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Donald Trump’s National Campaign

MYRTLE BEACH, SC - FEBRUARY 19: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally February 19, 2016 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Trump is campaigning throughout South Carolina ahead of the state's primary. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

Think about South Carolina for a minute. It is a specific place, made by the collision between gentility and brutality. The state is religious and poor by national standards, but not by Southern ones—the hard hill edges are softened by the prosperous country. Its racial history is especially violent. Its conservatism is fixed, and the distinguishing strain is military: the long obsession with the Confederate flag, the Citadel. Laid over all of this is the fantastical experience of the state’s great city, Charleston—to walk through it is, as the native-son novelist Pat Conroy once wrote, “like walking through gauze or inhaling damaged silk.” You would not describe Nevada like this; the phrase doesn’t summon New Hampshire.

There is an oddity that has existed throughout the Republican primary campaign but which has grown more obvious this week, as the race’s aperture has opened to take in more than the earliest states. No matter where you poll geographically, no matter what demographic you look at, Donald Trump gets about a third of the vote and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio each get just about half of that. In the Democratic race, Bernie Sanders wins huge margins among young voters, Hillary Clinton substantial ones among the oldest and wealthiest and among African-Americans. These demographics give the race a shape. They explain the vast difference between the outcome in New Hampshire and the likely one in South Carolina.
Culturally, these are very different places. But on the Republican side, they seem to poll about the same. This isn’t to say that the race never changes, just that the changes don’t seem to be about the geographic shifts. The first South Carolina polls just about matched the New Hampshire results, and the current polls in Nevada don’t deviate much from those in South Carolina. In New Hampshire, Trump won fifty-eight of the sixty-one Republican sub-groups that were surveyed in exit polls. More striking was that he won almost all of those groups by about the same margin. Trump won thirty-six per cent of older voters and thirty-four per cent of younger ones. He won thirty-one per cent of voters with an income over a hundred thousand dollars, thirty-five per cent of those who made between fifty thousand and a hundred thousand dollars, and thirty-nine per cent of those who made less than fifty thousand dollars. Among the other candidates, you can identify some differences: Ted Cruz’s support is a bit stronger among evangelicals, Marco Rubio’s among Catholics and younger voters, and the moderates—John Kasich and Jeb Bush—do a bit better among the wealthiest. But these are differences of a few percentage points. “The only thing I’m a little weak on is my personality,” Trump said on Friday, in South Carolina, scanning new polls for the benefit of his audience, “but who the hell cares?”

The whole hoary romance of a national campaign is that it forces candidates to reach across cultural barriers, to appeal to people very unlike themselves. The Democratic race is about this project—Clinton trying to find a way to talk to young voters, Sanders to African-American ones. Trump doesn’t really have to try—committed evangelicals support a vulgar casino billionaire with only slightly less enthusiasm than the rest of Republicans. It may simply be that the normal demographic categories serve mostly to segment off the white middle class, rather than to probe within it, and that the loud alienation detectable in the campaign runs along lines—social isolation, maybe, or economic vulnerability—that aren’t precisely the same as those of income, or education, or religion. It now seems that the death rates of middle- and working-class white people are escalating while those of all other groups are declining, and that the excess deaths are due mostly to suicide and drug use, which also hints at a mystery. But it also may be a reminder of how completely politics is now channeled through a national sensibility. South Carolina has a separate mythology and history. Are the politics of its Republican voters really meaningfully different right now?

Each of the leading Republican candidates has captured a different sentiment. In Rubio there is a general optimism about the future, in Cruz a ferocious anti-élitism, in Trump a far more florid array of paranoia, nativism, and privilege. The crowds at each of their rallies have a different feeling: Trump’s are like arena rock concerts, Cruz’s like school-board meetings, Rubio’s like management-consulting recruitment seminars. But these are only impressions; they don’t really show up in the data. Republicans, in this election, have been hard to see clearly.

More likely the difference between the two primary races will remain. The drama in the Democratic campaign lies in how the race changes each times it hops to a new region. The fascination with the Republican race is how the same dynamics appear no matter where the candidates are, over and over and over again.

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