Today, South Carolina will become the third state to cast its ballots in the Republican nomination contest. Polls in the state will be open until 7 pm Eastern. Democrats in the state, however, won't vote today — instead, they'll do so one week later, on Saturday, February 27.
South Carolina is the first state from the South to weigh in and the most delegate-rich state to vote so far. But, like its fellow early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina is more important for how it can reshape the political world's perceptions of the race than it is for its delegates.
Specifically, the media, party insiders, activists, the candidates themselves, and voters in other states will all come to various conclusions based on South Carolina's results. And this will affect everyone's choices and strategies in the next few weeks, when the pace of voting will suddenly accelerate.
South Carolina's primary could be particularly consequential this year because it comes just 10 days ahead of "Southern Super Tuesday" on March 1. On that day, Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arkansas — which together account for nearly 20 percent of total Republican delegates — will all go to the polls (as will a few non-Southern states). And voters in these states could well use the South Carolina results to help decide which candidates are viable. So here's how to decode them.
Donald Trump is the favorite, and anything but first would be a disappointment for him
Every poll of South Carolina Republicans conducted since November has shown the same person in first place: Donald J. Trump. And all but two of them conducted this year have shown him up by double digits.
So, naturally, Trump is expected to win. If he does so, he'd firmly establish himself as the Republican frontrunner and be well-positioned for a big delegate haul across the South and a few Northeastern states on Super Tuesday. Trump's victory would also deal a serious blow to the presidential hopes of Ted Cruz, who had hoped to seriously compete with Trump in the South.
Furthermore, if Trump wins, he'd likely win all or nearly all of South Carolina's delegates. Unlike the other states voting in February, which allocate their delegates proportionately to several candidates, South Carolina gives out 29 delegates to the statewide winner and 21 delegates to congressional district winners across the state (three delegates each in seven districts).
In the past, candidates who win statewide by 12 percent or more tend to win every single delegate, according to Josh Putnam, a University of Georgia lecturer who runs the Frontloading HQ blog on all things delegates (bookmark it!). So if Trump cleans up here, he'll likely lead the delegate count for some time.
However, it's worth noting that there have been two recent South Carolina polls showing the race dramatically closer — in them, Trump leads by just 3 points and 5 points, respectively. This has fed some last-minute hopes among GOP elites that, as in Iowa, Trump could underperform his polls. If Trump underperforms but still wins by a small margin, the press will still interpret this as a victory for him, albeit with less enthusiasm the closer the final margin is. But if Trump loses, there will be a new round of second-guessing about his chances, and the supposed frontrunner will look vulnerable once again right as states are finally about to start allotting large numbers of delegates.
Ted Cruz's campaign is in trouble if he doesn't win
Since Ted Cruz is an extremely conservative evangelical Southerner, he seemed to be positioned to do well in South Carolina — many expected he had a good shot to win the state, particularly after his Iowa caucus victory.
But recent polls indicate that Cruz is currently well behind Trump and instead battling with Rubio for second place. That's not at all where the Texan, who's currently being blasted by multiple other candidates for his alleged "dirty tricks," hoped to be at this point.
If Cruz comes from behind to win the state, it will, of course, be a major victory for him, and will position him well for the Southern contests on Super Tuesday. But if the polls are right and Trump wins, Cruz's campaign will be in trouble.
Don't expect Cruz to go anywhere before Super Tuesday. But his path to the nomination always relied on doing very well in the South. So if most of those Super Tuesday Southern states do end up voting similarly to South Carolina and giving the lion's share of their delegates to Trump, it's hard to see how Cruz can win the nomination.
Marco Rubio is hoping for second place but would settle for third
After Marco Rubio's disappointing fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, his hoped-for "3-2-1 strategy" for winning the nomination — third place in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and first in South Carolina — seemed to lie in tatters.
But Rubio has remained competitive in recent polls in South Carolina, and the RealClearPolitics polling average currently places him less than a point behind second-place finisher Ted Cruz. And this week's endorsement from the state's governor, Nikki Haley, has generated positive buzz for Rubio in the state.
A second-place finish in South Carolina would be fantastic for Rubio, because, as explained above, South Carolina was expected to be Cruz country. If Rubio beats Cruz in a major Southern state, it could do wonders to establish Rubio as the main rival for Donald Trump going forward, and to hurt Cruz's chances on Super Tuesday. And since GOP elites hope to clear the field for Rubio to face Trump one-on-one, they'd absolutely love for Rubio to finish second ahead of Cruz. (Though they'd prefer him to actually win a state.)
However, Rubio's nearest-term priority is to knock Jeb Bush out of the race so he can hopefully pick up some of his voters. So though it seems laughable, even a third-place finish behind Trump and Cruz could be a minor victory for him if he hugely outperforms Jeb Bush like he did in Iowa.
Jeb Bush and Ben Carson are looking for an excuse not to drop out of the race
Neither Jeb Bush nor Ben Carson did well in either Iowa or New Hampshire, and their campaigns are in deep trouble.
Reportedly, Bush's campaign is running low on cash, and many of his donors are ready to jump ship. Rumors swirled this week that he'd drop out if he performed poorly in South Carolina. These rumors were vehemently denied by the Bush team, which made a serious effort to win the Palmetto State by bringing in former President George W. Bush to campaign.
But if Rubio does perform much better than Bush, many observers do expect Bush's campaign to be effectively finished. One potential issue, though, is that if Rubio comes in third, he'd likely get no delegates — so Bush could use that as an excuse to stay in the race, and argue that he's not out of things just yet.
As for Ben Carson, it's not quite clear what he's thinking. But he's currently polling in last place in a state with lots of evangelicals — a state he's said he hopes to win. Another embarrassing finish here would be the latest sign of the obvious: that his campaign is going nowhere.
John Kasich is hoping to keep on being John Kasich
John Kasich is a bit of a wild card in the GOP race now. His second place finish in New Hampshire has given him a bit of a boost in national polls and an excuse to stay in the race. But he's not seriously competing in South Carolina and won't be in the state tonight, hoping instead to make a play for Northeastern and Midwestern contests in early March. So don't expect even a terrible finish in South Carolina to dissuade Kasich from pressing on.