Heading into the weekend, Donald Trump is the favorite to win the South Carolina Republican primary, while the Democratic caucus in Nevada looks neck-and-neck. But beyond the top-line numbers here are the other key storylines to watch for on Saturday night.
1. A Focus On Firewalls: Hillary's Among Minorities and Cruz's Among Evangelicals
For months we’ve been assured by the Clinton campaign that as long as Hillary Clinton holds onto her solid support among minority voters, she’ll stave off any serious threat from Bernie Sanders. Atlantic Media’s Ron Brownstein estimates that the overall Democratic electorate in 2016 will be 35-40 percent non-white. In some of the most populated Super Tuesday states like Texas and Georgia (which also hold the largest delegate haul) minority voters will make up over half of the voters. As long as Clinton continues to do well among white women and minority voters, her path to the nomination looks relatively secure.
Yet, as we head into Nevada this weekend, there’s evidence that her dominance among minority voters is on shaky ground. Clinton is either tied or just slightly ahead of Sanders in a state where non-white voters are likely to be at least 30 to 35 percent of caucus attendees. Clinton carried Nevada in 2008 thanks in part to her strong support (64 percent) among Latino voters. If she struggles to hold onto Latinos in Nevada, how confident should we be that she holds them in Texas, Illinois or Georgia?
How she performs in Nevada is also going to set the table, and the narrative, for the South Carolina primary on February 27th. And, already, there are signs that her firewall has some serious cracks. The latest CNN poll had some good news for the former Secretary of State. Among African-American voters, who are expected to make up 55 percent of the electorate, Clinton leads Sanders by 34 points (63-29). Sanders leads among white voters by 14 percent. However, when asked how certain they were of their vote, 57 percent of white voters said they’d “definitely decided” who to support, while just 35 percent of non-white voters are committed to their pick; a sign that Clinton’s support among African American voters is less than solid.
On the Republican side, Ted Cruz’s firewall is the bloc of southern states that vote between February 20 and the so-called March 1 SEC primary. Chocked full of Republican voters who define themselves as very conservative and evangelical, these states look much more like Iowa (where Cruz won) than New Hampshire (where he didn’t). The Cruz strategy is to use South Carolina, with an electorate that’s traditionally been around 65 percent evangelical, as a springboard into evangelical-heavy SEC primary states like Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
Yet, the latest polling out of South Carolina shows that the evangelical firewall is not looking all that fireproof. Almost every poll shows Cruz trailing Trump by double digits. More important, he’s losing among those evangelical voters he was counting on to boost him to victory. The CNN poll showed Trump besting Cruz with evangelicals by a whopping 19 points (42-23 percent).
A South Carolina loss would be more than a temporary setback or embarrassment for Cruz. It would put into question his delegate strategy going forward. My colleague David Wasserman devised a delegate scorecard estimating how many delegates each of the five leading GOP contenders would need to win in each state and territory to attain the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination by June. And, according to Wasserman’s estimates, Cruz has the most at stake in South Carolina. The state awards its delegates in a winner-take-all fashion by both statewide and congressional district results. In order for Cruz to stay on track he needs a big enough win to capture all 47 of South Carolina’s 50 delegates.
But, should Trump’s significant lead in public polling hold up on Election Day, Trump would get those 50 delegates, leaving Cruz with a big zero and a significant deficit to fill.
More important, a loss in South Carolina would call into question Cruz’s ability to win in other southern, evangelical heavy states. If he can’t win evangelical voters in South Carolina, what proof is there that he can win them in Alabama, Georgia or Tennessee? Moreover, Cruz doesn’t need to just win in those SEC states; he needs to win them with big margins. According to the Cook Political Report delegate tracker estimates, Cruz needs to capture a substantial majority (53-66 percent) of the delegates in six of the twelve states that vote on March 1st. If not, he will have to make up for it by overperforming in less “friendly” (read more secular and less conservative) states like Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York.
2. The Establishment Coalesces Behind One Candidate (Or Not)
Meanwhile, Marco Rubio is on a roll in South Carolina. Polls, both public and private, show him with momentum and the possibility of a second place finish behind Trump. He’s gotten the endorsements of three of the most high-profile and popular GOP elected officials in the state: Gov Nikki Haley, Rep. Trey Gowdy and Sen. Tim Scott. Unlike Cruz, Rubio doesn’t need a big delegate haul on Saturday to stay on track (he needs just 3 delegates).
What Rubio needs more than anything, however, is a solid victory over his “establishment” rivals Jeb Bush and John Kasich. A solid showing in South Carolina by Rubio would put intense pressure on both, but especially Bush, to drop out. Should Rubio fail to get past Bush by a significant margin it would suggest that: 1. endorsements are meaningless these days; and 2. Rubio has deeper, more fundamental problems than just Bush and Kasich standing in his way.
The pile-up in the establishment lane like we saw in New Hampshire is more than just an annoyance for the “establishment.” It has serious, perhaps political fatal delegate consequences too.
As the Upshot’s Nate Cohn reminds us, the threshold for earning delegates in states like Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Tennessee and Vermont is 20 percent. If a candidate doesn’t get at least 20 percent of the vote - that candidate will receive zero delegates. That could mean that Rubio, Bush and/or Kasich will come out of March 1st in deep delegate deficit that will be hard to make up along the way.
3. Trump’s Momentum and Math
A strong Trump win in South Carolina sets him up well for March 1st. But, I’m watching as closely for how he does among non-college-educated voters as how he does among evangelical voters. A dominant performance among blue-collar voters means he has serious staying power once we get out of the south and into blue-collar heavy Midwestern states like Michigan (March 8) and Ohio (March 15). I will also be looking closely at how well Trump does among Republican (non-independent) voters and those who define themselves as “somewhat conservative.” As I’ve written earlier, the deeper into the primary calendar we get, the voters get more secular and the rules more prohibitive. Northeastern states that vote on April 26 - Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania - are restricted to those who are registered Republican. More significantly, Trump’s home state of New York only allows registered Republicans to vote in its April 19 primary. In other words, Trump’s support among more traditional GOPers is more important after April 1st than it is today. It also happens to be that the post-April 1st states are the most important for an establishment candidate like Rubio to win big.
Wasserman frames the race post-South Carolina as one in which Trump has “broad geographic support, but he's fighting a two front war: in northern/coastal states his chief rival is Rubio and in the southern/heartland states his chief rival will be Cruz.” A drubbing of Cruz in the south would mean that he would vanquish one of those rivals. The next test will be his staying power in the bluer, less Trump-friendly states in April and beyond.