The South Carolina primary results don’t mean Trump will be the nominee

Today, South Carolina Republicans cast votes in the 2016 presidential primary. As expected, two things happened. First, Donald Trump wiped the floor with the competition. Second, pundits have overreacted in declaring that his second win clears him a path to the nomination. The latter is not only premature, but rabidly underestimates how the party primary system works. But in due fairness, let’s address both points.

Trump continues to be underestimated

This is not a post to bash Donald Trump. In fact, as a student of elections, Trump wildly impresses me. He entered a crowded race in which Republicans had not just a number of choices, but a diverse set of good choices. The GOP had young and old, white and nonwhite, male and female, domestic policy guys and foreign policy wonks, experienced politicians and newcomers. Ben and Jerry may have endorsed Bernie Sanders, but the GOP race quickly became the Baskin Robbins of politics.

Enter Donald Trump. He surely brought something different and new to the table. But along with his success as a businessman and tremendous wealth, he also had an easily critiqued history and absolutely no political experience. Combine that with the lack of polish and decorum expected of presidential contenders, and his candidacy seemed not only easily undermined, but doomed. Everyone underestimated Trump, assuming his brash, flippant, offensive, brutally honest, and clearly genuine rhetoric would force him out of the race quickly. Nothing was further from the truth.

As time went on, he just grew more popular. Comments that would normally force a candidate from the race—and political relevance generally—seemed to propel Trump further. And that success continues. After losing a controversial race to an even more controversial Ted Cruz in Iowa, Trump went on to win in New Hampshire and again tonight in South Carolina. That success is indisputable. It is a testament to a very different candidate, who does whatever he wants, in a year where predictions and expectations are thrown out the window. Actually, somehow Mr. Trump has built a wall to combat common wisdom and he’s making the political intelligentsia pay for it. 

Tonight’s win in South Carolina is not only impressive in itself, but it is in a state that had clear currents and moments that favored other candidates. Jeb Bush should have won South Carolina because his father and brother were successful in the state and still remain very well liked. Marco Rubio should have won South Carolina because his story is a compelling one; his foreign policy chops connect well with a defense-oriented state, and Nikki Haley, the popular Republican governor, endorsed him. Ted Cruz should have won South Carolina because the Republican electorate is deeply conservative and disproportionately evangelical Christian. Donald Trump most certainly should not have won South Carolina. He’s a wealthy New York businessman with New York values, multiple divorces, a slight relationship to religion, and a history of supporting liberal causes—traits that typically don’t resonate with South Carolina Republicans. Yet, despite all of the things other candidates had going for them and the myriad reasons Trump shouldn’t have won, the Palmetto State picked the Donald. His message focused on fear, anger, disgust, and a desire to “Make America Great Again” touched a nerve. It’s quite odd. In some ways, “Make America Great Again” is the 2016 version of “Yes, We Can.” People are responding to the message not necessarily because of its substance, but it makes them feel the way they want to feel. It inspires them as the kind of alternative they want to see. Earlier this week, I drew parallels between how Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump connect with very different supporters in very similar ways. But perhaps, instead, Donald Trump is the 2016 and Republican version of Barack Obama. Trump supporters hope he can change Obama’s “Hope and Change.”

There is no reason on paper, by demographics, or by outward appearance Donald Trump should be successful in South Carolina, but alas, he won the primary there and marches on to Nevada and then Super Tuesday with more wind at his back than any other candidate by far. His momentum is huge.

Why Donald Trump is overestimated

Every other Republican candidate—and probably both Democratic candidates—would love to be in Donald Trump’s shoes. Dominant, in control of most news cycles, Teflon to scandal and his own gaffes, connecting with should-be-out-of-reach demographic groups with ease, and trouncing the competition. Despite that, the reports of Donald Trump’s coronation as the next Republican nominee are quite premature. He may well end up the GOP nominee. Yet, there are several reasons why he may not.

The GOP race remains a crowded field. There are five other candidates of varying success and even if you discount Carson (you should) and Bush (you probably should), Cruz and Rubio are serious contenders. So long as that many candidates remain in the race, it becomes difficult for Trump to amass a majority of delegates heading into Cleveland. Cruz and Rubio may not be able to beat Trump in many of the states to come, but they can be enough of a nuisance to keep him from the type of “clinch” we have seen in previous years after a handful of primaries and caucuses. That moment usually comes early (or early-ish) when it becomes clear someone will march to the convention and the race effectively ends. This year is not one of those years.

Party rules make it hard for Trump to clinch. While some states are winner-take-all in their allocation of delegates. Many are not. Many allocate strictly proportionally or function as a winner-take-all if and only if a candidate receives a supermajority (between 66 percent and 85 percent depending on the state). Trump is “winning” by pulling 30-40 percent of states’ votes, making those winner-take-all-thresholds far out of reach. It also makes securing the nomination formally (winning a majority of delegates) or informally (broad support being so obvious that further competition is seen as fruitless) that much more difficult. 

Party leaders don’t like Donald Trump and they’re scared to death of his candidacy. The GOP brass see themselves—right or not—to be in a very strong position this year. Secretary Clinton’s candidacy exists in the shadow of scandals and investigations and her primary competition is a self-described socialist. They think their chances to retake the White House are quite good, but only if they have the right candidate. They believe Donald Trump is not that candidate. The Republican primary contest has “uncommitted delegates” (Democrats call them “superdelegates”) who are able to cast convention votes without input from voters. There are fewer of them than Democrats have, but in a close primary contest, they may make a difference. These unpledged delegates tend to be state party leaders.

If Republicans head to Cleveland with no candidate securing a majority of delegates (every political pundit’s daydream), and a brokered convention comes to fruition, the uncommitted delegates may play an outsized role. So, too, may the party brass—the baron-like establishment that Trump and his supporters rail against. It would be a risky proposition to strip the man with the most delegates from being the nominee, but the party may see it as their only avenue to beating a Democrat in November and thus make it a reality. For the GOP leadership the calculus is easy: if we nominate Trump we absolutely lose; if we give the nomination to someone else, Trump’s supporters will be angry, but we at least have a chance of winning. Economists’ expected value calculations make that decision a no-brainer. The politician’s calculations make it more difficult. 

That said, if Republican leadership have any opportunity to usurp Trump’s momentum and keep him from being the 2016 Republican Party nominee, they will do it. The crowded field, the primary rules, and the preferences of many in the party mean it’s a real possibility. Trump and, in a similar way, Ted Cruz have built campaigns and candidacies based on running against and explicitly spitting in the face of the party brass. They work well with angry voters, but in a brokered convention it is a death knell. A brokered convention is great news for party leaders afraid of Trump, for more mainstream candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, and for the health of the Republican Party. But at the end of the day, the almost unbelievable state of the Republican primary could be salvaged on the floor of Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena. If it takes that long, the man or woman chosen in a smoke-filled room may bask in the glow of being the Republican nominee. But the real winner in that situation will be the person Democrats select as their nominee a week later in Philadelphia. In that way, the only thing worse for the Republican Party than Donald Trump would be an establishment-led overthrow of Donald Trump. 

For those making absolutist predictions based on the South Carolina results, take a deep breath. This race is nowhere near over. We have no idea who the nominee will be. The only thing Trump’s unbelievable win in South Carolina tells us is that the Republican primary will continue to be an unbelievable mess…maybe even a YUGE one.