Trump’s Primary Results Don’t Mean He’s Doomed in November

South Carolina Republican Presidential Primary.

Some think Donald Trump’s decisive South Carolina victory was pyrrhic.
Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

From any straightforward point of view, Donald Trump’s decisive, 20-point win over Nikki Haley in her home state of South Carolina was very good news for the former president’s comeback aspirations. He has easily won the first three contests in the Republican nomination battle (or first four, if you count his uncontested win in the Nevada caucuses), gaining 100 of the 142 pledged delegates awarded so far (with 12 more going to candidates who have subsequently dropped out and endorsed him). New Hampshire and South Carolina were by most accounts Nikki Haley’s two best states. Just ahead are Michigan, where a new Emerson poll shows Trump leading Haley by 49 points (69 percent to 20 percent), then a host of Super Tuesday states in which best we can tell Haley isn’t within striking distance of the front-runner.

Haley’s increasingly sharp and personal criticisms of Trump have eliminated any tiny chance that Republican convention delegates would turn to Trump’s last rival if his candidacy somehow explodes in a courtroom or a hospital room. So her candidacy is pointless going forward unless she secretly plans to continue it beyond the GOP contest as an independent or on a No Labels Unity Ticket (which she has foresworn so far). And it may run out of fuel soon if the Koch-family network’s decision to abandon her cause is a leading indicator of what other donors will do.

Having said all that, there is a persistent argument heard in the commentariat that in pummeling Haley, Trump is exhibiting weaknesses that will lead to his defeat in November. Here’s an illustrative take on South Carolina from Politico:

Behind every silver lining, there has been a cloud for Trump during the GOP primary, and otherwise sunny South Carolina proved no exception. With about three-quarters of the expected vote in, some 40 percent of voters rejected Trump.

That number itself isn’t a problem in a primary. But it includes some serious reasons for concern in a general election. Trump lost moderate and liberal voters to Haley by a wide margin, according to exit polls. And, according to AP VoteCast, a bit over 1 in 5 GOP primary voters said they would not vote for Trump in November if he was the party’s nominee.

An analysis of the South Carolina vote by Axios echoed this glass-half-full approach to Trump’s big win:

Those who went to the polls reflected Trump’s strengths:

This was the oldest South Carolina GOP electorate this century. (Chuck Todd)

60% of primary voters were white evangelical or born-again Christians. (CNN)

Reality check: That group isn’t remotely big enough to win a presidential election. He would need to attract voters who are more diverse, more educated and believe his first loss was legit. South Carolina exit polls show he didn’t do that.

There’s been one more perspective suggesting storm clouds for the overwhelming winner of the first Republican contests: Nate Cohn of the New York Times observes that Trump keeps underperforming his poll numbers:

In Iowa, the final FiveThirtyEight polling average showed Mr. Trump leading Nikki Haley by 34 points with a 53 percent share. He ultimately beat her by 32 points with 51 percent. (Ron DeSantis took second.)

In New Hampshire, he led by 18 points with 54 percent. In the end, he won by 11 points with 54 percent.

In South Carolina, Mr. Trump led by 28 points with 62 percent. He ultimately won by 20 points with 60 percent.

In the scheme of primary polls, these aren’t especially large misses. In fact, they’re more accurate than average.

But with Mr. Trump faring well in early general election polls against President Biden, even a modest Trump underperformance in the polls is worth some attention.

But as Cohn himself notes, participation in the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries included a hard-to-quantify group of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who were basically Biden voters from the get-go and were never going to support Trump (i.e., they are not swing voters at all):

[T]he polls [may have] simply got the makeup of the electorate wrong. In this theory, pollsters did a good job of measuring the people they intended to measure, but they were measuring the wrong electorate. In particular, they did not include enough of the Democratic-leaning voters who turned out to support Ms. Haley.

It’s impossible to prove, but I think this is probably a major factor. It’s always relatively hard to predict the makeup of the electorate in a presidential primary, but the large number of Democratic-leaning voters motivated to defeat Mr. Trump is a particularly great challenge this cycle. For the first time since 2012, there’s no competitive Democratic presidential primary to draw Democratic-leaning independents away, and the Republican runner-up is a relative moderate who may be palatable to many Democratic-leaning voters.

It obviously makes a lot of difference whether Haley voters are disgruntled Republicans or just crossover Biden voters who will “return home” in November, as Trump holds on to his MAGA base and a solid share of swing voters. There are two ways to answer the question of what Trump’s lack of unanimous Republican primary support means: continue to look at general-election polls (where at the moment Trump has a small but consistent lead), or perhaps begin to focus on closed primaries where non-Republicans cannot participate (e.g., on Super Tuesday, California, Colorado, Maine, Oklahoma, and Utah). If Haley’s vote drops to next to nothing in these states, it’s a pretty good sign she’s been drawing voters who weren’t ever really on the table for Trump and whose loss is no big deal for him.

For now, the safe thing to say is that Trump is cruising toward an easy and early nomination victory and that he looks entirely competitive in November now matter how much that mystifies or horrifies a lot of us.

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