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Could Donald Trump lose in South Carolina?

Some new individual surveys show the race in South Carolina is dramatically tightening.

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    Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, left, accompanied by South Carolina State rep. Bill Herbkersman (R), speaks during a campaign stop in Bluffton, S.C. Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016.
    Matt Rourke/AP
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A few days ago we looked at the consequences of a big Donald Trump victory in South Carolina’s Republican primary on Saturday. Long story short: if he wins by more than 15 points it will become difficult to block his march to the nomination.

But what would happen if he loses? A few late polls hint that’s also possible. It would be a big shock, with profound effects on the 2016 race.

First, the caveat: nobody can say with assurance what Palmetto State voters are going to do. The most likely outcome remains Mr. Trump on top. The real estate billionaire has a 78 percent chance of winning South Carolina’s primary, according to the FiveThirtyEight data site primary predictor, which combines polls with endorsements and other electoral indicators.

That means he also has a 22 percent chance of losing, however. That’s not inconsiderable. Hitters batting .220 occasionally get on base.

Plus, some new individual surveys show the race dramatically tightening. A just-released NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has Trump as the choice of 28
percent of South Carolina GOP voters, with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at 23 percent and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at 15.

An Opinion Savvy survey puts Trump at 27 percent, with Senator Rubio at 24 and Senator Cruz at 19.

Both these polls were conducted entirely following the most recent GOP debate, which was held on February 14. Trump did not do well in that showdown – one pundit tabbed him “flustered and cranky” – and the new numbers may reflect that. The NBC and Opinion Savvy pollsters may have discovered a turning tide.

If so, imagine the upshot. Trump would no longer be the clear Republican front-runner. His aura of invincibility might be threatened. It would indicate that perhaps there are things he can say or do that turn off Trumpians – such as getting in a verbal spat with the pope.

A loss might show Trump can’t expand his vote behind hard-core supporters. He’s held fairly steady at 30 percent or so of GOP voters in national polls. If he can’t grow that, he can’t get to the majority need to win the nomination (duh). If he’s stuck at 25 percent or so in South Carolina, a state whose polls he’s long led, it seems likely he’ll lose the nomination eventually. The only question could be how long that would take.

In that context his actual vote performance will be a key indicator (duh, redux). The person who emerges as his closest South Carolina rival is also important in and of itself. If it’s Cruz who wins or finishes a close second, Trump still has a chance to win it all. The outcome of a two-person Trump/Cruz final round is uncertain.

But if Rubio climbs past Cruz and nears or surpasses the Donald, that’s a sign that the establishment vote and party elites have finally coalesced around one candidate. If that happens, Rubio becomes the favorite to deliver an acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July.

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