“He’s hijacked my party,” Jeb Bush said of Donald Trump on Tuesday on CBS's "This Morning." “Someone has to take a stand.”
Bush has deputized himself to take that stand in South Carolina, which will hold its Republican presidential primary Saturday and which is regularly referred to by his supporters as "Bush country." He has brought his mother and brother, the former president, into the state to help with this job -- believing that South Carolina's Republican Party will return logic back to the nominating process.
I wouldn’t bet on it.
The truth of the matter is that the South Carolina that handed George W. Bush the comeback win he so badly needed in 2000 doesn't really exist anymore. This state and its Republican Party, which was once dominated by its Republican establishment, from Carroll Campbell to Strom Thurmond, has changed significantly over the past decade and a half — a transformation affirmed by the large (and steady) lead that Donald Trump holds in primary polling ahead of Saturday’s vote.
The 2012 presidential primary in the state was the first hint that the Republican establishment might be wearing fewer clothes than previously thought, and that the formula for winning the state — run as a social conservative who has just enough appeal to the business Republicans in the Lowcountry — might be changing. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) romped to a win in the Palmetto State primary, crushing establishment candidate Mitt Romney and social conservative favorite Rick Santorum.
How did he do it? By running against “elites” in Washington and New York trying to hand-pick the nominee for Republicans, a populist pitch that a large chunk of South Carolina voters — struggling to adjust to the shift away from a textile economy, among other changes — responded to. One in three South Carolina GOP primary voters identified themselves as supporters of the tea party movement, and Gingrich drubbed Romney among that group, 47 percent to 21 percent.
“It is very humbling and very sobering to have so many people who so deeply want their country to get back on the right track — so many people who are so concerned about jobs, about medical costs, about the everyday parts of life, and who feel that the elites in Washington and New York have no understanding, no care, no concern, no reliability, and in fact do not represent them at all,” Gingrich said in his victory speech.
Two years later, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) won 56 percent of the vote in a very crowded Republican primary, a win that was widely interpreted as evidence of the strength of the establishment and a signal of the end days of the tea party in the state. In retrospect, that conclusion seems to have missed the point, which is this: Forty-four percent of Republicans in the state voted for someone other than the incumbent senator despite the fact that Graham's rivals — virtually all of whom aligned with the state's more conservative elements — were either underfunded or unfunded.
Now, look at where Donald Trump stands in polling in South Carolina. According to a new Public Policy Polling survey — conducted entirely after the debate in Greenville on Saturday night — Trump takes 35 percent, roughly double that of Ted Cruz (the social conservative candidate) and Marco Rubio (the closest thing in this race to the establishment favorite). That’s broadly in keeping with where Trump has been in polling in the state over the past few months; he is just over 36 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of polls.
Now go back to the 44 percent of South Carolina Republicans who voted against Graham in 2014. It's not much of a leap to see that Trump is the logical heir to those voters. Where that vote was split six ways against Graham, Trump is dominating among these anti-establishment Republicans.
Meanwhile, the establishment vote is being fractured into three parts: Rubio, Jeb Bush and John Kasich. And, it’s not clear (at least to me) that even if the establishment was united behind a single candidate that that person would be able to defeat Trump. In the latest PPP poll, Trump is at 35 percent; Rubio, Kasich and Bush get 35 percent combined in that same poll.
Now, it's worth noting that Bush doesn't need to beat Trump — or even Cruz — to survive beyond South Carolina. He just needs to beat Rubio. Same goes for Rubio; beat Bush and finish third and he heads to Nevada as the clear establishment favorite.
But, the idea that South Carolina will provide some sort of course correction to Iowa and New Hampshire and, more broadly, function as a rebuke to Trump — as Bush clearly hopes — seems very unlikely.
Trump didn’t invent the anti-establishment movement in South Carolina. It has been there, waiting for him, for at least four years. But, he is the sort of candidate — not only anti-establishment but willing to take on/down the establishment in the harshest terms — that appeals to a piece of the Republican electorate that feels as though it has been ignored and taken for granted by its own politicians for years and years.
Don’t be surprised if (when?) those anti-establishment voters deliver Trump a victory in South Carolina in five days’ time.