The Republican and Democratic presidential races will see two dramatic decisions in two very different states Saturday as South Carolina and Nevada vote.
In the Palmetto State's Republican primary, the six remaining candidates will be eager to leave after a brutal and bruising fight in the first Southern primary. In Nevada's Democratic caucuses, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will face a major test of he fares with Latino voters.
In both cases, the votes will be more about the perception of winning than racking up actual delegates.
For Republicans, South Carolina offers 50 pledged delegates, about 2% of the convention total, of which 29 will will be awarded to the highest statewide vote getter, and three will be awarded to the higher vote getter in each of the state’s seven congressional districts. The hybrid system may allow multiple candidates to find a reason to claim success.
On the Democratic side, 35 delegates are up for grabs in Nevada, to be divided proportionally between Sanders and Clinton, with the sum representing under 1% of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
Here are nine questions to watch as results come in from the two states Saturday.
How does Trump do in South Carolina?
Polls show frontrunner Donald Trump well ahead in South Carolina, as they have for months. But they said the same in Iowa, where conservatives and evangelical Christian voters helped power Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to a win.
Cruz has been making an aggressive play for the same voters here, and he has a vastly superior political machine to find them and get them to the polling locations between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m..
Another reason to worry inside the Trump campaign? One national poll found the pair was tied. It hinted that, just maybe, Trump was starting to show signs that he should slow down his plans to remodel the White House.
Which Republican has a glass jaw?
Ahead of the voting, the campaigns had already proved why South Carolina’s contests are known for their nastiness. An adviser to Cruz admitted it was the meanest he’s ever seen South Carolina—and then continued to trash rising rival Marco Rubio.
On talk radio, Christian radio and country stations, it’s impossible to avoid the barrage of ads from the candidates and the super PACs. It’s even worse on television. The results Saturday night will show which Republican is most susceptible to the negative attacks.
Who wins the religious right?
Cruz has made his Christianity central to his campaign in faith-forward South Carolina, including headlining an arena concert for Christian radio. Rubio, too, has emphasized his faith and seemed to be heading toward a better finish than his disappointing fifth in New Hampshire.
Religious voters have great sway in South Carolina; in 2012, 65% of Republican primary voters identified themselves in exit polls as Evangelical or Born Again—enough to deliver a win if they vote as a bloc. These voters could offer clues as to how their brethren will vote in other conservative Southern states that vote on March 1.
Can Jeb Bush survive?
Perhaps the man with the most to lose from the expectations game was Jeb Bush, the former frontrunner who has been limping for weeks. His campaign made New Hampshire his firewall, the place where he could change-up the race and prove he could get votes. He finished fourth and reset the expectations to South Carolina.
Then Bush struggled here, too. He deployed his brother, a former President, and his mother, a former First Lady. He campaigned with South Carolina’s senior Senator, Lindsey Graham. Yet he also proved he’s not a terrific fighter of a hand-to-hand campaign. His campaign, meanwhile, was besieged by rumors that it was out of money, that Bush was dropping out, that a vote for Bush was a waste, given how little traction he had made.
Bush has scheduled events in Nevada on Sunday and Monday, and the debate in Houston, his parents’ backyard, on Thursday, may keep him in the race through then. But to avoid a crush of calls to drop out of the race, Bush must pull within a couple of points of Rubio in South Carolina, and he needs a win to truly invigorate his campaign. At stake? The Bushes role as a 21st Century political dynasty.
Can Rubio win the Establishment nod?
After a disastrous finish in New Hampshire, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has fought his way back, as aides allowed their carefully-managed candidate to put his raw talent on display. He held forth with the press, and appeared more comfortable with voters as he locked in the coveted endorsement of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
Rubio needs a strong third place finish—at minimum—in the state, in order to begin to consolidate the not-Trump, not-Cruz alternative support. Any underperformance would raise questions about his ability to compete in the long haul, as all the establishment candidates are short on money going into the more expensive Super Tuesday states. Rubio was desperately trying to make this a three-person race in voters’ minds.
How does the back of the pack do?
No one had high expectations for two other Republicans in the race: retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Carson was a non-factor in the state—other than talk radio—and Kasich decamped for campaign events in Massachusetts and Vermont on primary day. Both might have fared well in a state with many religious voters and snowbirds, but didn’t see a path to victory.
Critically, though, both may prove to be spoilers, with Kasich depriving Bush or Rubio of needed votes to win majorities in more moderate congressional districts, and Carson doing the same for Cruz in more conservative areas.
The question is if they’ll want to renew those roles in future states. Carson has vowed to stay in the race all the way until the convention in Cleveland, and Kasich is expected to be around through Ohio’s March 15 primary.
How does Clinton do in Nevada?
Is Hillary Clinton’s firewall holding? The Democratic front-runner has bet that she can hold together the Obama coalition of minority voters to defend against Bernie Sanders’ insurgent candidacy.
After the very-white Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada will be the first test for that strategy and a preview of the far more important South Carolina contest for Democrats next Saturday. With so little public polling about the caucuses—and so few people participating in them—it was anyone’s guess as to how Hispanic voters would break.
Can Sanders improve his performance among Latinos?
After strong performances in the lily-white states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada's Democratic caucus on Saturday will be Bernie Sanders' first chance to prove he can do well with minority voters, particularly Latinos, who made up 15% of the electorate in the 2008 primary.
Polling data in Nevada is scarce, but Sanders appears to be making inroads among Latinos, particularly younger voters. His message of income inequality and fighting political corruption—as well as support for tuition-free public college—resonates with millennials across racial lines.
How does Clinton do with women voters?
Clinton will be hoping to win a majority of women voters in Nevada after losing the demographic in New Hampshire to Sanders. Her outspoken female surrogates Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright have sometimes gotten her into more trouble with younger women than they've helped: Steinem suggested in New Hampshire that young women were supporting Sanders to chase the boys, and Albright said there is "a special place in hell for women who don't support other women."
The question for millennial Nevadans: How badly do they want to see a woman president?
With reporting by Sam Frizell in Las Vegas, Zeke J. Miller in Columbia, S.C., and Philip Elliott in Charleston, S.C.