Dear political junkies. You may spend Saturday morning and afternoon scouring the Internet and cable TV for news out of South Carolina to tell you what to expect from the Republican presidential primary down there. Don't. There will be no reliable news or updates until polls close at 8 p.m.
Instead, chew on all the polling data that has come out in the past week. Pollsters have made tens of thousands of calls in South Carolina and compiled a half-dozen polls just in the past few days. The data is a bit murky at first glance, but upon some close reading, it can tell you a few things.
The overall picture: Good for Trump, bad for Jeb
A 14-point lead in the RCP average is too large to overcome through margin of error, or superior turnout apparatus. It's hard to imagine an outcome besides a large Trump win.
Jeb Bush, meanwhile, looks unlikely to finish in the top three. Bush polls in the single digits in half of the most recent polls. He is in fifth place (behind even John Kasich) in three polls, and in fourth in the others. He trails the third-place candidate by 4 points, 8 points, 2 points, 1 point, 2 points, 6 points, 9 points, and 11 points.
So a Bush-rooter could put his faith in the S.C. House GOP, the WSJ/NBC, or the Harper poll, but that seems irrational. The S.C. House GOP poll has consistently favored Jeb, and has bizarrely high sample sizes that draw into doubt its methodology. The NBC/WSJ poll is broadly an outlier. Average all the recent polls together, and Jeb trails the third-place candidate by 5.4 percent. That's a lot, considering he polls at around 10.5 percent.
Jeb looks consigned to a fourth- (or fifth-) place finish. That could be the end of the line for him.
Rubio vs. Cruz for second place
So the real fight is this: Who will finish in second place, Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz?
Why does this matter? Well, for one thing, Marco Rubio's finishes so far this year are 3rd place and 5th place. If Rubio wants to establish himself as the guy who can beat Trump, he should at least be the runner-up to Trump in at least one state — and he ought to at least beat Ted Cruz in one state.
So, who's in second?
The RCP average has Cruz 18.1 to Rubio 17.1. If you exclude the outlier poll (NBC/WSJ), it's a tie, 17.4 percent to 17.4 percent. In any event, it's basically a tie for second place. So how to discern a potential winner.
The two most relevant factors that might not show up in polling are these: ground game/turnout and late-breakers.
The ground-game advantage is hard to predict ahead of time, but if Iowa is any sort of gauge, Cruz should be stronger on this score. Here's an AP story about Cruz trying to replicate his Iowa magic. But a ground game is going to have much more teeth in a low-turnout caucus than in a primary.
In Rubio's corner is the promise of late-breaking voters. There are two classes of these: first, the late-breaking undecideds; second, the Bush and Kasich voters who want to beat Cruz and challenge Trump.
There's tons of evidence that both of these groups will go heavily to Rubio.
First, those polls that look at favorability consistently show Rubio dominating Trump and Cruz on that score.
Emerson has Rubio at net 24 points positive favorability, Trump at negative 6, and Cruz at negative 4. Other pollsters show the same thing.
Look at this ARG tracking poll, and you see a trend: each day, more voters decide, and the generally pick Rubio.
None of this is conclusive, but if you're looking for something to tip the scale on second place, it would be this: Rubio seems to be picking up the undecideds, and some loosely attached Bush and Kasich backers late. Given that he's more or less tied with Cruz in polls, that's enough to bet on Rubio over Cruz for second place, given even odds.
Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Tuesday and Thursday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.