After his wins in the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, the argument that Donald Trump will win the 2016 Republican presidential nomination is stronger than ever, but like the candidate himself, it’s probably at the high-water mark.
In Mr. Trump’s favor, he has now won two of the first three contests, and the one he lost (the Iowa caucuses) has a poor record of predicting Republican nominees. Ever since South Carolina moved its primary to an early spot in 1980, no one has won the nomination after losing both that state and New Hampshire. Since 1968, no one has won a major-party nomination without finishing at least second in Iowa or New Hampshire; if that rule holds, only Iowa winner Ted Cruz and New Hampshire runner-up John Kasich can stop Mr. Trump.
Having won New Hampshire and South Carolina each by at least 10 points, Mr. Trump disproves two of the favorite theories of his detractors: that his supporters wouldn’t actually bother to vote and that his obvious unsuitability as president would cause people to back away before they actually cast a ballot for him. Even before South Carolina, he had double-digit leads in virtually every national poll going back to when he announced his candidacy last summer, and leads in almost every state poll. After Tuesday’s Nevada caucuses, the next big election day is March 1, and the South Carolina results bode well for Mr. Trump in the mostly Southern states holding primaries or caucuses that day. If he builds up a big delegate lead then, how can he be stopped?
The case against Mr. Trump is now an old one: that he has a ceiling on his support well below 50 percent even in the Republican Party, and thus would not fare well in a two-person contest. In New Hampshire, he won 35 percent of the vote. In South Carolina, rather than broadening his support as the frontrunner, he dipped a bit to 33 percent. Now here’s the historical background: The Republicans have never had a nomination contest in which more than two viable candidates campaigned all the way to the end of the primaries. The last time even two candidates made it to the end was in 1976, when Ronald Reagan almost deposed accidental president Gerald Ford and would have probably wrapped up the nomination in a couple of weeks (as he did in 1980) if not for the latter’s powers of incumbency.
Can Mr. Trump keep winning primaries, and collecting the lion’s share of delegates, with just 35 percent of the vote? Not if Mr. Cruz fades away, as he’s likely to do after finishing third in South Carolina, a state should have been perfect for him with its heavily conservative and evangelical GOP electorate. And not if Mr. Kasich ceases to be a factor, also likely after he finished an impressive second, but still second, in New Hampshire, one of the three or four most secular and least conservative states on the GOP calendar.
That leaves Marco Rubio as Mr. Trump’s only viable opponent. Yes, it initially seems dubious to put a positive spin on Mr. Rubio’s 10-point loss to Mr. Trump in South Carolina, especially when Mr. Rubio had the endorsement of the state’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley. But that second-place showing was a comeback from his fifth-place embarrassment in New Hampshire (attributable to a famously bad debate performance and a bad fit with an ideologically moderate state). Mr. Rubio got almost three times as many votes as Jeb Bush (who promptly dropped out of the race) or Mr. Kasich.
Mr. Rubio won just two counties, Charleston and Richland (including the city of Columbia). But those relatively urban counties are more reflective of the national GOP primary electorate than is the rest of South Carolina. Mitt Romney won them in the 2012 primary even as Newt Gingrich won the state by 12 points, and they went solidly for John McCain over Mike Huckabee in 2008. (Mr. Romney carried one other county, Beaufort, next to Charleston on the resort-heavy coast that is a magnet for people born outside the South. This time, Mr. Trump won Beaufort with only 30 percent to Mr. Rubio’s 28 percent. The Daily Caller highlighted this result “After Tiff with Pope, Trump Still Wins South Carolina’s Most Catholic County,” though it was one of Mr. Trump’s weakest counties in the state and he could have easily gotten 30 percent with no Catholic votes at all.)
As in the Iowa caucuses, where he won the most urban and well-educated counties, Mr. Rubio is slowly re-assembling the coalitions of Mr. McCain in 2008 and Mr. Romney in 2012. “Slowly” is key; he has to scramble to secure these constituencies before Mr. Trump translates his apparent strength in rural areas into delegates, and Mr. Rubio may be lost if Mr. Trump picks up support from Cruz voters but Mr. Kasich hangs around as an alternative to those who still find Mr. Rubio too conservative.
On March 1, watch the results in Georgia. This is a Huckabee/Gingrich state, which should be favorable for Mr. Cruz and for Mr. Trump, given how the latter did in rural South Carolina. But the four counties that cast the most votes in 2008 all went for Mr. Romney, who finished third statewide, behind Mr. Huckabee and Mr. McCain. (They are Cobb, Gwinnett, Fulton and DeKalb, which include Atlanta and its nearest suburbs.) If Mr. Rubio does well enough there to collect delegates under the state’s “winner-take-most” rules, it’s a very good sign that he can beat Mr. Trump in later states like Michigan, Ohio and Mr. Rubio’s native Florida, where the suburban vote carries much more weight than in early contests like South Carolina.
The main reason I’m bullish on Mr. Rubio is that the past few decades leave me highly skeptical that people will still keep voting for Mr. Cruz and Mr. Kasich (and, oh yeah, Ben Carson) when they have little chance of winning, and I think most of their potential supporters will finally end up with the only alternative to Mr. Trump. This theory could all blow up if Mr. Rubio has another debate “malfunction” or if Mr. Kasich manages to out-hustle Mr. Rubio in places like Atlanta. (I’m more skeptical that Mr. Cruz can catch fire again after his Iowa win failed to help him in South Carolina.) It’s also possible that Mr. Trump will find a second act and broaden his appeal enough to reach a majority in later primaries—perhaps by tying Mr. Rubio to not only what Mr. Trump considers a weakness on immigration, but also to stale economic policies and a return to the military adventurism of the last Bush administration. But, Jimmy Carter aside, the presidential primary system is brilliantly designed to squelch insurgent and non-establishment candidates, and I suspect it will do its job again in 2016.