Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton hold strong leads in South Carolina polls

Posted at 2:52 PM, Feb 17, 2016

Paul Sancya/AP Images

The 2016 presidential race has been a raucous affair from the get-go, and recent events proved the trend will likely continue throughout the primary process.

Despite resounding victories in the New Hampshire primary last week for contrarian candidates on either side of the aisle — Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders both won by double digits — a pair of feisty debates proved the nomination fight won’t be wrapping up anytime soon.

As the primary calendar shifts to more diverse states in the South and West, InsideGov dives into polling data from RealClearPolitics to look at the current state of the race.

Trump bests his closest competitor two-to-one in South Carolina in the final days before that state’s Republican primary (much like in the lead up to New Hampshire). As of Feb. 16, Trump polls at 36.7 percent to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 18.7 percent.

As has been the case thus far, the real race is for second and third place. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio nips at Cruz’s heels at 15.7 percent, but Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush aren’t too far behind. After his strong second-place finish in New Hampshire, Kasich rode a bit of momentum and gained 7.2 points in the polls in five days. Bush’s South Carolina numbers have more of a slow-and-steady quality to them, but his solid showing at Saturday night’s Republican debate had some people anticipating a significant uptick after a lackluster turn on the trail so far.

Although the South Carolina primary is Trump’s to lose, his debate performance on Saturday night indicated he isn’t taking anything for granted. Trump skipped the debate just before the Iowa caucuses, which he admitted might have contributed to his second-place finish there. But in the recent CBS debate, held in South Carolina, Trump spoke the most, often brandishing his trademark combative personality. He sparred most memorably with Bush about former President George W. Bush’s two terms in office, calling the war in Iraq a “big, fat mistake” and reminding the audience that the World Trade Center towers “came down during your brother’s reign.”

The Bush family has long-held ties in South Carolina, and many of Trump’s comments were met with loud boos from the debate audience. But recent numbers from Public Policy Polling suggest Trump’s attacks did little to damage his rep in the state — he still leads by double digits, according to that specific poll.

For Democrats, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues to hold onto her sturdy lead in South Carolina. She leads Sanders by 22.8 points, as of Feb. 16.

But Sanders has been climbing slowly in South Carolina, and if he closes the gap much more, his campaign will be able to market those gains as a win for his team — even if he doesn’t come out on top. Clinton has long held an edge among African-Americans, who make up about 28 percent of the state’s population, but Sanders is looking to make inroads.

During the recent Democratic debate on Feb. 11, Clinton and Sanders spoke extensively about race relations. Clinton repeatedly mentioned her support for President Barack Obama, saying Sanders had at times called Obama “weak” and a “disappointment,” which Sanders characterized as a “low blow” before pointing out that Clinton opposed Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary.

In the days right before the debate, Sanders had breakfast with Al Sharpton, a key voice in the civil rights movement, and Clinton secured the endorsement of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Primary season moves to the South starting on Saturday, Feb. 20, when Republicans go to the polls. Democrats in the state will pick their favorite candidate a week later, on Feb. 27.