On Saturday night, less than an hour after polls closed in GOP's first Southern primary, the Political Establishment was suddenly forced to realize what most Americans have implicitly known for quite some time: South Carolina, that harbinger of right-wing racism and oily, dog-whistle populism is definitely Donald Trump's Country. The reality-TV mogul won the state's prim by roughly 10 points, outpacing his Republican rivals with more than a third of the vote and cementing his position as the apparently unstoppable frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
The victory was expected—and expectedly bizarre—proving that it's possible to win a Republican primary, start a PR war with the Pope, and giddily invoke a bogus story about US Marines shooting Muslims with "bullets soaked in pig's blood"—all in one week. By the time Trump took the stage at a victory rally in Spartanburg Saturday night, he was already reminiscing about South Carolina as if it were a distant memory, promising future conquests in next week's Nevada caucuses and in the 11 states that hold primaries on Super Tuesday.
"I want to thank everybody. I love you all—South Carolina we will never forget you," he gushed. Now, he added, "Let's put this thing away and let's make America great again!"
Even if the Republican Party does somehow manage to thwart Trump—which, at this point, seems unlikely—he leaves South Carolina having accomplished one of the primary objectives of his presidential campaign—namely, defeating Jeb Bush. Once a favorite to win the GOP nomination, Bush announced Saturday that he would leave the presidential race, after yet another disappointing finish in a Republican primary. "The people of Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina have spoken," Bush said, holding back tears as he delivered his farewell speech. "And I really respect their decisionHis exit was effectively a surrender, who at times has seemed more committed to tormenting Bush than he has to running his own presidential campaign.
From the moment he entered the race, the real-estate mogul made Jeb! his primary target, gleefully dismissing the youngest Bush scion as "low energy," mocking low polling numbers, and relentlessly trolling him on Twitter. Unaccustomed to reality-TV bullying, Bush completely melted down. By the time he left the race Saturday having failed to break into the top tier in any of the first three Republican nominating contests, his campaign reduced to a punch line that would have been funny if it hadn't been so painfully awkward and sad.
Jeb's loss was particularly embarrassing in South Carolina, a state where both his father and brother won crucial victories, and that his campaign believed was still Bush Family turf. After months of trying to avoid any association with the word "dynasty," Jeb eagerly reclaimed his bloodline in the week before the primary, bringing in his mother, Barbara, and former President George W. Bush in to help him close with voters. Undeterred, Trump seized the opportunity to expand his attacks on other members of the Bush family, lathering up the cable news media with a couple of choice lines about WMD and 9/11, and started referring to Jeb as "Bush III."
In the end, Bush finished in the single digits on Saturday, well behind not only Trump, but also Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has already usurped Bush as the GOP Establishment's white knight. He just barely managed to edge out Ohio Governor John Kasich, who took second place in New Hampshire but, having once attended a gay wedding, was not expected to perform well with South Carolina's more hardcore brand of Republican voters.
The only real suspense Saturday night was in the race for second place. Rubio managed to edge out Cruz by less than 1 percent, enough for Rubio to spin South Carolina as a victory and declare that Republicans now had a "three-man race" for the nomination. The second-place finish in South Carolina, coupled with Jeb's official exit, positions Rubio as the de facto Establishment answer to Trump and Cruz. Rubio is already spinning that narrative, declaring Saturday that the Republican primary is now a "three-man race." But while Saturday's results are definitely an improvement from last week's fifth-place flop in New Hampshire, the fact remains that Rubio still hasn't won a single primary and he's still a distant third in national polling for the nomination.
Cruz also attempted to spin Saturday's vote as win, jumping on the whole "three-man race" idea and telling supporters that his campaign is "defying expectations." But there wasn't a lot of good news for Cruz in South Carolina, a deep-red Southern state with a very conservative Republican primary electorate, and a sizable bloc of evangelical voters. Those are the very voters who are supposed to make up Cruz's base, so a third-place finish there doesn't bode well for the Senator's turnout strategy going into Southern primaries on Super Tuesday. Cruz, however, was triumphant. "Once again, we have made history," he told supporters Saturday night. "You, the good people of South Carolina, continue to defy the pundits and produce extraordinary results."
Both Cruz and Rubio acknowledged Bush's departure from the race, with Rubio even referring to his one-time mentor as Florida's "greatest governor." Trump, however, chose not to mention his favorite punching bag, even as he congratulated the two Senators for their strong performances. Pundits dismissed the move as classless—but of course, that's exactly the point. Trump's crass, IDF to continue humiliating Jeb!, even as the latter retreats in defeat, is exactly why his supporters love him—and why the attacks worked in the first place.
"There's nothing easy about running for president," Trump told supporters Saturday. "It's tough, it's nasty, it's mean, it's vicious, it's beautiful. When you win it's beautiful and we're going to start—we are going to start winning for our country. We're going to start winning."
Follow Paul Blest on Twitter.