My last dispatch from America ended with a question for the GOP powerbrokers: what's it gonna be, a principled conservative who admittedly will shrink the belts of the lobbyists et al, or screw the base and the country to preserve their power?
They answered in the latter.
Despite dismal polling and not even placing in the first two votes, the Bush campaign, the brain child of the establishment, backed by 100 million bucks and seasoned political know how, stayed in South Carolina and soaked up about 8 per cent of the vote in a three-way tie for last.
Rumours leaked out the day before the vote that the staff would not be paid after Saturday. He knew the end was coming yet he stayed in until the returns started coming in. That is simply unconscionable for a seasoned political team that claims it cares about America. They should have done as the other governors, Perry, Walker, and Jindal did; exit and allow the field to consolidate.
Kasich and Carson, the other losing campaigns that still have money, remain. Carson's consultants are misleading him and his naive supporters for their paycheck.
Kasich, the last establishment candidate standing, has at least a theoretical chance at becoming the rising moderate for the party elite thanks to his New Hampshire showing. Although after he couldn't convince Bush to go out before South Carolina, he should've left. He's staying in for the long shot scenario in which Rubio and Cruz will beat each other up - plausible - and he will be left to best Trump - laughable. This is not a year of establishment popularity on either side of the aisle.
If for simplicity's sake, we combine their three zombie campaigns and divide them between Cruz and Rubio - Trump is not a popular second choice - then we have a tight three-way race. And if the zombie block didn't split evenly, then we'd be hearing how this is Cruz or Rubio's race to lose. But the zombies remain, giving Trump all the room he needs to manoeuvre.
A Trump v. Clinton matchup is still not a sure thing, it is now just the way to bet.
Trump's chances of securing the Republican nomination are still less than Clinton's chances of securing the Democratic nomination. For anyone interested in detailed analysis of how the party delegates work, start with RealClearPolitics. The short version: the individual state parties determine if their delegates are proportional or winner take all and if they are free to vote their own preferences at the national conventions and under what circumstances. For all of the sensational coverage, Trump has only secured about 6 per cent of the Republican delegates he needs to win. By contrast, Clinton has 21 per cent of the delegates she needs to win. (The Democrats have a Super Delegate system and the Clinton machine locked up the vast majority of those.)
So what about Cruz and Rubio? Why aren't the two Tea Party senators, two experienced and credible populists, doing better against the wild populist?
If you recall from earlier articles, Bush and Christie beat up Rubio in a vain effort to bolster their own campaigns. What stuck was Rubio's willingness - or weakness - for the DC game. After Bush I, Dole, Bush II, McCain, and Romney the base will not accept another happy-warrior, Washington DC player. They want DC curbed, not coaxed. Bush III and Christie crippled Rubio's campaign and got nothing for it.
Cruz, the more disciplined conservative, rose to beat Trump while Bush and Christie kneecapped Rubio. This would be a Trump vs Cruz race now but for two issues in the Cruz camp. First, his communications director went rogue and doctored some photographs to illustrate some of Cruz's political arguments. Cruz promptly fired him, but the photoshops hurt his credibility.
Second, everyone, including the Cruz camp, has misjudged the evangelical voters' motivation.
Evangelical voters are those outward Christians that everyone else finds so strange about America. Few outsiders get them, and with our infamous culture wars like abortion and gay marriage, most outsiders assume that these voters are issue voters. Since Trump is not with them on the issues, they won't vote for Trump.
The connection between religion and politics in America is more fundamental than issues. The American political system is the secular parallel to Protestantism. The road to "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal..." starts with the crucifixion, and the 95 Theses. These milestones in individual responsibility get lifted out of religious thought in the Enlightenment and eventually become the popular sovereignty of the US Constitution.
But US Christianity has changed. For decades our churches have been filled with the Prosperity Gospel. It tells people that if they pray hard enough, the right Way - if they have enough faith - then God will do for them. They will have rich and prosperous lives of good health and peace. It's a horrible theology, one that leaves people to despair when they pray and act just as they were told but still don't get what they expect.
This is the evangelical voter today. They've done everything they were supposed to do for Uncle Sam. They were the good patriots, working hard, raising families. Yet life isn't going their way. From terrorism to taxes, jobs, budgets, public safety, insurance, family law, mortgages, small business regulation - all of it goes wrong. They reached despair. They feel forsaken.
Trump's principles don't hurt his vote percentages because they aren't looking for principles. They've lost hope in principles. They are looking for the strongman. If we must have a government that quashes people, then they'd like one that quashes the other guy.
Some observers noted this strongman theory for general Trump supporters, but I don't think anyone expected it among the evangelical voters. Christians are issues voters. Everyone knows that.
And that has been the one thing that has remained reliable and true this election cycle: the media and elites know precious little about the emotional lives of Christians.
(Image: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)