A big multi-candidate primary field allows for more than one winner alongside plenty of losers, and the South Carolina Republican primary was no exception.
Donald Trump took first place, of course. And delegates were handed out. But these are still early days. The real prize in South Carolina — like Iowa and New Hampshire before it — is momentum in the media and with donors and other supporters. It's a war of position, as candidates try to set themselves up for the real delegate prizes that are coming in March. And for local, national, and global figures who aren't currently running for president, it's about how the race helps them advance their own agendas.
So here are a few people who helped their cause Saturday night, and a few more who lost.
Winner: Donald Trump
There continues to be considerable skepticism in many quarters that Donald Trump will emerge as the Republican nominee, but at the moment all the evidence is that he is winning. For example, he just won the South Carolina primary. He won in the relatively moderate state of New Hampshire, and then he won in the very conservative state of South Carolina. All he does is win.
There continue to be serious questions about how Trump would fare if the race were to narrow to just two candidates in some future scenario. But in the scenario that exists right now, he is winning.
Winner: Marco Rubio
Second or third is worse than first place, and on one level Rubio clearly lost by not winning. But on another level, Rubio supporters who call it a victory are correct. By placing well ahead of the rest of the field, Rubio has further bolstered the case that Republican Party leaders should do everything in their power to muscle the other non-Trump, non-Rubio candidates out of the race and line up behind Rubio. His actual path to the nomination continues to be a little hard to see. At some point he needs to find a way to win some actual states. But the fact remains that he advanced his cause tonight.
Loser: the Bush family
On the one hand, Jeb Bush suffered yet another humiliating defeat — so humiliating that he was forced to drop out. But the South Carolina loss was a larger loss for the entire Bush family. He brought in his mother and his brother — it didn't work. In fact, it got worse. Trump went out and trashed George W. Bush's record as president, slamming the Iraq War and the dishonest sales pitch for the war. He even pointed out that Bush was president on 9/11, and that the various intelligence failures surrounding that attack were, in part, failures of his administration. The idea that you can win Republican Party primaries while saying this kind of thing casts the entire legacy of the Bush family in a very different light.
Loser: the South Carolina GOP
The South Carolina Republican Party really tried to turn its state into the graveyard of Trumpism. One senator endorsed Jeb; the other — and the governor — backed Rubio. The state party even packed a debate audience with Trump haters, whose constant booing clearly got under Trump's skin and made his performance look bad. It didn't do any good. Trump won. Not only did he win, he got more votes than Bush and Rubio combined. The establishment spoke, they acted, and they failed.
Loser: the pope
Donald Trump loves a good fight, and Pope Francis gave him one, suggesting that Trump's wall-centric candidacy is un-Christian. Like everything else that gives Trump attention, it only gave him more reason to stay in the headlines and play his favorite role of tough guy standing up for America against the shadowy forces of the global elite. The pope himself was clearly more concerned with his effort to focus attention on the humanitarian crisis facing millions of migrants globally than in narrowly impacting the US presidential race.
But migration issues ultimately need to be addressed through the political system, and at the moment the rise of anti-immigration populists in both the United States and a number of European countries is preventing that from happening. A Trump win is a loss for what the pope was trying to achieve.