Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

Again and again, Donald Trump has defied GOP orthodoxy, vowing never to cut Social Security, refusing to definitively pledge to roll back the Medicaid expansion (while claiming that “we have to help people”), and, most recently, sharply attacking George W. Bush’s record on terrorism and decision to invade Iraq.

Yet Trump continues to hold a large lead among Republican voters nationally, and he may be on the way to winning big in conservative South Carolina.

Trip Gabriel of the New York Times has a remarkable piece of reporting in which he interviews many South Carolina Republican voters and finds they aren’t all that bothered by Trump’s claim that Bush “lied” us into Iraq and wasn’t sufficiently attuned to intelligence warnings in advance of the 911 attacks:

Numerous military veterans interviewed at Trump rallies in South Carolina this week…said they had no problem with Mr. Trump’s comments, even if they did not entirely agree with him.

At the same time, the stubborn popularity of Mr. Trump, who defies Republican orthodoxy on issue after issue, shows how deeply the party’s elites misjudged the faithfulness of rank-and-file Republicans to conservatism as defined in Washington think tanks and by the party’s elected leaders.

One 22-year veteran of the Marine Corps says that “a lot of good Marines and sailors and airmen died” over the phantom weapons of mass destruction, so we should be posing “tough critical questions,” as Trump is doing. A second veteran says he’s grateful for the “voice” Trump has given people like him. Still more outrageously, a third Trump supporter agrees with Trump’s previous claim that Planned Parenthood does “wonderful things,” arguing: “I oppose abortion, but I think Planned Parenthood does a lot of good for people who can’t afford birth control.”

This is anecdotal evidence, and it’s worth noting that this week’s CNN poll found that Trump’s anti-Bush heresies might cost him some support: it showed him backed by 40 percent of likely South Carolina GOP voters before the debate, and 31 percent after it. But that 31 percent is still very high.

The Republican Orthodox Calendar treats 9/11 as if it happened on the day before Bush took office, and merely pointing out that 9/11 happened on Bush’s watch itself carries risky implications. As Jonathan Chait notes, Marco Rubio eagerly rushed to upstage Trump by giving voice to the approved view, which is that Bill Clinton is to blame for 9/11. That Trump is criticizing George W. Bush over 9/11 and Iraq in South Carolina, of all places — where Jeb Bush felt like it might actually be a positive to be seen with his older brother — is all the more striking. Yet Trump’s supporters appear to be reacting with a shrug, and he may win there.

All this comes after Trump won New Hampshire, despite alienating some local GOP officials by refusing to take an emphatic stand against the Medicaid expansion there. More broadly, Trump continues to lead among Republican voters even though some of his stances represent a break with the view that the magic elixir for struggling Americans’ economic woes can be attained through a reassertion of idealized notions of free markets and limited government.

Trump may still fall short of winning the nomination, of course, but his candidacy would appear to be revealing some uncomfortable truths about what many Republican voters really believe. “Republicans have overestimated how much dedication to ideology was motivating their voters,” is how conservative writer Ben Domenech puts it. “It is something both the Republican leadership in Washington and conservative ideological elites have underestimated.”

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* TRUMP-MENTUM RAGES ACROSS OUR LAND: A new Quinnipiac poll finds that Donald Trump holds his largest lead yet: he’s backed by 39 percent of GOP voters nationwide, with Marco Rubio 15 19 percent, Ted Cruz at 18 percent, and the rest in single digits.

Two of the five polling days came after Trump blasted Bush and the Iraq War at Saturday’s debate, so if that is going to cause Trump to tank among GOP voters, it hasn’t happened yet. Trump’s Q-poll lead is consistent with the polling averages.

* HILLARY AND BERNIE IN A DEAD HEAT? The new Quinnipiac poll also finds that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are tied up among Democratic voters nationally, at 44-42. This is somewhat at odds with the polling averages, and a number of recent polls that show Clinton with sizable leads, though the national race is clearly tightening.

* ALL TIED UP IN NEVADA: A new CNN poll finds that Clinton and Sanders are in a dead heat among likely Democratic caucus-goers in Nevada, 48-47. Note this:

Although the pool of potential caucusgoers in Nevada is more racially diverse than those who participated in Iowa or New Hampshire, the racial divide among likely caucusgoers isn’t nearly as stark as among voters in South Carolina, with both white and non-white voters about evenly divided between the two candidates.

As noted yesterday, Nevada is a dress rehearsal of sorts for the coming battle for nonwhite voters, though it’s hard to say how much the outcome will matter for the big, diverse southern contests to come.

* WHAT TO WATCH FOR IN NEVADA CAUCUSES: Nevada journalist Jon Ralston has a good explainer on what to look for: It will all depend on how many people show up. Ralston’s sources predict that turnout will fall well short of 2008, because the Culinary union is sitting this one out and because Sanders’s organization does not match Barack Obama’s.

Ralston notes: “Most folks I trust on the ground don’t expect turnout to reach six figures again – one insider estimated 70,000 voters. The lower it is, the better for Clinton.” Still, Clinton’s campaign plainly thinks she can lose here.

* INSIDE THE TRUMP-CRUZ BATTLE FOR EVANGELICALS: Bloomberg Politics has a fascinating look at how Trump is winning over “new school” evangelicals, while Cruz is appealing to “old school” ones:

Trump is reaching out to new-school evangelicals, whose pastors become celebrities and best-selling authors and whose church choirs can rise to become chart-topping Christian pop-rock bands. In new-school churches, altars are often replaced by elaborate stages with light shows that rival backdrops from American Idol performances….Cruz, meanwhile, is going after more traditional evangelicals, many of whom frown upon the material trappings of the emerging new-school movement.

If you were wondering how the thrice-married, insult-spewing, endlessly-self-aggrandizing Trump could win over evangelicals, here’s one attempt at an answer.

* AND BERNIE IS WINNING, EVEN IF HE LOSES: Bill Scher has a good look at the delegate math in the Democratic nominating contest, with this conclusion:

If he can keep Clinton under about 60 percent in most areas, he will keep scooping up delegates. As long as his base sticks with him, and maintains his ability to collect delegates, he will have no incentive to drop out. Why? Because if you have delegates, you can make demands.

Yup. And as I’ve noted, as long as Sanders continues to show that he has the key to unlocking and energizing the youth vote, he’s guaranteed to hold continued leverage, heading into the convention.