For Republicans, South Carolina only partially lived up to its reputation on Saturday.
Party elites were counting on the first Southern state in the presidential primaries to act as a “firewall” against insurgent candidates like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.
The New York businessman, who many in the party see as wholly unelectable, still won with nearly a third of the votes.
But Marco Rubio, a first-term senator, split second place with Cruz at 22 percent support.
Jeb Bush, the other establishment favorite, dropped out of the nominating contest after getting only 8 percent support.
Up to four years ago, South Carolina had a perfect record of electing Republicans who would go on to win the nomination. That year, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a native of neighboring Georgia, surprisingly beat Mitt Romney with 40 percent of the votes.
The state is more representative of the Republican electorate at large than Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two voting states.
It has rural conservatives upstate with reactionary views on social issues and a deep mistrust of big-government Democrats; fiscal conservatives in the retail- and tourism-dominated south who align with the party’s pro-business wing; and a large military and ex-military community with robust views on defense.
Bush, whose brother George was president during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, expected to do well with veterans, but exit polls revealed they threw their support behind Trump overwhelmingly.
Rubio won the endorsement of the state’s popular governor, Nikki Haley, and is generally liked by every faction in the party even if he isn’t everybody’s first choice.
With Bush out and John Kasich, the Ohio governor who placed second in New Hampshire, unlikely to do well in the many Southern states that vote next month, party support is likely to coalesce around Rubio.
David A. Hopkins, a political scientist, cautions at his blog, Honest Graft, that as long as others remain in the race, Trump may be able to continue to win states without receiving an overall majority of the votes. And Rubio, he points out, has yet to win, or even nearly win, a state himself.
It is not yet clear whether he can be considered a presumptive favorite in any of the 24 states that vote before his home state of Florida on March 15.
Disappointment for Cruz
Cruz, who is betting on the evangelical-heavy states of the South to propel him to victory, had a disappointing night.
The Texan won the support of just 26 percent of white evangelicals in South Carolina against 34 percent for Trump.
He has less room for improvement than Rubio, argues Bloomberg View columnist Jonathan Bernstein.
The problem for Cruz remains that he is a factional candidate who just doesn’t have an obvious argument against anyone who thought Bush or Kasich was a good candidate. What he needs is for Trump to collapse and that doesn’t seem to be happening.
But if Rubio falters — “still quite possible,” according to Bernstein — Cruz would inherit the anti-Trump vote. Expect the two senators to battle it out.