Only one GOP presidential hopeful will finish on top Saturday after all the votes are counted in South Carolina’s primary, but history says at least one other candidate is likely to get some help.
Whoever receives the most votes statewide Saturday will get 29 of the state’s 50 delegates — enough to take over first place.
Nationally, Donald Trump has a total of 17 delegates. Sen. Ted Cruz has 11 and Sen. Marco Rubio has 10.
South Carolina’s other 21 delegates will be divvied up three at a time, depending on who finishes first in each of the state’s seven congressional districts.
That’s a little different than the formulas in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states, which allocated their delegates proportionately based on their statewide results.
Hypothetically, several candidates could qualify for delegates here, though experts cite polls indicating that’s highly unlikely. In recent history, only two candidates have emerged from South Carolina with delegates.
In 2012, both former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who won the state, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won delegates here. Four years earlier, Sen. John McCain and the second-place finisher, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, each were awarded delegates in South Carolina. And McCain received a few delegates in 2000, when George W. Bush won big here.
“It’s very difficult for more than two candidates to win delegates,” said State GOP Chair Matt Moore, “unless a candidate runs up the score in a certain congressional district.”
The state has slightly more than 2 percent of the party’s total 2,472 available delegates. To win the nomination on the first vote, a candidate needs 1,237 delegates — or just over 50 percent.
And they’re only committed through the first ballot. That’s important, as some have suggested this year’s Republican primary battle might not end up with a clear winner before the party convenes in Cleveland in late July.
“I still believe an open convention is very unlikely,” Moore said, “but the party is making plans just in case.”
The possibility means that presidential campaigns may continue to politick in South Carolina long after Saturday’s primary voting.
DuBose Kapeluck, a political science professor with The Citadel said an open convention “is interesting to speculate on right now, but it’s sort of premature. We’re only two small states — about to be three small states — into the process.”
He said he expect the field will winnow to two candidates by April. Four years ago, Romney wrapped up the nomination in late April.
However, even a two-candidate race could remain unsettled. The 2008 contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton wasn’t over until early June.
The possibility of an open convention will add intrigue to South Carolina’s upcoming state and congressional district conventions, where 47 of the state’s 50 delegates will be chosen. Moore automatically serves as a delegate, along with Republican National Committee members Cindy Costa and Glenn McCall — all three are pledged initially to the statewide winner.
So campaigns planning for an open or brokered convention would have incentive to have their supporters chosen as delegates — even if those delegates were bound to someone else on the first vote. And that could add a lot of intrigue to events that rarely draw much attention beyond the party’s core.
“It could be protracted,” Kapeluck said. “Very crazy.”
Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.