Henry McMaster and Pamela Evette In Greenville

Gov. Henry McMaster names Pamela Evette his running mate. McMaster, made a campaign stop in Greenville Tuesday, November 28. Gwinn Davis / Special to The Post and Courier

Gov. Henry McMaster is the clear choice among Republicans today, but he could have a fight on his hands in a few short months.

A poll of South Carolina voters released Friday shows McMaster is the current pick of a majority of GOP primary voters to be the party’s nominee in 2018.

But it also shows former state health agency head Catherine Templeton of Mount Pleasant could be in the early stages of mounting a serious challenge.

Statewide, 51 percent of GOP voters support McMaster, while Templeton is in second place at 21 percent.

Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant is a distant third at 8 percent, while former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill gets only 1 percent.

The remaining 19 percent is undecided.

The results are based on a survey by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy Inc. of Jacksonville, Fla., from Dec. 6-10. A total of 625 registered South Carolina voters were interviewed statewide by telephone. The data includes a sample of 400 regular Republican primary voters.

Mason-Dixon said it included questions on McMaster's job performance and the status of the GOP governor's race, as part of a survey it conducted for unidentified public policy groups. None of those groups are associated with any of the campaigns.

The poll, which was provided to The Post and Courier, is significant because it represents the first widely released numbers in the GOP fight.

College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts said the figures show McMaster has some security in that he is above the 50 percent mark with a 30-point lead. He could win the nomination in June without a runoff if his numbers remain secure.

But Knotts also said Templeton, who is making her first bid at statewide office, could catch up. Her double-digit showing at this early stage means she is in a good position to narrow the gap.

"It's not too tall of a task to get him (McMaster) into a runoff, which is the goal of all these candidates," he said.

South Carolina election law calls for a runoff election between the top two voter-getters if no candidate in a primary breaks the 50 percent threshold.

Knotts added that while there are several GOP factions — veterans, Donald Trump supporters, social conservatives, to name a few — the race may be decided by attracting the "most-active Republicans," those who faithfully come out for party primaries.

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Still important to the big picture, he added, is how the candidates raise money, noting that so far McMaster and Templeton have been neck and neck.

McMaster has the overall total fundraising lead — $2.33 million to Templeton’s $2.05 million — according to recent campaign disclosures from October. The next round of reporting is due in January.

Other findings:

  • McMaster's job rating is generally positive, with a 48 percent approval rating, while 26 percent disapprove.
  • His highest approval region of the state is Greenville and the Upstate, and around Florence at 51 percent. His lowest is around Charleston and the Lowcountry, 43 percent.
  • Whites and men approved of McMaster's job performance at over 50 percent; blacks and women are much lower, with only a 24 percent approval rating among African-Americans.
  • McMaster holds a 69 percent approval rating from Republicans and 45 percent approval from independents. Only 24 percent of Democrats approve of his job performance.

The margin for error for the entire survey was plus or minus 4 percentage points, meaning there is a 95 percent probability that the "true" figure would fall within that range if all voters were surveyed. The margin for error is higher for any subgroup, such as a gender or age grouping.

For all the responses the survey targeted areas of the state in proportion to South Carolina's geographic population distribution: Charleston/Lowcounty, 22 percent; Columbia/Piedmont, 27 percent; Greenville/Upstate, 35 percent; and Florence/Pee Dee 16 percent.

No Democratic candidates were included in the Mason-Dixon survey.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551. Follow him on Twitter at @skropf47.

Political Editor

Schuyler Kropf is The Post and Courier political editor. He has covered every major political race in South Carolina dating to 1988, including for U.S. Senate, governorship, the Statehouse and Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.