Donald Trump easily won the South Carolina primary on Saturday, taking another major step toward the Republican presidential nomination as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio fought a tight battle for second place.
Donald Trump now has a clear path toward the Republican nomination for the White House after a victory in the South Carolina primary that confirms his insurgent campaign as a political juggernaut.
Frustrated conservatives in the first state to vote in the American south preferred his channeling of populist anger to the platforms of evangelical Texas senator Ted Cruz and the establishment Florida senator Marco Rubio, the Associated Press declared.
“There’s nothing easy about running for president, I can tell you,” Trump told a rally in Spartanburg. “It’s tough, it’s mean, it’s nasty, it’s vicious … it’s beautiful.”
He added: “When you win, it’s beautiful.”
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the son and brother of two former presidents, dropped out after another disappointing showing in a race that was once thought to be his to lose.
With nearly 93.5% of the vote reported on Saturday evening, Trump had captured 32.8%, with Cruz and Rubio battling it out for second place, each with around 22% of the vote. Bush, Ohio governor John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson languished in single digits.
Trump has been the Republican frontrunner since soon after he announced his bid eight months ago and launched himself into a ceaseless run of controversy, but he has now won two of the first three presidential nominating contests and is starting to build a strong lead among the delegates who officially select the party’s nominee.
Paired with a closer than anticipated finish for the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders behind Hillary Clinton in Nevada’s Democratic caucus on Saturday, the rise of the outsider in American politics appears to have gained lasting traction with voters.
“Voters want to change the way DC functions,” Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said, “and the only way to do that is to elect Donald Trump.”
The Republicans now switch states with the Democrats and head to Nevada, where Trump’s casino empire has led him to a more than 20-point lead in polling averages.
“We’re now off to Nevada – it’s a great state, and we’ve got great people,” Trump told his victory rally. “The only thing that stops the crowds are the walls!”
On the first day of March – so-called “Super Tuesday” – a dozen states hold their nominating contests and the once-expansive GOP field may finally start to narrow to a small number of candidates.
Trump has been leading in the polls in almost all of those states except Texas, where Cruz holds a hometown advantage.
“Let’s put this thing away!” Trump said as he exited the stage in Spartanburg.
The bombastic billionaire had led in nearly every poll in South Carolina despite getting into homestretch fights with Pope Francis and the Bush family. Lewandowski boasted to reporters on Friday that Trump’s campaign only spent $1.3m in the state, one-tenth of what Bush and his connected Super Pacs had spent.
Asked by the Guardian before he suspended his campaign outside a polling station in Daniel Island on Friday if he would consider serving as Trump’s vice-president, Bush said simply: “No.”
“A number of the pundits said if a couple of other candidate drop out and add them together, it’s going to equal Trump. They’re geniuses,” Trump told his victory rally with visible disdain. He added: “They don’t understand as people drop out I am going to get a lot more votes also.”
Ed McMullen, Trump’s state chair in South Carolina, said the campaign had “dispelled a lot of myths: ‘no ground game, they won’t come out, just there for the show.’ Those myths are all gone. They turned out hard, they come out excited and really voted hard for Mr Trump.”
Trump achieved his victory despite repeatedly courting more controversy than usual, from the spat with the pope to a seeming endorsement of war crimes.
To many of his supporters, however, this comes across as straight talk. At a rally on Wednesday, Joe Bartone, a Trump supporter from Mount Pleasant, said he found Trump “a lot smarter than he comes across”.
“I like Trump, but he acts like an ass,” said a sales engineer who would only identify himself as Jason R, as he finished voting for Cruz on Saturday in the suburb of Chapin to South Carolina’s northwest, where voters expressed a deep distrust of government. “All politicians are filth, but Cruz is the lesser of all the evils. He’s a criminal like the rest of them, but you gotta vote.”
In a state with a reputation for both political dirty tricks and now high turnout, the state witnessed rival candidates repeatedly accusing each other of lying and chicanery. Rubio’s campaign sent out a statement on election day accusing Cruz of adopting a “strategy to steal elections through rumors and lies”. Trump described Cruz at a campaign rally on Friday night as “lying more than any human being I have ever seen”. In return, Cruz dared Trump to sue him and bashed Rubio as not being a true conservative.
Rubio arrived in the state at arguably the lowest point of his campaign, following a disappointing fifth-place finish in New Hampshire due to a disastrous debate performance two days before that primary. But the senator’s fortunes changed quickly in South Carolina, beginning with a debate that offered him a shot at redemption going into a critical week for his campaign.
“After tonight this has become a three-person race, and we will win the nomination,” Rubio told supporters in Columbia. “Now the children of the Reagan revolution are ready to assume the mantle of leadership.”
But the reality remains that he has yet to win a primary contest.
“We are the only campaign that has beaten and can beat Donald Trump,” said Cruz in his speech to supporters in Columbia. “Only one strong conservative is in a position to win this race.”
In the “upstate” city of Greenville, a 38-year-old mother of four said she was voting for the first time she could remember since turning 18.
“I don’t even think I actually agree with everything Rubio says, but I think he has the best chance here in South Carolina and in the actual election against Hillary,” said the woman, who declined to provide her name for fear of upsetting her family. “I thought about voting for a Democrat, but my husband told me, ‘No way.’
“I just think it’s kind of crazy that Donald Trump could be president,” she said. “I figured it would just go away.”