With a double-digit win in South Carolina last night further cementing his frontrunner status in the Republican presidential primaries, Donald Trump is now facing a major strategic choice, and on Sunday morning he made it pretty clear which way he’s leaning.
Most analysts watching the GOP primary have predicted that the next real test for Trump will be whether or not he can maintain his lead in the polls after the candidates in the so-called “establishment lane” start to drop out, and mainstream Republican support starts to coalesce behind a single candidate.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was the first of the major establishment candidates to bow out, and last night former Florida governor Jeb Bush became the second, announcing that he would suspend his campaign after winning only 8 percent of the vote in South Carolina for a distant fourth place showing.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s late surge to a second place showing in South Carolina suggests that establishment support appears to be gathering behind him, and it seems likely that many of Bush’s supporters might shift to Rubio as well, despite the bad blood between the two campaigns.
Trump has a couple of options. Having shown that he is a viable candidate in states as diverse as New Hampshire and South Carolina, he could start hedging his bets a little bit, and try to blunt Rubio’s progress by making an appeal to the more moderate elements of the Republican base. Alternatively, he could let it all ride, relying on the same burn-it-all-down strategy that has carried him this far.
On Sunday, it seemed pretty clear that Trump is not interested in making nice with the Republican Party establishment.
Asked his opinion of the state of the Republican establishment by host Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, Trump was unsparing. “I think it’s a mess,” he said. “I think it’s a mess and I think they better get their act together because they’re going to keep losing elections. With the kind of thinking that we have, with the Karl Roves and the Stephen Hayeses and these characters that can’t get themselves arrested?
Rove and Hayes are, respectively, the former political advisor to President George W. Bush, and a writer and pundit with the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard.
He continued, “If you want to keep people like that, If you want to keep listening to people like that, you’re never gonna win. You’re never gonna win. They’re from a different age. They’re from a different world.”
Wallace then brought up a “loyalty pledge” that Trump agreed to sign early in his campaign, which committed him to supporting the eventual Republican nominee and to not running as an independent.
Trump angrily attacked the Republican National Committee, and in doing so, and, far from reiterating his promise not to split the party by running as an independent, said merely that he doesn’t “want” to do that.
“The pledge is the pledge, but the other side is not honoring it,” he told Wallace. “Look, I signed the pledge. I’m a Republican. I’m the leading Republican by a lot. And that’s where I want. That’s where I want to be. I don’t want to run as an Independent. I think it’s highly, highly unlikely.
“But I’m not being treated right. When we go to the debates, the room is stacked with donors and special interests,” Trump repeated, as he often does, stressing that he is self-funding his campaign. He said his opponents are controlled by donors and special interests, who the RNC is allowing to dominate debate audiences.
“The rooms are stacked. Every time I got to a debate, I walk in, it’s like Death,” he said. “And when other people, I won’t mention names, when other people speak, they say something stupid and they get standing ovations. It’s very unfair, what the RNC is doing. They’re stacking the room. And that’s not fair. With donors and special interests and lobbyists and that’s unfair.”
Trump would go on the voice a similar complaint when he appeared on ABC’s This Week.
He repeated his complaints about the debate venues and the RNC’s alleged role in stacking the audience against him.
Asked by host George Stephanopolous if he would run as an independent, he again stopped short of ruling it out, saying only, “I don’t think that’s much of a possibility.”
RNC chairman Reince Priebus appeared on ABC not long after Trump, and was asked if he is worried about the anti-establishment current in the primary.
“I think if you look at all these exit polls on both sides of the aisle, I think people are just sick and tired of politics in general, sick and tired of Washington DC and I think just sick and tired of both parties,” he said.
Would the RNC be able to work with Trump if he were the eventual nominee?
“We’re going to be there to support whoever that nominee is,”Priebus insisted.
When Stephanopolous pointed out that many in the Republican Party believe a Trump nomination would “tear apart” the GOP, Priebus said, “Winning is an antidote to a lot of things…If we win in November, all those armchair quarterbacks will fall in line.”