Trump prevails in South Carolina, Nikki Haley’s hurdle grows in GOP primaries

In the fiercely contested Republican presidential primaries, Nikki Haley faced a resounding defeat in her home state of South Carolina, as voters overwhelmingly backed Donald Trump. Despite her commitment to persist through Super Tuesday, Haley struggles to sway Republican voters away from Trump, who remains a dominant force. As Trump eyes a general-election rematch, Haley’s uphill battle, marked by demographic challenges and Trump’s early triumphs, underscores the enduring influence of the former president in shaping the GOP landscape. The next major test awaits on March 5, with 15 states and one territory up for grabs.

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By Nancy Cook

Even a home-state advantage couldn’t give Nikki Haley her first win of the Republican presidential primaries, as South Carolina voters overwhelmingly chose Donald Trump.

Early results showed Trump easily winning the state’s primary Saturday, as he pushes toward a general-election rematch against Democratic President Joe Biden. 

Former South Carolina Governor Haley has vowed to remain in the race through Super Tuesday on March 5, to give moderate Republicans and independents time to coalesce around her increasingly long-shot candidacy. Many big Republican donors, loathe to see Trump return to the White House, have stood by her and poured millions into her campaign.

“Nearly every day, Trump drives people away,” Haley told supporters Saturday night. “I’m not giving up this fight when a majority of Americans disapprove of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden.”

But she has so far failed to persuade Republican primary voters, even those in South Carolina who know her best. 

Trump has now triumphed in all contests held to-date, trouncing rivals by wide margins in states with wildly different electorates. Haley, his last remaining serious challenger for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, has failed to convince rank-and-file Republicans to abandon him, despite his mounting legal problems and her skills on the trail.

“She is a very talented campaigner and very energetic,” said James Hodges, the former Democratic governor of South Carolina and president of McGuireWoods Consulting LLC. “The question is whether the audience is open to someone other than Trump.”

Defined by Trump

Trump early on succeeded in negatively defining his Republican opponents, including Haley. He painted her as an establishment politician, even though she ran South Carolina as a reformer who shook up the legislature. He cast himself — a former president who lived in Washington for four years — as an outsider. His lock on blue-collar GOP voters who distrust institutions left Haley to appeal to wealthier, college-educated Republicans. 

Nearly every demographic group in South Carolina’s Republican primary preferred Trump over Haley, according to exit poll AP VoteCast. He won women and men of all age groups, suburban, urban and rural residents, and both White and non-White voters. One of Haley’s few advantages over Trump was among non-White voters with college degrees, according to the survey.

Former US President Donald Trump, center right, speaks during an election night watch party at the South Carolina State Fairgrounds in Columbia, South Carolina.

In his victory speech Saturday night, Trump barely mentioned Haley. Instead, he quickly turned his attention to the general election. 

“We’re going to look at Joe Biden right in the eye,” Trump said at his watch party in Columbia, South Carolina. “He’s destroying our country, and we’re going to say, ‘Joe, you’re fired. Get out.’” 

At this point, political observers say Haley remains in the race in part to ensure that she becomes the alternative to Trump if he has to drop out due to his legal challenges, or some unforeseen health scare. Trump, 77, faces four criminal court cases and 91 felony charges, some tied to his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss to Biden. 

Haley also may be positioning herself for another White House bid in 2028, analysts say. Having served nearly two years as the US ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, she has the resume, and at 52, she’s a generation younger than both of the current front-runners for the job.

“If Biden wins, she can say, ‘I told you so — I was the better candidate,’” said Robert Oldendick, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Carolina.  

The next major spate of voting takes place on March 5, a night when 15 states and one US territory award a huge number of delegates. Trump and his team expect to earn enough support to lock up the Republican nomination no later than mid-March.

Campaign’s Next Stage

Besting his Republican rivals so early in the primary season will let Trump focus on the general election rematch against Biden. This would be one of the longest general-election campaigns in history between two nominees about whom a majority of Americans say they’re unenthusiastic

And the general election poses challenges for Trump. Despite his hold on Republican primary voters, it remains unclear if he can win independents or white suburban women, who have turned away from the GOP in recent years. Trump’s campaign aims to make up this deficit by appealing to Hispanic and Black voters, who traditionally have backed Democrats.

His campaign will soon staff up for the general election, expanding beyond the former president’s inner circle of trusted loyalists. He is also trying to install allies at the Republican National Committee, essentially fusing the campaign and party into one operation. Both moves will shake up Trumpworld, which has operated in 2024 with little back-biting and ruthless efficiency.

Biden himself will have to handle a myriad of challenges, from foreign policy crises with Israel, Russia and Iran to the state of the economy and concerns about his fitness for a second term at 81 years old.

Haley, meanwhile, may have little more than a week to convince Republican voters she’s the best candidate to beat Biden, before Trump wins enough delegates to lock up the nomination. 

“We know that the road is difficult,” Haley’s campaign manager Betsy Ankney told reporters on Friday. “We know that the math is challenging, but this has never just been about who can win a Republican primary. This battle is about who can win in November, defeat the Democrats and finally get our country back on track.”

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