniable fact that Trump has by far the easiest path to the Republican nomination from here on out – and he is likely to end March with a significant delegate edge over Cruz and Rubio.
Waiting and hoping for him to collapse is, to borrow a Trumpism, a loser’s game.
(C) 2016, The Washington Post · Chris Cillizza