Iowa a reality check for Trump, Sanders on way to S.C.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves to supporters as he arrives at a campaign rally at Clinton Middle School on Saturday in Clinton, Iowa.

The caucus results in Iowa should be a wake-up call for both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, telling them that running for president won’t be as easy as it seems when the candidates move on to South Carolina next week.

In Trump’s case, even as he leads in South Carolina polling, he’ll again have to contend with the evangelical vote that came out so strongly for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on Monday, making him the Iowa GOP caucus winner.

According to 2012 exit polls, evangelicals made up 65 percent of the South Carolina GOP primary turnout that year, and Cruz did the best among this demographic in Iowa, taking some 34 percent.

Evangelicals are expected to come out in force again for South Carolina’s Feb. 20 GOP primary.

Another ground shift Trump needs to worry about is U.S. Sen. Tim Scott’s endorsement of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Scott, R-S.C., was the single biggest vote-getter on the South Carolina ballot in 2014, getting 757,000 votes against a weak opponent. The Rubio endorsement is sure to attract more mainstream Republicans and even some fence-sitters who only a week ago might have been swayed by Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster’s endorsement of Trump.

“Marco Rubio understands that here in America it’s not about where you start, it’s about where you’re going,” Scott said in a support video posted by the Rubio campaign on its website Tuesday.

Scott added, “We have a shot in 2016 to beat Hillary Clinton. And that shot is Marco Rubio.”

Given the fast-moving events of this week and the anti-Trump backlash in Iowa, “I think he should be pretty worried,” College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts said of Trump’s potentially shaky status.

“His lead in the Iowa polls did not result in the lead after voting took place,” Knotts said. “He is still a strong candidate but is less strong after a somewhat disappointing showing in Iowa.”

Knotts said the South Carolina race could easily become a three-person battle between Cruz, Trump and Rubio since none of the other candidates made a splash in Iowa on Monday.

State Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, and Trump’s South Carolina state director, declined to talk ground-game strategy running from now and the primary.

“The star of our show is Donald Trump,” Merrill told The Post and Courier on Tuesday. “He is the person the voters want to hear from and he’s the one who delivers our message.”

Merrill was, however, willing to expound on Trump’s advantages and explain why he’d be successful in the Palmetto State.

“Mr. Trump is bringing a tremendously different group of people into the Republican primary. He’s expanding the party like nobody else, and I think it showed in the caucus, and I think it’s going to show even more here in the Republican Party,” he said.

On the Democratic side, Sanders may have taken front-runner Clinton to a near-draw in Iowa’s caucuses, but by failing to win in the Midwest showed there are unsettled questions of whether a pro-socialist Vermont U.S. senator can prosper in South Carolina.

“I expect African-Americans to make up about 60 percent of the Democratic electorate, and Clinton has a lot of support in the African-American community,” Knotts said. Clinton remains the odds-on favorite ahead of the Feb. 27 Democratic primary in South Carolina.

In addition, Democrats in the state are more moderate than Democrats elsewhere who have fueled Sanders’ campaign from the far left, Knotts said.

“This ideological reality should also benefit Clinton, who is considered to be more moderate than Sanders,” Knotts said.

An NBC News-Wall Street Journal-Marist poll last month gave Clinton a 64-percent level of support among Democrats to Sanders’ 27 percent.

Clinton will try to keep momentum this week as former President Bill Clinton stumps for her in Columbia on Wednesday and daughter Chelsea visits the Upstate on Saturday.

Washington, D.C., correspondent Emma Dumain contributed to this report. Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551.