Donald Trump romped to an easy win in the South Carolina primary by being “ruthlessly honest” and reassembling the coalition of voters that gave Ronald Reagan two landslide presidential wins.
That’s the analysis of former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Van Hipp, who is also the author of “The New Terrorism: How to Fight It and Defeat It.”
On Saturday, Trump claimed all 50 Republican delegates at stake by winning statewide and in each of the Palmetto State’s congressional districts. Trump scored more than 32 percent of the vote. Marco Rubio edged Ted Cruz for second, but both were ten points behind Trump. The rest of the field finished much lower, leading Jeb Bush to end his campaign after coming in a distant fourth place.
Trump defied expectations through the campaign in South Carolina, even winning a plurality of the evangelical vote. The state is staunchly conservative and Trump’s conservative bona fides are regularly questioned. So how did he win so convincingly?
“He won it not only with evangelicals but with national security conservatives and with economic conservatives. These folks may have been angry but it looks a whole lot like the old Reagan coalition,” said Hipp.
“He’s connecting with these people and, whether you agree with him or not, regardless of whether you’re for someone else, you’ve got to look at how he did it. He’s bringing new people into the Republican Party. He’s bringing in the old independents and the Reagan Democrats,” said Hipp.
Cruz was banking heavily on not only winning but dominating the evangelical vote. Instead, more than 30 percent went with Trump, who has publicly stated he has never asked God for forgiveness.
Hipp says it’s not that evangelicals think Trump is the strongest Christian in the GOP field, but that he is the one who is resonating with the voters over their greatest concerns.
“One very prominent Southern Baptist minister who endorsed him last week said it best, that he is ruthlessly honest. People want someone (like that) right now. They’re fed up with the government. They’re fed up with politicians. They want someone who is ruthlessly honest,” said Hipp.
Another minister echoed a similar sentiment in a conversation with Hipp.
“He said, ‘Look, I may not want the guy to be my pastor. There are other people who would be a better Sunday School teacher. But right now, we don’t need someone who will just slow down the death of America. We need someone who’s going to make the tough decisions and call it like it is and show us some tough love and save this country,'” recounted Hipp.
Beyond Trump’s ability to win over voters thought to be more aligned with other candidates, Hipp says the campaign was well organized in all parts of the state and seemed to top notch in its voter data efforts.
“I think we can learn a whole lot, whether you’re a grassroots conservative activist or an establishment Republican. Mitt Romney sure could have used this kind of advice in 2012, because we had so many people who didn’t turn out to vote who were conservatives,” said Hipp.
He says tactics like Trump organizers getting as many people as possible to vote via absentee ballots showed a level of sophistication many had not expected.
“We didn’t do that in 2012. Obama did that in 2012. I think he’s looked at how Obama did it, using technology, how he connects to the iPhone, how he built up a huge lead withe absentees. That’s how you’re going to beat Hillary Clinton,” said Hipp.
He also credited Trump for getting his team into South Carolina very early and organizing well.
Where does that leave the rest of the field? Hipp says Saturday’s results “wounded” Cruz, who seemed to be a good ideological fit for the state and kept lofty expectations all the way to election day.
“It’s tough to spin a third place finish when the day before you were saying, ‘This is going to look a lot like Iowa.’ It did not look a lot like Iowa. South Carolina is different. It is much more representative of the Republican and conservative electorate nationwide because you’ve got social conservatives, economic and national security conservatives,” said Hipp, noting the primary winner is almost always the eventual GOP nominee.
As for Rubio, Hipp says finishing second is a boost but it doesn’t change the most glaring statistic facing the senator’s campaign.
“He gets a boost but at some point he’s got to start winning. I think they felt they had an outside chance to win in South Carolina,” said Hipp.
Hipp believes Rubio got a boost from the endorsement of Gov. Nikki Haley but he believes another endorsement made an even bigger difference.
“She definitely helped but let’s face it. The most popular conservative in any red state in America is Sen. Tim Scott. He made a big difference. I think he gave him a lot of momentum going into Saturday,” said Hipp.
Nevada Republicans will weigh in on the 2016 race Tuesday and then Super Tuesday on March 1 could be decisive factor in the fate of the Cruz campaign. Hipp sees another nomination-defining race just two weeks later.
“Florida’s going to be a defining moment. That’s Rubio’s home state. Trump has done very well there in the polls. I think the winner in Florida is going to tell us an awful lot,” said Hipp.
Republican voters who don’t like Trump are increasingly anxious to winnow the field down to one strong alternative who can defeat the front-runner and the Democrats in November. But would that strategy work and can the field shrink in time for that candidate to make up ground on Trump?
Hipp thinks it’s possible but warns the opportunity is quickly fading for someone to dent Trump’s momentum. If Trump is the nominee, Hipp believes Trump will have an easier time uniting Republicans towards November than his critics suggest.
“If you look at the fact he’s getting out Reagan Democrats and independents that we need to win and he’s getting social conservatives, economic conservatives and national security conservatives, that sounds an awful lot to me like Ronald Reagan’s winning coalition,” said Hipp.
“But I do think it’s going to be important for him to have someone on the ticket. If he were the nominee, he’s going to need somebody like a Rubio or a (Ohio Gov. John) Kasich as his vice president,” said Hipp.