On Saturday, Donald Trump ran away with the South Carolina Republican primary. Contrary to the popular "expert" predictions that the state's socially conservative Republicans would prove problematic for the flip-flopping candidate who says he's never asked God for forgiveness, the media mogul handily beat the next-place finishers, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
This victory was enough for Huffington Post's Igor Bobic and Ryan Grim to declare that the oft-sought conservative base is just a "phantom army" that doesn't exist and has no power. While their argument featured several sound points, its premise and conclusion ignored several clear realities.
The conservative candidates beat Trump
Trump garnered nearly one third of South Carolina's primary votes, but it was Rubio and Cruz who each got more than 22 percent of the vote. Add in Ben Carson's 7.2 percent, and you have the real picture of the race: Trump at 32.5 percent, and conservatives split among three conservative candidates who totaled 52 percent.
Unlike the Democratic race, which pits an old, white establishment liberal against an old, white insurgent socialist, the GOP race in South Carolina featured age-diverse white and non-white candidates -- three generally seen as conservative, two generally seen as establishment, and Trump (who has his own category).
Trump never won a majority of South Carolina voters. He simply won a plurality in a demographically and philosophically diverse race.
It is also notable that in the evangelical-dominated Iowa primary, Cruz got a record number of votes while beating Trump -- who barely squeaked out a victory over third-place Rubio.
Christians and conservatives abandoned Trump
Exit poll questions asked of 2,043 GOP voters at 35 locations, conducted by Edison Research for the National Election Pool, and reported by The New York Times, show that 38 percent of voters described themselves as "very conservative," and 43 percent as "somewhat conservative." Cruz won the former with 35 points, with Trump garnering 29 and Rubio 19. Thirty-five percent of "somewhat conservative" voters backed Trump, with 42 percent backing Rubio and Cruz.
In other words: A conservative majority went for Cruz and Rubio (plus Carson got eight percent) compared to Trump's 29 percent. And a plurality of "somewhat conservative" voters stood behind Rubio and Cruz, not Trump.
Trump appeared to win "white evangelical or ... born-again Christians," with 34 percent, and "all other" white Christians with 29 percent -- but, again, these are merely one-man pluralities. Cruz and Rubio won 47 percent of the former -- plus Carson at 7 percent -- and combined to 39 percent of the latter (Ohio governor John Kasich got 16 percent of "all other" Christians).
Thirty-one percent of people who cared about a candidate sharing their religious views went to Trump, while 49 percent went to Cruz and Rubio.
Conflating conservatives with the moderate establishment
In addition to not counting the actual votes garnered by actually conservative candidates, Bobic and Grim spent more than seven paragraphs conflating conservatives with "the Bush family" and "the elite consensus."
For sure, George W. Bush was the Republican Party's president. But his big spending, the economic crash, and subsequent bailouts that took place on his watch fueled the Tea Party -- millions of economic conservatives who hold little to no respect for the big-spending president.
Unlike his brother, Jeb Bush -- who dropped out of the GOP race after finishing a distant fourth on Saturday -- was a conservative executive when he served as governor of Florida. But his flat candidacy comes after years of promoting greater federal control of education via Common Core and immigration policies derided as "amnesty" by conservatives.
Bush and his surrogates also attacked Rubio and Cruz for being too pro-life, and Bush's membership on a board that sent $50 million to international abortion advocacy was a major point of contention last summer.
The Huffington Post's attack piece on conservatives noted that Trump won't always back Israel and criticized the Iraq War -- including calling George Bush a liar on WMDs. But, again, opposing Bush is a positive thing in today's Republican Party, including on foreign policy.
Of course, Cruz and Trump are hardly doves. Both have declared an intention to go after ISIS and to stop Iran's and North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
According to exit polls, Rubio and Cruz won 44 percent of voters who have served in the military, compared to Trump's 35 percent. Likewise, 45 percent of those who have not served supported Cruz and Rubio, compared to 31 percent backing Trump.
Trump supported Planned Parenthood -- kind of
In their piece, Bobic and Grim pointed to how Trump backed Planned Parenthood in the South Carolina debate. This is one of their best points.
However, the support was qualified and came six months after Trump -- who called himself "very pro-choice" in 1999 -- said he was opposed to most abortions and, as he did in the debate, he said he wouldn't fund Planned Parenthood's abortion practices.
Huffington Post's own Amanda Terkel noted this week that Trump says he has "evolved" on abortion and supports it only in the cases of rape, incest, and life of the mother.
Whether Trump is honestly portraying his views on abortion -- he flip-flopped on federal funding for Planned Parenthood last year, ending up with his current position -- or any other issue is a question for another space. Clearly, Trump decided that it was important to at least pretend to be mostly pro-life in order to win in 2016.
Like most Americans, conservatives are hypocritical on fiscal issues
To prove that fiscal conservatives are a "phantom army," Bobic and Grim point to Trump's declaration that he wouldn't touch Social Security or Medicare. However, Americans writ large have long declared their theoretical support for fiscally conservative policies -- until they find out how changes would affect them, their friends and family, etc.
Likewise, senior citizens tend to be the most conservative voters -- but they are often heavily opposed to the reductions in Social Security and Medicare necessary to save both programs from bankruptcy.
In other words: Fiscal conservatives do exist, and in large numbers. But like the rest of humanity, their frailties and flaws sometimes include a gap between principles and policies. (For a point of comparison: Rich Democrats and public school teachers hate school choice, except when it's for their own children. And the downtrodden are targets for protection by Democrats -- unless they're unborn. And #BlackLivesMatter -- unless they're in the womb.)
Anger is the main theme of 2016 -- not political ideology
Trump's victory in South Carolina may well be the beginning of the end for his remaining viable opponents -- Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich. But like Bernie Sanders's resounding victory in New Hampshire and near wins in Iowa and Nevada, it proves not that ideology is dominant (or, conversely, "phantom"), but rather that anger is the overarching theme of 2016, not values.
Fox News's exit polls show the results starkly -- Trump won 38 percent of those who say they are "angry with the federal government," while Cruz and Rubio combined to win 46 percent.
And the Edison Research exit polls show that Rubio won voters who care about winning the general election in November, 47 percent to Trump's 21 percent (Cruz garnered 17 percent). Cruz and Rubio combined for 61 percent of those who want a candidate who "shares my values," compared to Trump's eight.
However, Trump hands-down won voters who want someone who "tells it like it is" and "can bring needed change."
Wishful thinking versus plain realities
"The media's 'conservatism is dead' line is getting old, especially as that line is often countered by media outlets lamenting that more legislatures and governors are conservative or Republican than ever before," digital campaign consultant and former Hill staffer RJ Caster told me after reading the Bobic/Grim piece. "Additionally, Trump under-performed his Real Clear Polls average, while conservative candidates Cruz, Rubio, and Carson over-performed theirs."
Liberals "can't have their cake and eat it, too," said Caster, encapsulating the inherent flaw in the piece. "Either conservatism is dead, or the GOP is being dominated by allegedly extreme conservatives who, despite being a 'phantom army,' somehow rewarded pro-life, fiscally conservative candidates in the U.S. House and Senate and in the states."
Is conservatism alive and well? Yup. Is it split among several candidates in the party of demographic and philosophical diversity? Yup. Does this mean that the flip-flopping, charlatan Trump could win the nomination? Depressingly, yes.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author, who doesn't so much tilt to the political right, but rather topples straight over to the right.