Donald Trump Won South Carolina — But There's 1 Big Caveat

Many Republicans who support Nikki Haley say they could never vote for Trump — and it could be a huge problem for his campaign against Joe Biden.

CHARLESTON, S.C. ― Donald Trump may have won the South Carolina Republican primary, but Nikki Haley’s better-than-expected performance here exposed glaring weaknesses in the 2024 GOP front-runner’s campaign that could hobble his chances against Democrat Joe Biden.

Trump beat Haley by 20 points ― an embarrassing loss for the former South Carolina governor, to be sure. However, she won about 40% of the vote cast on Saturday, a significant margin that, when averaged with her similar performance in New Hampshire, underscored that a high number of Republican primary voters simply don’t like Trump.

Those voters might prove to be decisive to Haley on Super Tuesday, when states like Vermont and Utah ― believed to have more moderate GOP bases ― head to the polls, possibly awarding her a much-needed victory and delegates. Haley so far has yet to outright win any of the GOP nominating contests.

Haley signaled on election night, though, that her campaign may have an expiration date, only committing, for now, to stay in the race through Super Tuesday, when 15 states and one territory cast ballots. Many of the states voting March 5 dole out delegates on a winner-takes-all basis — meaning there’s no prize for Haley earning even a significant portion of votes below 50%.

Haley and her allies argue her vote share says something about how Republicans view Trump and how the party will fare in November.

“Forty percent is not some tiny group. There are a huge number of voters in our Republican primary who want an alternative,” Haley told supporters at her election night party at a hotel in Charleston Saturday, confirming that she wouldn’t be dropping out after her fourth major loss.

Trump is running with many of the benefits of an incumbent but without unified support behind him. By comparison, Biden won 96% of the vote cast in the South Carolina Democratic primary earlier this month against Minnesota Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips, Biden’s only intraparty challenger. But Biden could face headwinds in Michigan next month, where there is a campaign to get voters to write in “uncommitted” as a protest against his Israel policy.

“If a Democrat front-runner was facing this level of voter dissent, you wouldn’t be able to escape coverage of disunity problems and concerns about the standard bearer,” Ian Sams, a spokesman for the White House, wrote in a post on X on Sunday.

The big question, however, is whether the voters who spurned Trump in the GOP primary will stay home in November, or hold their nose and vote for him because they can’t bring themselves to vote for Biden. Haley has argued that both men are too old to carry out the duties of the presidency, and she has been harshly critical of Biden’s administration and policies.

Some Haley supporters seem to be genuinely struggling with how they plan to vote in November.

“I’m not going to not vote. Not voting doesn’t make sense. So I’m going to look very carefully into who the vice president nominee is going to be. What else can we do?” laughed Ola Louisa Watson, a 76-year-old retiree, who came to see Haley speak at an event in Georgetown.

“Neither Trump nor Biden are people at this point I want to be our leaders. So I’ve got to look at the next tier down,” she added.

Other Haley supporters say they definitely can’t see themselves voting for Trump and want to her to stay in the race as long as possible. Patricia Murphy, a Republican voter from Pennsylvania who attended Haley’s election night party on Saturday in Charleston, said she believed Trump ought to go to jail. “Hope he chokes on a sandwich,” she added.

Anti-Trump sentiment may not hurt his campaign in reliably red state like South Carolina in November, but if even a small percentage of Republicans choose to abstain in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, Trump could be in trouble.

The former president’s appeal is strongest with white, working-class, and evangelical voters without a college degree, a trend picked up by exit polls of GOP voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Haley, meanwhile, attracts educated voters from wealthier suburban areas of the country. The two camps are also divided on the results of the 2020 presidential election: A majority of Trump supporters say Biden wasn’t legitimately elected, while most Haley supporters correctly say he was.

If Trump wants another term in the White House, he’ll need to convince the non-MAGA wing of the Republican Party ― moderates and independents ― to stick with him despite facing 91 criminal charges in various jurisdictions and court-induced fines totaling more than $400 million. A conviction could harm that effort, as can any daily Trump outburst.

On Saturday, Trump said that Black voters like him because of his criminal indictments, which Haley and Democrats quickly slammed as a racist trope. He then followed that up by delivering a wild speech to a conservative conference in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, predicting “Judgment Day” on Nov. 5 for what he called “liars and cheaters and fraudsters and censors and imposters who have commandeered our government.”

Haley made the opposite case while campaigning in South Carolina over the weekend.

“If you’re running for president, you’re supposed to be bringing people in,” she said at an event in Beaufort. “It’s a story of addition. You don’t push people out of your club.”

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