By Niall Stanage - 02/20/16 06:00 AM EST
Hopes rise for Trump rivals as South Carolina votes
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Late-deciding voters may be moving away from Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSanders fires back at Trump: 'Never tweet' Trump attacks Dem rivals but quiet on Michelle Obama FULL SPEECH: Bernie Sanders pleads for unity behind Clinton MORE and toward rivals Ted CruzTed CruzTeam Clinton: Sanders will help campaign take on 'rigged system' Clinton brings in the heavy hitters Juan Williams: Dems must not be complacent against Trump MORE or Marco RubioMarco RubioClinton brings in the heavy hitters Guess which Cuban-American 2016 candidate best set themselves up for 2020? Budowsky: Why Warren masters Trump MORE as South Carolina Republicans prepare to cast their ballots in Saturday's primary.
Two new polls show a sharp drop in the business mogul's once comfortable lead, while his competitors have endorsements and traditional organizing power on their side.
It may not be enough. Almost all observers expect Trump to prevail in the end. But a narrow margin of victory would raise questions about his long-term prospects in the race.
And a stronger-than-expected showing from either Cruz or Rubio could give their campaigns a shot of momentum as the presidential race shifts into high gear.
“There is still a lot of fluidity,” said Jim Guth, a political science professor at Furman University in the state. “My general sense is that Trump is experiencing some erosion of support.”
Guth said he sees Rubio as the most likely beneficiary if Trump’s support dips.
The Florida senator on Wednesday won the endorsement of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who currently enjoys stellar approval ratings among Palmetto State Republicans. The two, together with the state’s popular Sen. Tim ScottTim ScottDemocrats have a long way to go before they can tout their Hill diversity Cotton pitches anti-Democrat message to SC delegation Senate condemns Dallas attack on police MORE, have been holding events across the state this week.
Walter Whetsell, a GOP strategist in South Carolina who is not aligned with any presidential campaign, said he had been told that Rubio’s camp is downplaying expectations, but they expect a very strong finish.
“I think they have everyone convinced that a strong third or a weak second [place] is a great victory for Marco Rubio,” Whetsell said. “But what I’ve been told is that they think they are set for a strong second, and believe they are within striking distance of Trump. And that’s what they’re playing for.”
Rubio backers got a boost when one poll released Friday put the Florida Republican in second place, within 3 points of Trump and 5 points ahead of Cruz. But many political insiders poured cold water on that survey, which was conducted by OpinionSavvy, far from a household name in polling.
Skeptics also note that Rubio surges have been predicted a number of times before during this election cycle and have for the most part failed to materialize.
Cruz supporters were buoyed by a Friday NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll that showed the Texas senator in second, only 5 points behind Trump and 8 ahead of Rubio.
Cruz on Thursday seized upon a national poll conducted by the same organization that found him ahead of Trump, the first time in months somebody other than the real estate mogul led a national poll. Speaking at a BBQ restaurant in the small town of Easley, Cruz told a standing-room-only crowd that “for the first time in many, many months there is a new front-runner.”
Most national polls give Trump a significant lead among Republicans nationally, though. And here in South Carolina, he continues to enjoy a comfortable lead on average.
But the variance in polling is stark. In the seven polls that were put into the field Monday or later, Cruz’s support has been measured as low as 13 percent and as high as 23 percent. Trump’s ratings range from 27 to 32, and Rubio’s from 15 to 24. There is no clear pattern of any one candidate getting stronger or weaker as primary day dawns.
Amid such uncertainty, a strong ground game and the support of voters who can be relied upon to show up at the polls is crucial.
Cruz is thought to have an edge in those categories. He won the Iowa caucuses by outperforming his poll ratings, an achievement widely attributed to the strength of his organization.
He is trying to replicate that effort in South Carolina, with spokesman Rick Tyler telling The Hill earlier this week that volunteers in the state were averaging 10,000 door-knocks and 20,000 phone calls per day.
Cruz, who wears his religiosity on his sleeve, also has 300 Christian leaders in the Palmetto State who have endorsed him and are working on his behalf.
He was pulling out all the stops Friday, holding a number of well-attended rallies in the company of “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson.
“If those people go out and multiply [on Saturday], this Cruz thing is for real,” said Whetsell.
But a number of other experts said there was reason to be cautious about the idea of a late, evangelical-powered Cruz surge.
Some noted the senator has got into a mudslinging match with Rubio, and that whatever the rights and wrongs of each particular charge, this might hurt him because of his image of personal rectitude.
More generally, skeptics note that the importance of “ground game” is not quite so pivotal in a primary state as it is in a caucus state like Iowa. They also say that Palmetto State evangelicals are not a politically monolithic bloc.
“In the Iowa caucuses, evangelicals are more likely to coalesce behind one candidate. Evangelicals in South Carolina do not behave that way,” said Scott Huffmon of Winthrop University in South Carolina.
“Once the candidates reach a certain bar, then it doesn’t matter if you say ‘Two Corinthians’ rather than ‘Second Corinthians,’ ” Huffman added, referencing a Trump misstatement.
In any case, if South Carolina replicates the national pattern, Trump — whose colorful personal life has for years been a staple of the New York tabloids — is leading among evangelicals. A CBS News poll earlier this week found that among likely Republican primary voters who identify as evangelicals, Trump had 33 percent support, with Cruz at 22 percent and Rubio at 13 percent.
For all the last-minute polling uncertainty, most experts believe the question will not be whether Trump wins but by how much.
“I think he is going to come in first, but maybe a bit lower than some of the polls are showing,” said Guth.
“Trump is almost assuredly going to take it,” said Huffmon. “He is channeling the anger of conservative voters in South Carolina.”