On Saturday, South Carolina Republicans and Nevada Democrats vote on their presidential preferences—the Republicans in a primary, the Democrats in caucuses—and, as in New Hampshire, the two parties’ establishments may take it on the chin. A series of polls show Donald Trump ahead of his GOP opponents by between 15 and 20 percentage points in South Carolina, while the only even semi-reputable poll (CNN-ORC’s) of likely Nevada Democratic caucus-goers shows a tie between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (at 48 percent) and Senator Bernie Sanders (at 47 percent) in a state on which Clinton until recently was said to have a lock.
(In case you’re wondering, Nevada Republicans don’t caucus until next Tuesday, and South Carolina Democrats don’t go to the polls until a week from Saturday. The elections are staggered—and so, when they’re done, may be the two parties’ power elites.)
By any conventional metric, Trump should not be running away with the South Carolina contest. At the stratospheric rate of 84 percent, Republicans in this most pro-military of states recently told pollsters that they view the presidency of George W. Bush positively. In the past couple of weeks, however, Trump has accused Bush of lying about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to prod Congress to go to war there, and has indicted Bush’s administration for grave negligence in failing to detect and prevent the September 11 attacks. Reconciling Trump’s lead with the level of support for President Bush requires squaring all manner of circles.
Yet ours is a time, apparently, in which circles can routinely be squared. Trump’s heretical (among Republicans) opposition to trade deals resonates deeply with the GOP’s white working-class voters, many of whom, particularly in a state like South Carolina, are already predisposed to his nativist and racist broadsides. Establishment Republicans like South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (who on Wednesday endorsed Marco Rubio) routinely extol how well the state has fared under globalization, attracting (with its low-wage, non-union work force) such marquee manufacturers as BMW and Boeing to build factories there. But as an article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal demonstrated, employment in the state’s aerospace and automotive industries rose by just 7,500 jobs between 2001 and 2014, while employment in the apparel, textile, and tire industries, which offshored jobs to Asia and Latin America, fell by 54,750. (This is one reason why South Carolina’s former longtime Democratic Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings fiercely opposed the trade deals of the 1990s.)
To many South Carolina Republicans, then, Trump is the candidate who articulates the kind of strong defense policies they believe they need most—an economic defense against the nations of the developing world that are stealing their jobs. (And never mind that Trump’s vow to employ the sharpest Wall Street dealmakers to renegotiate our trade deals is the quintessential foxes-in-the-henhouse solution, since it was Wall Street dealmakers who led the charge to offshore American industry to cheaper labor climes, and who profited handsomely by so doing.) Trump’s crudeness only bolsters his bona fides as the tough-guy negotiator who’ll slap around recalcitrant nations that have taken advantage of the U.S. The appeal of making Mexico pay for the wall on the border is a three-fer: It’s protectionist, nativist, and racist all in one. And its credibility, for those who actually believe it’s a serious promise, can only be enhanced by Trump’s macho nuttiness. (Only a macho nutcase would even attempt to pressure Mexico to fund that wall.)
Whatever suspense attends Saturday’s contests will come in Nevada, where polling is scarce and where most observers believe Sanders has eroded Clinton’s once sizable lead. As was not the case in Iowa and New Hampshire, only registered Democrats may vote, and Sanders ran strongest in the two earlier states among independents. On the other hand, the caucus process disproportionately rewards intensity, and by that metric Sanders has it all over Clinton this year. For that reason, Sanders will likely run strong not only in Nevada but also in two Super Tuesday (March 1) states that also hold caucuses: Colorado and Minnesota.
Polls still show Clinton holding a commanding lead in the Super Tuesday Southern primary states with sizable African American populations. Nevada, Colorado and Texas (another Super Tuesday state) may provide an early indication of whether her support among Latinos is as strong as it looks to be among blacks. In the most recent national polls, Clinton’s lead over Sanders among Democrats has been waning. In surveys released Wednesday, her lead was down to 10 points in a USA Today/Suffolk poll and to 2 points in a Quinnipiac poll. In heavily white Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders handily outpolled Clinton among lower-income voters, an outcome likely to change as the percentage of black voters increases. Whether he will continue to win lower-income whites is one of those questions on which the Democratic nomination may turn.
The way the Democratic primary contest is shaping up, it looks as if the key swing states will be those of the post-industrial Midwest, the Northeast Corridor (where polls show Sanders leading in Massachusetts’s Super Tuesday primary) and California. These all are states with substantial minority voting populations, but where the African American share of the electorate is nonetheless considerably smaller than it is in the South. This year’s cascade of surprises may have only just begun.