A Slot Machine and a Palmetto walk in to a voting booth…

NevSC

…and a President walks out? Well, probably not quite this early, but the next stage of our little every four-years elimination death match is happening this Saturday, courtesy of the Republican primary in South Carolina and the Democratic caucus in Nevada. (Nifty graphic above from FiveThirtyEight.com, by the way.) So, how’s it looking?

Democrats

All the leading indicators are giving Clinton an edge over Sanders, but also indicating that he’s surprisingly competitive. Let’s start with the straight polling. Nevada has only been lightly polled so far, but the recent polls all have Sanders and Clinton within a few points of each other:

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Keep in mind that this is a state which, as recently as late December, Clinton led by more than 20 percent. Over at 538.com, their polls-only and polls-plus models are both tilting to Clinton:

538nevpo

538nevpp

In terms of margin, their polls-only model (which takes an average of polling, weighted by reliability of the pollster) has Clinton ahead by 4 points, and their polls-plus model (which takes the polling but also adds in effects of national polls, trend-line changes, outside factors like endorsements, etc.) has her ahead by 7 points. This is basically the same outcome as 2008, where Clinton beat Obama in the state 50.1% to 45.8%. It is, in other words, a very strong showing for Sanders, even if he doesn’t win.

If you recall my first election column of the year, Sanders seems to be not too far off what I outlined there as his “best case” scenario: “he wins Iowa, then New Hampshire, and does better than-expected in Nevada and South Carolina, and goes on to get a striking distance 40% or more of the states and delegates on Super Tuesday.” So far, he’s tied Iowa, blown-out New Hampshire, and is definitely better than expected in Nevada. Of course my next sentence in that column was that “best case” gives him, at best, a tough, but at least still conceivable path to the nomination. 538.com has just done an excellent state-by-state overview of what that might look like for him. If nothing else though, a strong Nevada showing for Sanders will keep South Carolina interesting when Democrats vote there next weekend.

Republicans

All indications are that Donald Trump retains a solid lead in South Carolina. Which, let’s pause to think about it for a second, is really remarkable. A win there this weekend would make him legitimately the front runner of a party that continues to not want him, to the extent that a packed room of party operatives kept booing him at this past weekend’s debate, and he hasn’t picked up a single endorsement from a current or former Republican Governor, Representative, or Senator, despite being almost-continuously in the lead since he announced in July. The numbers, though, are hardly ambiguous. Based on eight polls all from the last few days, RCP has this:

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538.com is showing the following:

538sc

And the betting markets agree:

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As with New Hampshire, the real interest here may be in the second spot. Rubio seems to have recovered from his pre-New Hampshire debate stumble and fifth (!) place finish there, and is clearly narrowing in on Cruz. 538’s “polls plus” model actually has him narrowly beating Cruz. If Rubio can get a second-place, it will go a long way to bolstering his claim to being the anti-Trump that the party is looking for. Cruz, meanwhile, has a strategy that depends on gaining momentum from strong showings in the Southern states voting in March. A distant second, or much worse, a third, in a state that should be a good fit for him would cloud that path.

Of course the whole party’s path is somewhat cloudy at the moment. Trump is clearly viable, Cruz has every incentive to hang in there until the March voting is done, and Rubio continues to split the “consensus” party vote with Bush and, though probably not for much longer given his South Carolina numbers, Kasich. Mutterings about a brokered convention are beginning to seem more plausible…

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