What’s Going to Happen in South Carolina’s Republican Primary?

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Donald Trump in South Carolina
Who are you voting for?Photo: The Washington Post/2016 The Washington Post

The latest big polling firm survey of the South Carolina Republicans who will hold their primary Saturday is from Marist for NBC and The Wall Street Journal. It shows longtime leader Donald Trump in front at 28 percent, with Ted Cruz at 23 percent and Marco Rubio at 15 percent. That happens to identically track the top three numbers for the final Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll in Iowa.

As you may recall, Cruz upset Trump in Iowa on the strength of a grassroots organization focused on conservative Evangelicals, and Rubio enjoyed a last-minute surge that left him nearly even with Trump and reduced the other candidates considered friendly to the GOP Establishment to also-ran Lilliputians. In South Carolina, a state with even more conservative Evangelicals than Iowa, Cruz is again deploying his fearsome ground game. Rubio is also kicking out the jambs with an effort backed by the state’s three most popular Republicans (Senator Tim Scott, Governor Nikki Haley, and Representative Trey Gowdy). 

There are some big differences between Iowa and South Carolina, of course. The former involved relatively low-turnout closed caucuses, while the latter is a (likely) high-turnout open (the state has no voter registration by party) primary. That’s probably good news for Donald Trump, as is the Saturday primary date, which may make voting easier for his white-working-class core supporters. It’s also true that Rubio’s Establishment rivals all but conceded Iowa, while the two survivors in that group, Jeb Bush and John Kasich, are frantically contesting the Palmetto State as though their candidacies depend on it — which could well be the case. All the intangibles seem to favor Rubio, but it’s entirely possible negative perceptions of Rubio’s “robotic” debate performance two weeks ago have stuck with South Carolinians and will limit his upside. 

In any event, the NBC/WSJ/Marist poll is just one snapshot among several of the state of play in South Carolina on the eve of the primary. Two tracking polls, from ARG and Emerson College, have Trump still holding a double-digit lead but with Rubio passing Cruz for second place. Yet another late survey from Harper Polling has Cruz, Rubio, Bush, and Kasich all bunched tightly, with Trump ahead handily. So multiple outcomes are entirely possible; it seems Rubio, in particular, could either vanquish Bush and Kasich and regain the mojo he lost in New Hampshire or stumble yet again. His team seems to be trying to keep expectations low by suggesting that a third-place finish would be a big win. And after the results are in we will probably be regaled with stories about below-the-radar rumors and other skullduggery that played a role in this notoriously low-road state. South Carolina primaries are not for the faint of heart or weak of belly.