The major storyline from the South Carolina GOP primary was the dominance of Donald Trump, but an equally important story was Marco Rubio’s second-place finish.
Most political analysts expected Trump to do well in the Palmetto State, where on Saturday he confirmed his front-runner status and demonstrated his ability to generate broad-base support.
Since August, nearly every poll had Trump with a commanding lead in South Carolina, and his poll average the day of the race was 32 percent, according to Real Clear Politics.
Up next is “Super Tuesday” on March 1. Thirteen states will hold their primary or caucus with a quarter of Republican delegates awarded on this single day.
But the battle for second place between Ted Cruz and Rubio was closely watched. Although it may sound absurd to many people, a strong second- or even a third-place finish really is a victory in early states like South Carolina.
Indeed, the Republican Party structures its early contests not so much to identify a winner but to winnow the field. Keep in mind that after South Carolina, only 8 percent of the total delegates have been awarded.
The close results between Cruz and Rubio mean that both candidates will move forward. But there were some troubling signs for Cruz in South Carolina’s contest. He was expected to win the state’s evangelical vote, a group that made up 72 percent of GOP primary voters.
While Cruz won among younger voters and the most conservative voters, he fell short in his bid to win that evangelical vote, losing it to Trump by a 31-27 margin.
If Cruz can’t win in South Carolina, he is unlikely to win in most of the upcoming primary states.
And even if he is able to win one of the upcoming SEC primary states — such as his home state of Texas — most of these contests award delegates proportionately. Winning these states with 30 percent or 40 percent yields fewer delegates than if the states were winner-take-all.
Conversely, many of the states in mid-to-late March (Florida, Ohio and Arizona) award their votes in a winner-take-all form. Unfortunately for Cruz, these states have far fewer evangelical voters and constitute 223 GOP delegates. For perspective, South Carolina has 50 delegates.
On the other side, the path forward for Rubio is slightly more encouraging. It was clear that Rubio had momentum going into South Carolina’s contest. Although Cruz had a few prominent endorsements, including 1st District Congressman Mark Sanford, Rubio’s slate of endorsements were undeniably better.
He picked up the coveted endorsement of Gov. Nikki Haley, one of the most popular governors in the U.S., in addition to securing Sen. Tim Scott’s and U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy’s backing. And Rubio will also be the primary beneficiary of Bush’s departure from the race.
If establishment Republicans rally behind Rubio, he has the best chance of denying Trump the nomination.
Lastly, John Kasich had a disappointing day in South Carolina, but things should improve modesty for him going forward. Although he still has a tough path to winning the nomination, after Super Tuesday the states become much more favorable to a less conservative, presumably more establishment candidates. For example, March 5 has a contest in Maine while March 8 has contests in Hawaii, Idaho and Michigan.
Jordan Ragusa is an assistant professor of political science at the College of Charleston. Gibbs Knotts is professor and department chair of political science at the College of Charleston.