Politics & Government

How Donald Trump won the SC GOP primary


Donald Trump kept on doing and saying the wrong things for someone trying to win the S.C. Republican primary.

He spitefully gave out U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s cell phone number during a Bluffton rally in July. He suggested a ban on Muslims entering the country before a Pearl Harbor Day event at Patriots Point in December. He criticized former President George W. Bush’s role in the Iraq War during the presidential debate in Greenville last weekend.

In a state where religion and civility matters, the New York billionaire admitted he never asked God for forgiveness, called rivals “liars” and “idiots,” and used a vulgarity during a rally.

None of those foibles mattered. Donald Trump was the answer to S.C. voters’ biggest concern: Who will make me feel safe?

Among the six remaining GOP candidates, S.C. Republican voters said the political novice was the most likely to keep their family safe and be feared by U.S. enemies, according to a Bloomberg poll last week. Voters thought Trump was the best candidate to handle the threat from terrorists and Islamic State, according to several polls.

When he spoke to thousands of supporters at convention halls and civic centers across South Carolina, Trump promised to reconnect voters to a government that they felt had left them behind.

He pledged to protect them fromundocumented immigrants, and stop China and Iran from taking advantage of the United States. He also insisted his business expertise would improve the economy.

Trump's assurances of greater military and economic security led Jean Miller, a 74-year-old manufacturing employee from Greenville, to cast her third-ever presidential vote. The first two went to Hillary Clinton in the 2008 S.C. Democratic primary and John Kennedy in 1960.

“I think he’s going to get us out of this world of trouble,” she said.

A majority of S.C. voters in Saturday’s Republican presidential primary agreed with Miller, giving Trump a much-needed win in the Palmetto State. The real estate developer has said that, with a S.C. victory, he feels he can “run the table” on upcoming primaries and win the GOP nomination.

Unlike 2012, when upstart candidate Newt Gingrich nabbed a surprise victory in the S.C. GOP race, Trump’s success was expected. He topped all but two S.C. polls after entering the race in June.

The first Palmetto State poll that Trump led was a sign of just how bullet-proof his campaign would become.

The survey came a week after Trump said U.S. Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, was not a war hero for being captured during the Vietnam War. South Carolina has the nation’s seventh-highest concentration of military veterans, according to federal data, but voters did not care that Trump had insulted a POW.

"We had a candidate who never had to vacillate on what he said and never worried about how it would be perceived," said Ed McMullen, Trump's S.C. state chairman. "You let Trump be Trump."

Perhaps the biggest surprise is how Trump, the thrice married, sharp-tongued, reality-television star, led consistently in pre-primary polls of evangelicals, who make up more than two-thirds of the S.C. GOP electorate.

"They're not looking at him as a religious man. They're looking at him as a businessman," Hogan Gidley, who worked has worked for three presidential campaigns, most recently for Mike Huckabee. "They see him as the one who will dismantle, crush and destroy government."

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, who has courted religious voters while raising the most money in South Carolina among active GOP hopefuls, was baffled by evangelicals’ support of Trump.

“I’m not exactly sure what the evangelicals are looking for,” Carson said after the GOP debate last weekend in Greenville. “Right now, people are frightened. They’re looking for somebody who will give them a sense of security. And Donald is pretty good at that, jumping up and down and shouting, ‘I’m going to do this,’ not heavy on the details. It seems to satisfy a need.”

Still, Carson thinks evangelicals might have a change of heart. “I hope people will start asking themselves a question in the general election: ‘What’s going to fly?’ ”

‘I’m like one of you’

One success of Trump’s campaign has been how he has tapped into voters’ anger at ineffective politicians.

"There are a lot of people who play by the rules and do what they were supposed to do, and they are not part of the process," Trump adviser McMullen said. "There's a lot of happy talk, but there's a lot of Republicans who are worried."

Trump was able to articulate that worry.

“They don’t know how to explain it. They don’t know how to comprehend it. They just know it’s not right,” former Republican S.C. Gov David Beasley said. “And they don’t see Washington fixing it. In fact, they see big government and big business having too much influence in ways that are not solving the problem.”

Trump channeled that anger in his hour-long monologues from Clemson to North Charleston. He spoke plainly, bluntly about the country’s problems — more like a relative at the dinner table than a lawmaker in a banquet hall.

Politicians are idiots. Washington, led by President Barack Obama, makes stupid trade deals. And his Republican opponents were low energy and sweated too much.

"He is saying from the podium what Americans would say in private," Gidley said. "He'll say, 'You are the biggest liar I have ever seen.' That is how people talk."

His voters, usually less wealthy and educated than those supporting other 2016 hopefuls, felt a bond with Trump, despite the candidate flying in on his own private Boeing 757 jet.

"He knows how to make money and will get us out of debt," Miller said. "He'll stop giving away all that money so can pay for the wall if Mexico doesn’t."

Trump’s message that he would fix a broken Washington appealed to the independent streak in South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union.

“They see Trump, in spite of being a billionaire, as someone no one can buy off, and he’s willing to take on the establishment,” Beasley said. “He’s willing to take on big government, and he’s willing to take on those things they’re worried about. Even if they don’t agree with him on all the issues, the system needs shaking up. And this guy, Donald Trump, can do it.”

Republican and Democratic leaders have chosen to ignore “all the anger out there," Gidley said, giving Trump a chance to succeed by using buzz words to connect with voters who feel shunned by the system.

After being jeered for criticizing foes at a recent debate, Trump claimed the debate hall had been filled with the “establishment,” “lobbyists” and “special interests.”

"He took the boos and made them work for him," Gidley said. "He was saying to the people watching, 'I'm like one of you at home. I'm not part of the problem. People are booing me because I'm part of the solution.' "

Despite Trump constantly boasting about his high poll numbers, an underdog mentality is engrained in his campaign, McMullen said. "We continued to run like we're running from behind."

‘Several moves ahead’

Trump was an unconventional candidate.

His rallies were like rock concerts with popular pop songs blaring ahead of his speeches, which drew supporters from hundreds of miles away. A retiree from Tennessee waited in line in Aiken for three hours, hoping Trump would sign her sweatshirt adorned with photos of the developer.

His speeches were almost stream of consciousness, hopping from one topic to another. In Myrtle Beach, he spent more than 10 minutes talking about the intricacies of building an ice rink in New York’s Central Park to a conference of Tea Party leaders.

None of the other non-politicians in the GOP field, Carson and businesswoman Carly Fiorina, took chances like the reality-TV star.

The mild-mannered Carson, a retire neurosurgeon, was never a factor in debates and had problems getting air time as Trump kept making headlines.

Fiorina, a former corporate chief executive, ran a more traditional campaign, though supporters thought she might have damaged Trump during a September debate by responding to sexist comment he gave a magazine. It had little effect. The first three S.C. polls immediately afterward showed little change in Trump’s double-digit leads.

Now, Fiorina is out of the race, and Carson is polling in last place.

Trump has shown creating controversy can be a winning strategy.

“I thought it was a masterful, brilliant move when he attacked George W. Bush” at the debate last week in Greenville, Beasley said. “He knew his No. 1 potential opponent was Jeb Bush. If Jeb Bush could get momentum out of South Carolina, he’s got big money and big establishment. So he figures, ‘I’ve got to throw them off their game.’

“It’s been a chess game, and he has been several moves ahead. Trump has had them playing on his terms and his field, and if you’re going to pay on his terms and his field, you’re not going to win.”

And in a sign of his deal-making skills, Trump was not afraid to embrace the S.C political establishment. He won endorsements from Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, a former S.C. GOP party chairman, and Columbia real estate developer Bill Stern, a major S.C. Republican donor who had backed the presidential bids of George W. Bush and McCain.

Trump also was helped by world events. The deadly terrorist attacks by racial Islamists in Paris and California, which took place three weeks apart late last year, meshed into his message about keeping the nation safe.

“It was prophetic,” Beasley said.

Trump suggested his temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States days after the San Bernardino attack.

Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, a popular S.C. politician who already had denounced Trump’s combative campaign tactics, called his proposal un-American and an embarrassment to the party. She later would ask people to avoid the “angriest voices,” like Trump, during her GOP response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.

Trump’s S.C. campaign chairman says he lost count of how many calls he received after the candidate made one comment or another that would have killed the campaign of a typical politician.

"Time after time, we got calls saying, 'I'm sorry, it's over,' after something that happened," McMullen said. "They just couldn't believe what he had said. But they didn't understand what's going on in the country. He understands what's wrong." 

The evidence came in the polls. While different GOP candidates posed challenges — first, Carson and, then, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — McMullen said he saw that Trump was not losing supporters.

"Whatever the issue of the week was, it wasn't going to work," he said.

Christians mad at the system

Ginna Dunwoody, a 46-year-old home-school mother from Travelers Rest, was considering Trump until his debate performance in Greenville last week. But Trump’s criticism of former President George W. Bush and his habit of talking over his rivals raised questions about his temperament to be president for the 46-year-old evangelical Christian.

“He’s making me nervous with his junior high school behavior,” Dunwoody said. “I think he could do great things, but I think it would be one step forward and two steps back.”

But polls leading into the race suggested most S.C. evangelical voters cared more about making America great again, Trump’s signature catchphrase, than his not-so-Christian actions, including converting to pro-life on abortion from pro-choice.

Many S.C. pastors said they backed U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who courted the evangelical vote hardest. But the pastors said members of their congregations went with Trump, who won an endorsement from the son of famed preacher Jerry Falwell.

“I have never seen anything quite like it,” Beasley said. “He has a brand. He has a persona about him. They take that with a grain of salt: ‘Well, that’s just him stirring it up.’ I think, in their heart, they believe that Trump will govern in way that the system needs but also respect the pillars of the the institutions of America.”

Trump political incorrectness appeals to some Christians, Beasley said.

“The average Christian who believes in the Golden Rule is so mad at the system. They’re willing to be a little tolerant,” he said. “That authenticity is so important that they’re willing to put up with his idiosyncrasies, his sins.”

Evangelicals, who account for more than two-thirds of S.C. GOP voters, wanted a candidate who would respect them, Gidley said.

"You don't have to be one of us. Just don't lie to us," he said. "Evangelists feel they are under siege. We'll back the guy who is going to stop us from being under siege. You don't need to have a candidate with your values to vote for the person who will protect your values."

Trump also benefited from an influx of new residents into South Carolina, a popular destination for retirees. That influx changed the state’s voter dynamics, especially among religious voters who no longer vote as a bloc.

"The establishment believes this is the old South Carolina," McMullen said. "We have a hugely different state than we did 10 years ago."

Keys to Trump’s S.C. victory

How New York billionaire Donald Trump won the S.C. Republican primary:

1. Breaking barriers. South Carolina usually is split into three regions for elections: social conservatives in the Upstate, military supporters in the Midlands and moderates along the coast. Trump won over all three constituencies with his anti-Washington message.

2. Bringing out voters. South Carolina became the third straight state in the 2016 GOP race to have record voting, in part, from dormant or new voters coming out for Trump. Pundits said they never have seen a candidate, other than Trump, draw thousands of supporters to S.C. rallies.

3. Winning over evangelicals: Despite not having the religious credentials of his rivals, Trump led among evangelical Christians, who make up a majority of S.C. Republican voters, in polls ahead of the primary. The sharp-tongued, thrice-married New Yorker won over Southern churchgoers who yearn for safety and think Washington has forgotten them.

Andrew Shain