The first major poll of South Carolina released after the weekend’s debate shows Donald Trump maintaining a big lead. A lot of pundits said that Trump hurt himself at the debate, by giving an angry repudiation of George W. Bush’s presidency, saying that the Iraq War was a “big, fat mistake” and that the Bush administration “lied” about weapons of mass destruction. When other candidates, including W’s brother, said that Bush “kept us safe,” Trump asserted that Bush was president on September 11. This statement is true, but it is part of Republican dogma that the “keep us safe” test only counts for the period of Bush’s presidency after 9-11.
My sense after the debate was that Trump did just fine. GOP elites and pundits in the media have consistently overestimated how much staying true to Republican orthodoxy actually matters to the GOP primary voters backing Donald Trump. The latest South Carolina poll, from Public Policy Polling, might hint that Teflon Donald was undamaged by his rants about Bush. Trump leads the pack, with the battle for second tightening:
Donald Trump: 35 percent
Ted Cruz: 18 percent
Marco Rubio: 18 percent
John Kasich: 10 percent
Jeb Bush: 7 percent
Ben Carson: 7 percent
Undecided: 6 percent
The poll was last conducted in November; Trump has gained 10 points since then. I suspect that Bush can sneak into the top four, but if not, the pressure will once again be high for him to drop out. If Rubio pulls off a second-place finish, we’ll no doubt hear more silly “Marcomentum” stories. Hell, we’ll probably hear them even if Bronze Medal Marco finishes third — Rubio gave a bizarre victory speech after finishing third in Iowa.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton still holds a big lead over Bernie Sanders in South Carolina according to the same poll, leading 55-34. It is undeniably the case that Sanders is a strong candidate who has closed the gap in national polling and in a number of key states, but I don’t know that the big-picture story of this race has moved all that much in the last few weeks. Sanders is dominating among younger voters and left-wing white voters. That gives him a big leg up in certain states — and two of them voted first, helping the momentum story — but Clinton still has significant leads in lots of other states. Sanders cannot win unless he expands his base of support, particularly to non-white voters. The PPP poll found that Sanders and Clinton were tied among South Carolina white voters, but Clinton had a 63-23 lead among black voters.
There has been narrative reporting about Sanders making inroads to black voters and establishing a strong ground game in South Carolina, but until that shows up in polling data, Clinton has to be considered an extremely heavy favorite in the Palmetto State.
No doubt the “momentum” if Clinton wins big in South Carolina thanks to her structural advantage will be as over-reported as the momentum from Sanders’ big win in New Hampshire. This remains a highly competitive race, a testament to the energy from the party’s left wing.