A combative contest among six challengers is expected to produce a record voter turnout in Saturday’s GOP presidential primary.
As of midday Thursday, about 38,000 absentee ballots had been cast in the GOP contest. That exceeds the 35,595 absentee ballots cast in 2008 — a record total that included both the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries.
The turnout record for the GOP primary was set in 2012 — at 583,000 votes. However, voters who want to cast ballots for or against GOP front-runner Donald Trump are expected to exceed that total.
Elections officials in Lexington County, a Republican bellwether, expect 20,000 more votes to be cast Saturday than during the 2012 primary.
The outcome of Saturday’s primary is expected to winnow the number of GOP candidates — now six — but stop short of clearing the way for a political coronation as it has done in the past.
“I don’t necessarily think South Carolina is going to decide the nominee, but we’ll help sort out the field, ” Furman University political analyst Danielle Vinson said.
The question likely to be decided is who will survive to carry on against Trump, the New York businessman who sparks strong acclaim and strong disdain.
“He’s driving the turnout with people who want him and people who don’t want him,” Vinson said.
While Republican leaders worry Trump’s ideas will fizzle and fail in the November general election, his populist themes appeal to GOP voters frustrated with the social and economic ideas that political leaders traditionally espouse, analysts say.
“South Carolina voters have become less pragmatic than they used to be,” Vinson said.
‘Interested and motivated’
Saturday’s voter turnout also will be affected by other factors.
The make-up of S.C. voters is much different than in 2008, the last time two presidential primaries where held in the same year in the Palmetto State. Those voters are older, more racially diverse and largely live in counties where Republicans dominate.
There are also a lot more registered voters in the state — nearly 3 million, or 230,000 more than in 2012.
Election officials in heavily Republican Lexington expect a significantly higher turnout in Saturday’s primary.
County election director Dean Crepes is predicting 40 percent of the county’s 165,000 voters to go to the polls Saturday, up from 28 percent in 2012. That would mean about 66,000 ballots will be cast, compared with nearly 44,000 four years ago.
More than 4,100 absentee ballots already have been cast in Lexington, more than any other S.C. county, said state Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire. Almost nine of every 10 absentee ballots from Lexington have been cast in the GOP race.
Adjoining Richland County tends to vote more Democratic. But 2,300 absentee ballots had been cast in the Republican primary as of midday Thursday, ranking Richland fifth among the state’s 46 counties, Whitmire said.
The record absentee voting is “a good sign voters are interested and motivated,” Whitmire said.
While attention is on the GOP primary this week, it will shift to Democrats next week as their primary is held Feb. 27.
The two primaries underscore the state’s clout in presidential politics, said Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, a Richland Republican and Trump ally.
“South Carolina right now is the center of the political universe,” McMaster said.
Tim Flach: 803-771-8483
Record GOP turnout?
A snapshot of turnout in recent S.C. GOP presidential primaries:
2012: 582,547, 21.3 percent of 2.7 million registered voters
2008: 438,481, 19.5 percent of 2.2 million registered voters
2000: 565,991, 26.5 percent of 2.1 million registered voters
Note: No GOP primary was held in 2004
Source: State Election Commission