The latest CNN/ORC Poll has Trump at 38, with Cruz trailing 16 points behind. The rest of the polls have Trump between 33 and 35 points, with Cruz trailing a similar amount, and Rubio within the margin of error behind him.
What’s astonishing to me is that 51 percent of S.C. voters have not “definitely decided” who will get their vote on Saturday (as of Monday). Of that 51 percent, 20 percent are leaning, and 31 percent are still trying to decide.
The S.C. primary has been around since 1980, when Reagan took it over Connally by 20 points (with Bush pulling over 15 percent). Every nominee except Romney has won the S.C. primary in a non-incumbent election cycle, and in 2012 Romney trailed Gingrich by 12 points. Gingrich received nearly 100,000 more votes than McCain did in 2008.
In 2012, 169,970 more voters participated in the primary than in 2008, but Gingrich still didn’t win the nomination despite beating Romney by 75,874 votes and taking every county outside of Columbia and the low country on the coast.
If Iowa and New Hampshire is any indication of what will happen in South Carolina, we should see a record turnout, in excess of the 601,166 in 2012. If Trump performs according to his polling, he should receive about 210,000 votes. The highest number of votes any candidate has ever received in S.C. was George W. Bush in 2000.
As an aside, 2000 was a dirtier campaign than this one, if that’s possible. Karl Rove planted a terrible (and false) rumor about McCain fathering an illegitimate black child, among other smear campaigns against McCain. McCain never recovered.
If Trump takes more votes in S.C. than Bush did in 2000 (259,215), I don’t think he’ll be stoppable short of a nuclear meltdown. Even if he doesn’t gain a plurality, a turnout in excess of 700,000 voters will establish a trend putting Trump on a path outside predictable historical data, a trend foretelling a populist takeover of the GOP.
If Trump over performs his polling and receives over 210,000 votes, he’ll be very difficult to stop, even if Bush and Kasich exit the race. Unless Rubio and Cruz bury their mutual hatchets, the race will be all but over after March 15, again with the caveat of a nuclear meltdown.
But, if Trump takes less than 210,000 votes, even if he wins 35 percent and most of the counties, even though he’ll have a good sized delegate lead headed into the “SEC Primary,” he’s still stoppable. Then it’s down to second place. If Cruz beats Rubio by a significant margin (at least 3 to 5 points statewide), Rubio will have a hard time limping to the Florida primary on March 15. In fact, if that happens, the best thing Rubio might do is to slide in with Cruz.
I know, that hurts. I like Rubio and hate to see a good man (a real Tea Party conservative) have to be the lamb to slaughter. But if Rubio takes second or effectively ties Cruz, things are much less clear going forward. And a muddy outcome like that only helps one candidate: Trump.
Gingrich won in 2012 with over 240,000 votes but lost the nomination. Trump will undoubtedly announce his inevitability and offer surrender terms to his rivals (kneel before Zod) Saturday night. But as Yogi Berra said, it’s not over till it’s over.