After the frenetic one-two step of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, the Republican presidential contest zooms to South Carolina, a state that typically favors establishment candidates. But this year, voters’ attention is tuned to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the victors of the early contests—and candidates who have alarmed the party by bucking the establishment order.
In a Bloomberg Politics/Purple Strategies focus group conducted by With All Due Respect co-host Mark Halperin on Wednesday evening, South Carolina Republican voters praised the Texas senator for being “trustworthy,” “religious,” and “steadfast,” but said the billionaire would win the Feb. 20 primary. Trump enjoyed a 16-point lead in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in late January.
The 10-person group included seven undecided voters and three who were leaning toward a candidate but said that they might change their minds.
Billie, a tech manager, said Cruz was “steadfast. Decisive. I mean, he just seems to be a leader.”
A majority said Cruz would be a strong general-election candidate.
“Very believable,” said Dale, a man employed in insurance sales.
“I like that he knows the Constitution inside and out,” said Kari, who works in accounting. “He’s the only one who got on that floor and fought Obamacare. And he did what he said he was going to do, which I like.”
Kari said Glenn Beck’s radio show had helped shape her positive opinion of Cruz. She was one of several who cited the radio host.
“I've listened to him for years and I trust his opinion,” Billie said.
Sandy, who works in customer service, cited a different source of information about Cruz: her house of worship. “Last week, we talked at church, and a lot of people just had very positive things to say about him,” she said.
Despite most of the group’s favorability toward Cruz—eight of 10 said they’d back him versus Trump in a one-on-one match—nine said Trump would win the Palmetto State primary. Indeed, Trump's overall support means that relative weakness with undecided voters doesn't necessarily threaten his chances.
“I think he's very brave to have no political background and to jump out there and run for the highest office in our nation,” said Terrie, a bookeeper.
“He’s espousing what the people are feeling,” said Dan, a retiree. “The people are tired of people in the Washington D.C. doing whatever they want, not caring about what their constituents say. I think Donald Trump is at least listening.”
“I think it's the ones that are the most passionate that will get out and vote,” said Billie. “And one thing that Trump does is he—he has a very passionate crowd of people that follow him. And I think the thing that's going against a lot of the other candidates is, people are tired of the same old same old. They want somebody who is an outsider.”
“And he is that person,” she said, adding, with a half-whisper, “As much as I don't like him.”
Billie’s comments hinted at the reservations the group still had about Trump, even if they saw him as the foregone winner. Trump’s religious authenticity was one issue.
It wasn’t, Billie said, that she would only support a religious candidate. “If someone has good morals and does the right thing and stands up for the right things and is not a religious person, that doesn't bother me,” she said. “But someone saying that they're religious and they're not—that, to me, shows their character.”
“I'm not troubled that he's not religious,” Kari summarized. “I’m troubled that he says he’s religious.”
And then there was the matter of Trump’s blue language. Shown clips of Trump using vulgarity (which were bleeped) on the stump, their reactions were immediate and vehement. Many in the group expressed distaste for behavior they considered “not presidential” or “professional.”
It just wouldn’t fly in this part of the country, indicated Jacob, a student. “The Bible Belt? Oh yeah,” he said, to laughs. “This the belt buckle right here.”
“Donald Trump is saying what Americans are thinking,” Terrie said. “He may not be delivering it the way it should be delivered, but he is saying what needs to be said and what we're thinking.”
Rubio, Bush, Kasich
When it came to the kind of estabishment candidates that South Carolina Republican presidential primary voters have historically favored, the group showed little interest.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who polled at 14 percent in the NBC poll, fared best after Trump and Cruz; attendees expressed enthusiasm for his youth.
But they also had concerns about his absences from Congress, and were hard-pressed to recount his stance on any issue, or conjure a vision of a Rubio administration.
“He showed his colors in the last debate,” said Dan.
One participant said former Florida Governor Jeb Bush would best defend the military and veterans. But others were not so sure.
“I'm just tired. I don't want another Bush,” said Denise.
“Honestly,” Terrie added, “I think he’s so far behind that I don't foresee his brother, his dad, the Pope coming to help him.”
The focus group was shown clips of Bush, Trump, and New Hampshire runner-up John Kasich. Three in 10 said the Ohio governor appeared “most presidential.” The evening's most enthusiastic response was unanimous: that Kasich's message of unity across party lines is appealing but wouldn't allow him to gain traction in the coming days.
“I don't think a lot of South Carolinians even know who he is,” said Kari.
Methodology: The participants were from the Columbia, South Carolina, area and represented a variety of ages and socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. All respondents said they are registered Republicans and likely to vote in the state’s Republican presidential primary. When recruited, seven of the respondents said they were undecided, and the three remaining respondents reported leaning toward a candidate but said they could change their mind before the primary. Qualitative research results cannot be statistically analyzed or projected onto the broader population at large. As is customary, respondents’ last names aren't used and they were compensated for their participation.