COLUMBIA, S.C. — Donald Trump rolled to victory in South Carolina on Saturday, defeating Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and the rest of the Republican presidential field and proving that his gut-level appeal to angry conservatives is a more potent force than anything the GOP establishment has been able to muster.
The victory in a core Southern state puts Trump in a commanding position heading into Nevada’s Republican caucus Tuesday and then Super Tuesday on March 1, which includes a string of conservative states spanning the Deep South, Texas, and Oklahoma.
Trump led 33 percent to about 22 percent for Rubio and Cruz, with 98 percent of precincts reporting. Jeb Bush trailed with 8 percent, followed by Ohio Governor John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Bush immediately withdrew from the race, a crushing end for a candidate who started his campaign last year as the presumed front-runner with all the advantages of a family dynasty and heavy financial backing.
“The people of Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina have spoken, and I really respect their decision,” he said, his voice cracking in an emotional concession speech. “So tonight I am suspending my campaign.”
Mainstream Republicans, who have spent months baffled by Trump’s rise, are hoping a smaller field will clarify which candidate can best challenge Trump and Cruz. But after his win in New Hampshire earlier in the month, Saturday’s victory puts history on Trump’s side.
Every candidate who has won both the Granite State and South Carolina has gone on to win the Republican nomination.
“There’s nothing easy about running for president, I can tell you,” Trump said. “It’s tough it’s nasty, it’s mean, it’s vicious. It’s beautiful. When you win, it’s beautiful.”
Trump discounted any notion that once candidates drop out, he would be more easily defeated. “They don’t understand that as people drop out, I’m going to get a lot of those votes also,” he said. “You don’t just add them together.”
Rubio’s close finish with Cruz and Bush’s exit from the race energized the Florida senator and sets him up as the Republican Party establishment’s strongest candidate. He said he represents a new generation of conservatives ready to lead in the tradition of Ronald Reagan.
“After tonight, this has become a three-person race — and we will win the nomination!” Rubio said.
Trump’s win caps a week of intense political combat, in which he threatened to sue Cruz, accused former president George W. Bush — who has an approval rating of 80 percent here — of lying, and got into a verbal spat with Pope Francis over immigration.
Trump won despite being derided by some of the state’s top leaders, including Republican Governor Nikki Haley, the state’s first nonwhite governor, who said Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States was divisive.
After South Carolina, candidates now are about to scatter around the country as the contest transitions from a race in which campaigns camp out in early primary states and hold town hall meetings into one that is far more focused on national television interviews, debates, and TV ads.
South Carolina is a gateway to the South, providing an early indicator for the results on March 1, when 11 states vote. Cruz had been hoping to ride a wave of support from evangelical Christians, while also proving he can broaden his appeal.
He said in his concession speech that the South Carolina results showed the conservative base is behind him. He had won the Iowa caucus.
“We are the only campiagn that has beaten, and can beat, Donald Trump,’’ Cruz told his supporters. “Conservatives continue to unite behind our campaign. If you are conservative, this is where you belong, because only one strong conservative is in a position to win this race.’’
Exit polls showed that nearly three-quarters of primary voters here support temporarily banning Muslims from the United States, which Trump has proposed. Three-quarters of voters also said they were evangelical Christians, and the polls indicate that Trump won among them, too. He benefited from those who want change.
Nearly half of those surveyed said they wanted someone “outside the political establishment,” a similar number from Iowa and New Hampshire. More than half said they felt “betrayed” by the Republican Party. Among those who prefer electability and experience, Rubio was the top choice.
For the increasingly angst-ridden Republican establishment — worried that Trump could soon become an unstoppable political train — Bush’s exit clarifies the options. But even if Rubio had received all of Bush’s votes in South Carolina, he still would have lost to Trump.
Bush had every advantage, and he had high hopes that South Carolina would give him a chance to rebound his campaign. His family has long and deep ties here, and he brought his brother into the state for a major rally last week. His mother — also a beloved figure who went to school in Charleston — was with him in the final days.
Throughout his campaign, he has continued to argue that problem-solving and experience should matter more than negative attacks. Betting that voters would respect him more for it, he held true to his positions — even those on immigration and national education standards that had become out of step with the GOP base.
But in the end, it didn’t work. Bush struggled to overcome his family name, with voters resistant to the idea of a third Bush presidency. He was the quintessential establishment candidate in an antiestablishment election, at the mercy of forces that he suggested were beyond his control.
“The presidency is bigger than any one person,” he said. “It is certainty bigger than any one candidate.”
As voters from the shores to the hills went to the polls here, the candidates continued lobbing nasty accusations at one another — of lying, of cheating, of being utterly unqualified for the presidency.
“Lying #TED Cruz just (on election day) came out with a sneak and sleazy Robocall,” Trump tweeted just before 9 a.m. “He holds up the Bible but in fact is a true lowlife pol!”
Rubio’s campaign accused Cruz of being behind robocalls saying that Rubio was dropping out of the race, a charge that Cruz’s campaign denied. Then the Bush campaign accused Rubio of dirty tricks of his own.
“In fact we have reports of Rubio campaign spreading lies about Jeb & Kasich at precincts on the coast,” tweeted Bush communications director Tim Miller.
Rubio scored a dramatic turnaround after a disappointing fifth-place finish in New Hampshire. He spent the past week trying to retool his campaign and rebuff accusations that he was a robotic politician with a thin resume. He was looser at events, delivered new jokes, and spent more time with reporters.
Rubio also got the coveted endorsement of Haley.
“For me the state of South Carolina will always be the place of new beginnings,’’ he said Saturday night.
Cruz was hoping a win in South Carolina could show his appeal is broader than in Iowa, where he won and where candidates like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum won only to be denied other significant wins.
Cruz, a clerk to Chief Justice William Rehnquist in the 1990s, took a morning off the campaign trail Saturday to attend Justice Antonin Scalia’s funeral in Washington.
“Justice Scalia’s passing, I think has underscored for the people of South Carolina and for people across the country the stakes of this election,” Cruz said in an interview with MSNBC outside of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
“The court very much hangs in the balance, and we are going to determine whether the court continues to preserve the Bill of Rights . . . or whether the court will undermine those rights,” Cruz said.
Kasich quickly moved on, not even spending election night in South Carolina as he shifted focus to the big batch of states slated to vote on March 1. He held a town hall gathering in Worcester, Mass., and planned to watch the South Carolina election returns from a hotel in Wakefield, Mass.
After his second place finish in New Hampshire — and a strategy that never banked on a strong performance in South Carolina — Kasich is opening offices in states like Georgia, Michigan, and Virginia.
His strategy is to remain in the race as the field is whittled down, banking that he’ll benefit by being the last governor in the race.