NBC projects Trump as winner of South Carolina primary

NBC projects Trump as winner of South Carolina primary
© Greg Nash

The South Carolina Republican primary is too close to call just after the polls closed at 7 p.m. Saturday.

With 12 percent of precincts reporting, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems win from coast to coast Falwell after Gillespie loss: 'DC should annex' Northern Virginia Dems see gains in Virginia's House of Delegates MORE has 35 percent, with Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Cybersecurity: What we learned from Carter Page's House Intel testimony | House to mark up foreign intel reform law | FBI can't access Texas shooter's phone | Sessions to testify at hearing amid Russia scrutiny Cornyn: Senate GOP tax plan to be released Thursday This week: GOP seeks to advance tax overhaul MORE in second with 22.5 percent and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Finance: GOP criticism of tax bill grows, but few no votes | Highlights from day two of markup | House votes to overturn joint-employer rule | Senate panel approves North Korean banking sanctions GOP criticism of tax bill grows, but few ready to vote against it Anti-gay marriage county clerk Kim Davis to seek reelection in Kentucky MORE at 18 percent. Jeb Bush is at 12 percent.

Trump is further ahead in these returns than he is in early exit polls.

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Minutes after voting closed in the Palmetto State, Fox News and CNN both reported that the field has divided into two clear tiers.
 
But if Trump wins, his margin of victory may be tighter than expected. While Trump was projected to win South Carolina by double digits in some polls, Fox News anchor Bret Baier says exit polling shows the top three are locked in a tight race. 
 
Fox is also reporting that significant numbers of late deciding voters ended up supporting Cruz and Rubio.
 
CBS exit polls show how tight it is right now. Trump leads with 31 percent, followed by Cruz at 27 percent and Rubio at 23 percent. CNN exit polls are similar — 30 percent for Trump, 25-26 percent for Cruz and 23 percent for Rubio.
 
The campaigns of the lower tier of Republican candidates — Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Ben Carson — have taken significant blows based on the networks' exit polling. CBS and Fox News say their exit polls show that all three appear to be headed for single digits. 
 
Fox cautions that it is still too early to reveal voting percentages, but if Bush and Kasich finish in single digits there will be overwhelming pressure from the GOP donor class for them to quit the race and clear the way for Rubio to be the establishment's alternative to Cruz and Trump.

Trump entered election day with a double-digit lead in the polls, but Cruz’s ground strength and evangelical support has the Texas senator poised to outperform his standing in the polls.

Cruz has been under heavy fire from both Trump and Rubio, who have accused him of lying about their records and employing dirty campaign tricks to gain an advantage.

Rubio, meanwhile, has been on a hot streak, rising in the polls and picking up the endorsements of three influential rising GOP stars in the state: Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottKey differences between the Senate and House tax plans Strange bedfellows on criminal justice reform could offer Trump a legislative win Senate GOP reveals different approach on tax reform MORE and Rep. Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyControversial ‘hack back’ bill gains supporters despite critics Top Oversight Dem pushes back on Uranium One probe Overnight Cybersecurity: Manafort, Gates to remain under house arrest | Mueller said to be closing in on Flynn | 'Hack back' bill gains steam | Election security gets attention from DHS MORE.

If Trump can hold his ground and post his second straight primary victory, it will cement his status as the undisputed front-runner and likely GOP nominee. 

He will likely benefit from record turnout in South Carolina; the 700,000 some expect to vote is more than Iowa and New Hampshire combined.

And the open primary — any voter, regardless of party affiliation, can participate — could help the billionaire businessman run up the score among independent voters, as he did in New Hampshire.

Trump has predicted that a Palmetto State victory will set him up to “run the table” to the GOP convention in July.

Polling shows Trump has a more than 20-point lead over the field in Nevada, where voters will gather for the GOP caucuses on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Republicans say Jeb Bush needs a strong showing — a third-place finish by most counts — to continue on. He’s currently polling in a distant fourth place, competing with John Kasich, who has not spent as much time or resources there.