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 TrumpMcConnell pressuring Rubio to run again Calif. gov Jerry Brown endorses Clinton North Korean state media compliments Trump MORE has 35 percent, with Marco RubioMarco RubioMcConnell pressuring Rubio to run again Rankings: Trump’s top 10 VP picks Rubio apologized to Trump for 'small hands' crack MORE in second with 22.5 percent and Ted CruzTed CruzGOP senators shoot down Cruz’s aid on campaign trail Rankings: Trump’s top 10 VP picks Stephen Hawking: Trump a 'demagogue' 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 ScottTim ScottGOP senators propose sending ISIS fighters to Gitmo GOP senators: Obama bathroom guidance is 'not appropriate' Senators unveil bill to overhaul apprenticeship programs MORE and Rep. Trey GowdyTrey GowdyBenghazi panel interviews drone pilots after standoff with Pentagon Clinton’s email troubles deepen Benghazi report out within next month, chairman promises 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.