Takeaways from the Republican South Carolina primary

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By James Oliphant

(Reuters) -Frontrunner Donald Trump was hoping to use a sizable victory in South Carolina’s Republican primary on Saturday to persuade rival Nikki Haley to drop out of the presidential race. While the outcome put Trump even closer to clinching the party’s nomination, Haley has vowed to press on.

Here are some takeaways from the South Carolina primary:


In his victory speech, Trump made it clear that he was looking ahead to a November general election matchup against Democratic President Joe Biden. He didn’t mention Haley’s name once, apparently in a bid to act as if the primary race is over.

But while it appears increasingly improbable that Haley can wrest the nomination from Trump, his win in South Carolina masked a schism in the party that doesn’t seem to be closing.

Haley was on track to finish with about 40% of the vote, a better performance than polls predicted. Last month in New Hampshire, she took about 43% of the vote.

"Forty percent is not some tiny group," she told her supporters on Saturday. "There are huge numbers of voters in our Republican primaries who are saying they want an alternative."

In both states, Haley's numbers may have been bolstered by moderates or Democrats who voted in the Republican primary for the purpose of stopping Trump.

In South Carolina, Haley got the larger share of votes from voters who said they had never participated in a Republican primary before, according to exit polls by Edison Research. And 69% of self-described moderates went for her.

For Trump, it means there remains a solid chunk of the Republican electorate - as well as large share of independent voters - that he likely will need to win over if he is going to defeat Biden. As of yet, there’s little sign Trump is doing much to court them.


Right now, Haley seems to be a candidate without a party. And apparently she’s OK with that.

In 2016, when Trump rolled over U.S. Senator Marco Rubio on Rubio’s home turf of Florida, Rubio dropped out immediately under somewhat humiliating circumstances.

But Rubio had a job in Washington to go back to and had to worry about getting along with Trump should he win the White House. Haley has no such concerns.

As she has reiterated time and again on the trail in South Carolina, she’s not gunning for a vice presidential slot and she doesn’t want a cabinet job. When she leaves the race, as she may very well do in the coming weeks, she’ll only have private life awaiting her.

Haley’s motives for staying in remain largely hidden, and she is certain to face increasing pressure to drop out.

But as the race has evolved, she has become the voice of a portion of the Republican Party that feels rootless, those traditional-minded conservatives who backed presidential candidates such as George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.

Haley is the closest thing they have now to a champion and advocate – and for now at least, she retains a public platform to air her views.

"I'm not giving up this fight when a majority of Americans disapprove of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden," she said on Saturday.


Trump’s win gave him a clean sweep of all five nominating contests so far: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, the U.S. Virgin Islands and now South Carolina. Saturday's result has to be especially frustrating for Haley, who became a political star in the Deep South state where she served as governor for six years.

She invested more time, money and effort in campaigning ahead of the primary, while Trump held just a handful of rallies. At the same time, she watched as much of the state’s political establishment turned their back on her and sided with the former president.

Perhaps most vexing was how poorly Haley did with veterans after she took Trump to task for criticizing her husband, an officer in the South Carolina National Guard currently on deployment to Africa, for being absent on the campaign trail. Haley also played up Trump’s past disrespectful comments about the late U.S. Senator John McCain, a decorated Vietnam vet.

According to exit polls conducted by Edison Research, Trump won 67% of the vote of those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces compared with just 33% for Haley.

Perhaps it was not surprising given how veterans told Reuters that even though they faulted Trump for his remarks, they were standing by him. Some were concerned Haley’s aggressive foreign policy views could lead the United States into another war.

According to Edison, 47% of Republicans felt the U.S. should take a “less active” role in world affairs, and Trump won nearly 77% of those voters. But Trump also won the lion’s share of voters (60%) who believed that the U.S. should take a “more active” role.

If all of that left Haley and her team scratching their heads, you couldn’t blame them.


Exit polls also made something else clear: Trump has boxed out Haley on the issue of immigration and border security.

That mattered in South Carolina, where 37% of voters listed immigration as their top priority. Of those voters, 82% backed Trump and just 18% supported Haley. And of the 66% of voters who believe undocumented immigrants should be deported to their countries of origin, 77% voted for Trump.

At campaign events, Haley has argued that she, too, takes a hard line on immigration, but Republicans don’t seem to be buying it. Trump’s campaign this week released a TV ad titled “Weakness” that claimed Haley opposed Trump’s so-called Muslim “travel ban” during his administration and questioned the need for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

The site FactCheck.org called the Trump ad misleading, noting that Haley has been supportive of a wall, but she would have favored a more narrowly tailored ban than the one Trump instituted.

Regardless, Trump’s attacks seem to have stuck, which does not auger well for Haley’s prospects in a party increasingly consumed by the issue of migrants coming across the border.


Trump also continues to hold a strong advantage when it comes to voters who are unhappy with the state of the economy, which, unfortunately for Haley, comprises a large share of the Republican electorate.

A whopping 83% of voters surveyed by Edison said the condition of economy was “not so good or poor” despite low unemployment and a booming stock market. Almost three-fourths of those voters backed Trump.

Even voters who said their personal financial situation was stable went for Trump in large numbers. Only the small fraction of voters who said the economy was in good shape preferred Haley.

Trump won the majority of voters in all income brackets surveyed by Edison. In what has been his historical pattern, he did best with those who lack a college degree and those who earn less than $50,000 a year.

Overall, if you were a voter upset with the status quo in America, you went for Trump: 44% of respondents to the exit poll said they were “angry” about the state of the country, with Trump grabbing 83% of that vote.

(Reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Ross Colvin and Jonathan Oatis)