WASHINGTON – Donald Trump may have won South Carolina before his private plane ever touched the ground.
The billionaire businessman swept Saturday’s GOP presidential primary on the momentum he’d gained on a national stage.
His victory was so decisive the race was called for Trump within half an hour of the polls closing -- even as he broke so many of the time-worn rules proven necessary for Republicans to win the Palmetto State in the past.
“He’s a businessman from New York City, not from the south,” said College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts. “He’s brash and kind of crude, and not very genteel and not very hospitable and all the things we think as being part of southern culture.”
Trump earned the support of South Carolina’s evangelical base that ordinarily would have been Ted Cruz’s to lose, despite Trump’s not-so-convincing account of being a committed churchgoer (he also picked a fight with the Pope). He chose to campaign in sports arenas, open fields and convention halls where he could address thousands of people at once, eschewing the typical stops at pizza parlors and community centers to give voters the special, one-on-one attention they appreciate.
Even after a lackluster performance in the final debate in Greenville days before the Feb. 20 primary – where he disparaged popular former President George W. Bush and hometown U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham – Trump’s lead in South Carolina stayed steady. Four years ago, the Myrtle Beach debate leading up to the state’s GOP primary recalculated the odds for the surprise victor, Newt Gingrich.
If Trump’s success in South Carolina was fated from the beginning, there may be little point in casting his victory as a case study for a changing political landscape.
“The reason it works is because it works for Donald Trump, and it’s very unique to him,” said Christian Ferry, a political strategist who served as campaign manager for Graham’s short-lived presidential bid. “That’s not to say others won’t try, but I don’t think anyone will have the success he’s had in trying to replicate this model. Unless there’s another billionaire reality TV star out there.”
That Trump’s bid didn’t end after calling for a ban on Muslim immigrants is testament to that.
“The fact that he’d been on the cutting edge, the first one with the nerve and backbone to say it, that is what caused people in this state to say ‘This is a man I may not always agree with, but I respect the fact that he says what he thinks and he means what he says,’” said Ed McMullen, a veteran public affairs guru and a co-chairman of Trump’s S.C. campaign.
But while Trump projects an image of authenticity and lack of regard for what others might think of him, he isn’t winging it. Indeed, to chalk up his Saturday night win entirely to his own dynamism is to ignore all of the clear strategic choices his campaign made in order to succeed.
Trump said he was running for president in June 2015. In an interview with The Post and Courier Sunday morning, State Rep. Jim Merrill -- a communications professional and Trump’s state director -- said Trump hired McMullen and himself almost a year ago, and from there built a solid team of seasoned, well-connected professionals.
Gerri McDaniel, a Tea Party leader in Myrtle Beach who helped Gingrich win in South Carolina in 2012, was hired as state field director. Former State legislator John Russell was brought on as McMullen’s co-chairman. And Jeff Taillon, Trump’s S.C. political director, previously worked for Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, currently Trump’s highest-ranking endorsement.
“They got out early last summer and hired field organizers at the grassroots level, in different congressional districts, something like 200 something people on a steering committee,” noted Van Hipp, a former S.C. GOP Party chairman who’s been following the primary campaigns closely. “They did this early. And now we’re seeing them reap the benefits of that.”
Trump’s campaign was notoriously secretive about its ground game in the lead up to the primary, almost to the point of suggesting it didn’t have one at all. Merrill said, however, that the operation was well-organized and sophisticated.
“Every time Mr. Trump came in, we’d draw crowds of eight, nine thousand people. It was pretty much a systematic way of going about it,” he explained. “We’d announce his event, We would put it out on social media and through press releases, traditional channels. And then when people would sign up, we would garner their emails and compile a database and go back to that database throughout the entire campaign and end up with a database of 120 thousand emails. Some of those were for multivoter households.”
These rallies helped convey the scale of Trump’s popularity and mass appeal, but each was carefully orchestrated and heartily financed. Federal Election Commission filings show that Trump, in the final three months of 2015, spent nearly $40,000 on “event staging consulting,” plus more on general “event staging” services.
Trump has benefitted from being a self-funder, and the money he spent on these services paid for itself.
“The national networks are taking Donald Trump’s events live on TV, and the value of that – I don’t think you can put a price tag on it,” said Ferry.
Finally, Merrill pointed out that Trump had to prove himself, just like every other candidate in the field.
“I think if anything the celebrity factor, at one point, was something he had to overcome,” Merrill said Saturday night. “He kept saying ‘I’m serious, I’m serious’ and they had to overcome that and now you see the results.”
Trump also, in his own way, happened to prevail in the South Carolina primary in a fashion consistent with historical precedent. Four years ago, Gingrich, like Trump, won over the state’s “values voters” despite multiple divorces and an unclear religious track record. And Trump’s “make America great again” rhetoric sounds similar to the patriotic optimism of the S.C. primary winner of 1980: Ronald Reagan.
“Reagan wasn’t super religious,” said Knotts, “but he beat the Baptist Sunday school teacher, Jimmy Carter, in the general election.”
Gavin Jackson contributed to this story.
Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington, D.C. correspondent.