The South Carolina GOP Presidential primary is not just the “first in the South,” it is also the first litmus test for true red state Republican sentiment. In 2008, both Iowa and New Hampshire voted for Barack Obama, while South Carolina remained in the Republican fold. The same thing happened in 2012.

Clemson University’s Palmetto Poll has surveyed statewide voters since 1988. Our sample size this time was 650 respondents, from respondents who voted in previous statewide primaries. We estimate the confidence level to be plus or minus 3 percent of the listed figure. Our sample required respondents who had voted in 2 of the past 3 state primary elections to be eligible for inclusion. Slightly less than 10 percent of the calls were to cell phones.

For the first time in the history of the Palmetto Poll, which dates back to the presidential primary of 1988, we predict that the winner of our first poll in the fall of 2015 (October 27th) will win the statewide GOP primary on February 20, 2016.  In the fall Palmetto Poll, Donald Trump led the 15 candidates with 23 percent of the respondents’ support.  Even though slightly more than half of the respondents then said they were undecided about their choice, enough made up their minds now to keep Trump in the lead.

The race for second and fourth seems tight and indicative of the closeness of the contest nationally.

If the primary election for president were held today, for whom would you vote?

Donald Trump
Ted Cruz
Marco Rubio
Jeb Bush
John Kasich
Ben Carson

The Trump lead has been strong through this whole primary contest. While national polls show the leader with a lead as high as 35%,  our sample of Republican voters who voted in 2 of the past 3 state primary elections shows that even these traditional voters support the candidacy of Mr. Trump. Despite criticism of his behavior onstage at the GOP presidential debate on Saturday, February 13th, the Trump lead has remained steady.

Our poll began the day after the debate and found no diminished support for the leader after the television cameras were turned off. Ted Cruz remained in the runner-up position and benefitted from a large number of enthusiastic supporters who volunteered to call voters across the state to ask for their support. Marco Rubio emerged from the Greenville, S.C., debate as the winner by most media accounts, and he seemed to surge in South Carolina with the endorsement of Senator Tim Scott, Congressman Trey Gowdy and Governor Nikki Haley. The poll asked respondents who was their “second choice” if their “first choice” wasn’t available and the leader was Marco Rubio among 23% of the voters, followed by Ted Cruz among 18% of the voters. Jeb Bush continues to trail the field in the election. For the Floridian to gain momentum, he would need some candidates to leave the race. Both Kasich and Carson improved their poll numbers after the debate, but they remain behind the frontrunners.

The next question asked respondents what values appealed to them as they decided who would receive their support. With such a large and crowded field, it remained difficult to separate the candidates.

What do you like most about your first choice for president?

Has honesty and integrity
The candidate’s overall political ideology
Appears as a strong leader for the country
The candidate shares my views
The candidate will stand up for any position he takes
The candidate has a better idea for strengthening the nation’s economy

These are the six most popular answers in order.  Others mentioned keeping the country safe from terrorism and having plans for policy in the Middle East.   

Finally, the poll asked voters about their timing and how difficult it was to make up their minds about the candidates running for office this year.

When did you, or when will you, make up your mind about for whom you will vote for president in the election?

Before the primaries began
After the previous primary outcomes
This past week

Most respondents went into a long and rambling explanation about how they made up their minds and seemed not to have a firm time period for their decisions.