South Carolina Republican primary: when to expect results and what they can tell us

South Carolina Republicans will pick their candidate for president Saturday in the “first in the South” primary. Former president Donald Trump faces his former UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, on her home turf in a state that makes or breaks Republican candidacies. Haley has outlasted Trump’s other primary competitors and will make a stand in the state she served as governor for six years, but polling suggests she’s likely to be blown out.

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South Carolina’s Democrats voted two weeks ago, giving president Joe Biden 96% of their votes in what increasingly appears to be a coronation parade to the nomination.

Here is everything you need to know about the South Carolina primary:

When do polls close in South Carolina?

Polls open Saturday at 7am ET and remain open until 7pm ET. Notably, more than 140,000 voters have already cast ballots in the Republican primary, either through early voting or as absentees. Results will begin coming in shortly after the polls close. Five out of six votes were counted within two hours of the polls closing in 2016.

The Guardian will have several reporters on the ground in South Carolina on Saturday, and our live blog will share results and analysis as polls close.

How does the South Carolina primary differ from the New Hampshire primary?

South Carolina’s Republican primary electorate is usually more than twice as large as New Hampshire’s. This year may be different. New Hampshire broke records for Republican turnout, even though the field had been whittled down to Trump, Haley and Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, who dropped out after a third-place showing. The relative lack of competitiveness may lead voters to believe the race has already been decided, a perception Haley has been fighting against with every campaign stop.

Who can vote?

South Carolina’s open primary system allows any registered voter to participate in any party’s primary election. But a voter can only participate in one primary; if someone already voted in the Democratic primary two weeks ago, they are ineligible to vote Saturday. A rumor has been circulating in Republican circles that some Democrats have been planning to cross party lines en masse to vote for Haley, but there’s no evidence from early voting data to suggest this is actually happening.

Which candidates are on the ballot?

The Republican primary ballot lists Ryan Binkley, Chris Christie, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, David Stuckenberg and Donald Trump as candidates. Christie, DeSantis and Ramaswamy have all dropped out of the race after failing to gain meaningful traction in the Iowa caucuses, but their names still appear on the ballot.

What else is on the ballot?

Republican voters will be asked three advisory questions. The questions do not bind lawmakers or the party to act, and answering the questions is not required for a vote to count. Republican voters are first asked whether they believe state elections law should be changed to require party registration.

Voters are also asked whether South Carolina should “adopt reforms to increase the independence and accountability of our judiciary by improving transparency and reducing conflicts of interest in the process of reviewing judicial qualifications and electing judges”. This question stems from a legislative effort to strip some power from a panel of lawyer-lawmakers who pick judges, giving it to the executive branch.

The final question asks whether “it be an immediate legislative priority to protect South Carolina’s competitiveness and small businesses by changing state law so that a person’s responsibility for financial damages in a lawsuit is based on that person’s actual share of responsibility”. Legislators want to pursue tort reform, and are looking for cover before doing so.

How many delegates are at stake?

South Carolina awards 50 delegates to the national convention. Whoever gets 1,215 delegates wins the Republican nomination. The winner of the statewide count in South Carolina receives 29 delegates, while 21 will be allocated to the top vote-getter in each of the state’s seven congressional districts.

Which Republican candidate is expected to win South Carolina?

Recent polling suggests Trump has a 2-to-1 lead over Haley, despite it being Haley’s home state where she served as governor between 2011 and 2017. Haley has pledged to remain in the race “until the last person votes”.

What might South Carolina tell us about the Republican primary contest?

South Carolina is Republican territory, typically giving Republican presidential candidates 10% to 15% more votes than Democrats. In 1980, the campaign strategist and South Carolina native Lee Atwater maneuvered the Republican National Committee to move his state’s primary date higher in the calendar. Since then, no Republican has been elected president without first winning South Carolina’s Republican primary. Only one candidate since then – Mitt Romney – has even become the Republican nominee for president without first winning South Carolina.

If Haley does not win her home state, pressure will mount on her to retire from the race. But over the last two weeks, she has increasingly questioned Trump’s mental fitness and his capacity to campaign, given his mounting financial and legal troubles. Haley also argues that her campaign is a moral challenge to Trump, and she may pursue it much like Bernie Sanders’ continued campaigns in 2016 and 2020.

How do the demographics of South Carolina compare with the rest of the country?

South Carolinians are twice as likely to be Black than Americans overall – 26% in South Carolina v 12.3% nationally, according to the American Community Survey conducted by the US Census Bureau. Despite Republican protests about immigration, South Carolinians are also much less likely to be Hispanic or Asian – 6% and 2% respectively in South Carolina, compared with 14% and 6% nationwide.

Roughly 93% of Republican voters in South Carolina are white, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center.

South Carolina was the fastest-growing state by percentage and fifth-fastest-growing state by raw numbers in 2023, adding about 90,000 more people and 1.7% to its population. Roughly one in six South Carolinians is over 65, in line with the national average.

South Carolina’s poverty rate of 14.7% is substantially higher than the national rate of 11.5%, and has long been higher.

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