Presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures towards rivals Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Ted Cruz during the sixth Republican presidential candidates debate in North Charleston, S.C., Jan. 14, 2016.
Photo by Randall Hill/Reuters

Latest polling out of South Carolina raises Republican eyebrows

The critically important Republican presidential primary in South Carolina is tomorrow, and after a period of relative silence from pollsters, we’ve received quite a bit of data over the last several days.
We talked on Tuesday about the PPP results. On Wednesday, we considered a CNN poll. On Thursday, we took a look at the latest Monmouth and Bloomberg polls. And on the eve of the primary, we have two final surveys to add to the mix. Fox News published these results late yesterday:
1. Donald Trump: 32% (down from 35% in December)
2. Ted Cruz: 19% (up from 14%)
3. Marco Rubio: 15% (up from 14%)
4. Jeb Bush: 9% (up from 5%)
4. Ben Carson: 9% (down from 15%)
6. John Kasich: 6% (up from 1%)
And while these results are roughly in line with the other available data, the results of a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll feature a surprise.
1. Donald Trump: 28% (down from 36% in January)
2. Ted Cruz: 23% (up from 20%)
3. Marco Rubio: 15% (up from 14%)
4. Jeb Bush: 13% (up from 9%)
5. Ben Carson: 9% (up from 8%)
5. John Kasich: 9% (up from 1%)
Trump’s five-point advantage in this poll is the smallest lead for the frontrunner since the fall, when Carson pulled to within single digits.
To be sure, the NBC poll may be an outlier, or it may be evidence of right-wing activists rallying to Cruz at the last minute – which would be consistent with what we saw in the lead up to the Iowa caucuses.
Note, both of these polls were conducted after Saturday night’s debate, and mostly before South Carolina Gov. Nikky Haley’s (R) high-profile endorsement of Rubio.
Just to reiterate a point from yesterday, as you review the polling, it’s important to remember that South Carolina, unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, allocates delegates through a modified winner-take-all system, which adds a major wrinkle. In the first two nominating contests, candidates earned quite a few delegates, even if they didn’t finish first.
In South Carolina, it’s a very different story. A total of 50 delegates are available in tomorrow’s primary: 29 go to the candidate who wins, and then three delegates are awarded for each of state’s seven congressional districts. Mathematically, it’s almost impossible to win the primary without winning a few of the districts, so it’s safe to say Saturday’s winner will end up with somewhere between 38 and 50 delegates, just from this one contest.
And that would pack a significant electoral punch: Iowa and New Hampshire combined offered the candidates about 50 delegates.
Who finishes second and third will matter with regard to bragging rights and media hype, but the delegate math will be less kind.