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4 Takeaways From South Carolina And Nevada

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at his election night party February 20, 2016 in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The New York businessman won the first southern primary decisively.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at his election night party February 20, 2016 in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The New York businessman won the first southern primary decisively.

Donald Trump posted a decisive victory Saturday night in South Carolina, a conservative state that on its face should have been inhospitable to the New York billionaire, but was anything but when voters went to the polls.

And Hillary Clinton pulled off a badly needed win in Nevada, besting Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders with an older, more diverse electorate in the state's caucuses.

As we dive into the entrance and exit polling data, here's four takeaways from the results.

1. Evangelical voters have faith in Donald Trump

If the often vulgar real estate mogul was going to falter anywhere, it should have been the Palmetto State. Evangelicals made up an even higher percentage of the vote than they did in Iowa, and the 72 percent of self-described born-again Christians that voted in the state was even higher than the 65 percent that made up the electorate four years ago.

Among those most religious voters, Trump triumphed with 33 percent of the vote, compared to 27 percent for Ted Cruz and 22 percent for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. A loss among that voting bloc is a particular blow for the Texas senator, who stumped heavily in the evangelical upstate in the race's closing days, speaking at churches and faith gatherings.

While the reliably Republican voting bloc isn't monolithic — they obviously also care greatly about national security, immigration and other concerns. Still, Cruz hoped he could expose Trump's true colors on social issues to them, heavily airing an ad that showed the reality TV star boasting in 1999 on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he was "very pro-choice"; Trump had threatened to sue for defamation over the ad, saying he's now anti-abortion. Cruz also thought he could sway voters his way after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, casting doubt on what type of justices a President Trump would appoint to the bench. But none of those arguments worked.

In fact, 76 percent of voters said religious beliefs mattered in casting their vote — and a 31 percent plurality of those voters cast their ballot for the thrice-married, often foul-mouthed reality TV star who has maintained he's a Christian, even though he still says he's never asked God for forgiveness.

2. Republican voters like some of Trump's most controversial proposals on banning Muslims

One of the most eye-popping statistics of the night — almost three quarters of voters said they supported Trump's suggestion to put a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S. in the wake of terrorist threats from ISIS.

Terrorism was the most important issue among GOP voters in the state, with 32 percent listing it as their top concern. In Iowa, the top issue was government spending, and in New Hampshire Republicans were most concerned with the economy and jobs.

Buoying Trump in the state was a severe animosity for the status quo — a whopping 92 percent said they were frustrated or angry with the federal government; Trump won one-third of those voters.

Some of the controversies in the closing days of the race surrounding Trump were again Teflon for him. After he dinged former President George W. Bush for his handling of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and his decision to invade Iraq, many thought he was doing damage to himself with the state's significant military veteran base. But in fact, he won a decisive 35 percent of the state's veterans. That's a bloc which the former president's brother, Jeb Bush needed to do well with, but won over just eight percent. After a disastrous finish, the former Florida governor withdrew from the race Saturday night.

3. Political outsiders may have an advantage, but there's a window for an establishment candidate like Marco Rubio

The Florida senator treated his narrow second place finish as a victory, and there was indeed some good signs for Rubio from the exit poll data that could bode well for him going forward in a shrinking GOP field, especially with Bush's withdrawal.

Voters were nearly evenly split as to whether they wanted someone with government experience (47 percent) or from outside the political establishment (48 percent) in the Oval Office. Among those who valued some type of political experience, Rubio triumphed with 38 percent of the vote, compared to just 4 percent for Trump.

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R) and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (L) celebrate after Rubio addressed supporters at a primary night event February 20 in Columbia, South Carolina.
Win McNamee / Getty Images
Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R) and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (L) celebrate after Rubio addressed supporters at a primary night event February 20 in Columbia, South Carolina.

There's an opening for Rubio, too, on immigration. He's been needled by his rivals for his past support of the Senate's comprehensive immigration bill that allowed for a pathway for citizenship, but 53 percent of voters said they backed some type of legal status — and Rubio carried those voters with 31 percent of the vote.

Among voters who broke late, they decided to go with the young Florida senator — he carried Republicans who decided in just the last few days (23 percent) and those who decided just on Saturday (16 percent) who to pull the lever for. Some of that boost came from his late endorsement from Nikki Haley, the state's popular governor. A quarter of voters said her pick was important to them, and Rubio carried those voters by 45 percent.

4. In Nevada, Clinton benefited from an older, more diverse electorate

After only narrowly edging out Sanders in Iowa and being crushed by him in New Hampshire, the former secretary of state finally got a more decisive victory under her belt.

The electorate in the Silver State was older — 63 percent were over the age of 45. And Clinton won those voters by a 2-to-1 margin. Sanders triumphed big with younger voters, winning those under the age of 44 by a nearly 3-to-1 margin.

While both Iowa and New Hampshire were mostly white electorates, Nevada was the first time either candidate faced a more diverse voting bloc. There's some discrepancy over who won Latino voters — entrance polls gave Sanders an edge but Clinton carried the most heavily Hispanic parts of the state.

But Democrats also had a significant African-American bloc (13 percent of the electorate) that came out to caucus. Clinton won those voters overwhelmingly, 76 percent to 22 percent for Sanders. Her dominance with black voters is one reason she's heavily favored in polls for next Saturday's South Carolina Democratic primary. And many of the Southern states that will vote on March 1st on Super Tuesday, or so-called "SEC Primary," also contain a high volume of African-American votes.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.

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