And so it begins.
After months of buildup and tens of millions of dollars spent to make them household names, the Republicans and Democrats who want to be president are descending on South Carolina.
If you go by polls alone, billionaire businessman Donald Trump remains the favorite on the still-crowded GOP side, while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is widely expected to turn back Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But polls don’t vote, meaning the candidates’ ground games, personal contacts, TV ads and surrogates still have a good chance to sway the outcome. So will the hundreds of members of the media “from off” who will flood South Carolina for the nation’s traditional first-in-the-South votes.
South Carolina Democrats have 59 convention delegates up for grabs, while the Republicans have 50.
The key dates to remember are these: Republicans hold their primary on Feb. 20, which means an extremely long and expensive 11-day period of campaigning.
There’s also one final onstage televised GOP debate to be held Saturday in Greenville, aired by CBS and beginning at 9 p.m. For that field, South Carolina represents the most diverse electorate they’ve faced — far different than what they saw in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The more than 600,000 voters expected to turn out here will be a mix of evangelicals, veterans, retirees and suburbanites. Plus there’s the remnants of the tea party wing and others from the core conservative movement who chose Newt Gingrich over establishment candidate Mitt Romney four years ago.
For Democrats, the important date is their Feb. 27 primary, when the party turns out for its first nominating selection since backing Barack Obama in 2008.
Recent polling gives Clinton a significant lead among black voters and women, the two demographic groups that make up the majority of the Democratic turnout in South Carolina. It’s also the first barometer of African-American interest in the presidential campaign of 2016; Sanders must win with members of this group if he has any hope for success.
No matter the primary results, neither side expects the races will stop here, meaning South Carolina will remain another step in an increasingly long process.
Tuesday night showed how fluid the races are, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie trailing five other candidates in unofficial results. He announced during his concession speech he would cancel all of Wednesday’s events in South Carolina and head home to New Jersey to “take a deep breath,” according to the Associated Press.