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South Carolina Exit Poll Results: How the Night Unfolded

Donald Trump scored a solid win in South Carolina.
SC Republican primary key groups for Cruz
SC Republican primary key groups for CruzNBC News

Donald Trump scored a solid win Saturday in South Carolina, due in part to a core group of anti-establishment voters who identified him as their pick early on and did not waver from their support. The NBC News Exit Poll found that a majority of Trump’s supporters made up their minds more than a month ago. All of the other candidates had to wait until the last few days to lock in most of their voter support.

Palmetto State primary voters may have been almost evenly divided in their preference for an insider versus outsider candidate, but Trump nearly swept the latter group. Among those who prefer the next president to come from outside the political establishment, 63 percent voted for Trump, whereas those who prefer political experience split their vote between Marco Rubio (38 percent) and Ted Cruz (29 percent).

Terrorism as the Top Issue

One thing that worked in Trump’s favor was that South Carolina Republicans ranked terrorism as the nation’s top issue, even surpassing the economy (New Hampshire’s top issue) and government spending (Iowa’s top issue). In fact, nearly three in four primary voters today favor a ban on non-U.S. Muslims from entering the country. Donald Trump proposed just such a ban in the wake of terror attacks in both Paris and San Bernardino, California.

Immigration was another issue that Trump put at the center of his campaign. While few South Carolina Republicans see this as the nation’s most important issue, half (51 percent) of this group backed the man who promised to build an enormous wall across the Mexican border.

In the end, though, it may simply have been the force of personality that propelled Trump to the top. According to the NBC News Exit Poll, Trump took more than three-quarters of the vote among Palmetto State Republicans whose most valued candidate quality was someone who “tells it like it is.”

Rubio and Cruz Battle for Second

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz battled it out for second place in South Carolina. They split the support of voters who want the next president to have some political experience. But Cruz did better with values-based voters, while Rubio did better with those who were looking ahead to November.

Among Republican voters who preferred a candidate who shared their values, 34 percent ultimately chose Cruz, while 27 percent backed Rubio. Among those who were looking for the candidate best positioned to win in November, 47 percent chose Rubio. The Florida senator may have also been helped by the recent endorsement of South Carolina’s popular governor, Nikki Haley. While only one in four primary voters said her backing was an important factor in their choice, among those who did, 45 percent decided to vote for Rubio.