‘I’m a woman of my word,’ SC’s Haley vows to stay in presidential race against Trump

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Continuing his march to the Republican presidential nomination, former President Donald Trump won the South Carolina GOP presidential primary, comfortably beating former SC Gov. Nikki Haley in her home state.

The Associated Press called the race at 7:00 p.m.

Not even two minutes later, Trump took to the stage with to his signature walk-on song “God Bless the U.S.A.” by Lee Greenwood.

“Wow, that was really something,” Trump said. “It was a little sooner than we anticipated, and an even bigger win than we anticipated.”

“On Nov. 5, we’re going to say to Joe Biden, you’re fired! You’re fired, Joe. Get out!,” Trump added.

Trump was joined on stage by his children, including Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. He was also flanked by Gov. Henry McMaster, Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette and U.S. Senator Tim Scott.

When the call was announced at the Haley party in downtown Charleston, supporters were still trickling into the room. As the former president spoke, the music continued to play and those in the room chanted “Nikki! Nikki! Nikki!”

This is the first time Haley, who was elected twice as governor and three times as a state representative from Lexington County, lost an election in South Carolina.

The margin of Trump’s victory appears to be smaller than what polls ahead of Saturday’s election projected. Some of polls had Trump winning by 30 to 35 points.

But as results come in the margin appear closer to a 20-point spread.

“I said earlier this week that no matter what happens in South Carolina, I would continue to run for President. I’m a woman of my word. I’m not giving up this fight when a majority of Americans disapprove of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden.”

In her remarks, Haley said she would travel to Michigan Sunday and continue the Super Tuesday states.

As she spoke, Haley projected she would received about 40% of the vote.

“I’m an accountant. I know 40% is not 50%. But I also know 40% is not some tiny group,” Haley said. “There are huge numbers of voters in our Republican primaries who are saying they want an alternative.”

But Haley faces questions whether donors will continue to support her campaign, as ultimately having the money come in will be key to keeping her effort going.

“Nikki Haley has been raising money significantly better than her standing and her poll numbers would indicate,” said Dave Wilson, a longtime GOP strategist in South Carolina. “There are a lot of Republicans who are still out there right now that do not want Donald Trump in office again. Those are the people who are looking past the poll numbers to invest in a known quality of a candidate in Nikki Haley who they see as their opportunity to bring an end to Donald Trump’s run for president, or at least challenge it.”

Haley’s campaign has said it has resources to continue and boasted raising $16.5 million in January. She has events planned going forward including a swing in Michigan, which holds its primary Tuesday, and events leading up to Super Tuesday on March 5 when 15 states and American Somoa hold nominating contests.

Haley’s campaign Friday announced a seven-figure cable and digital advertising buy ahead of Super Tuesday.

“Our fundraising continues to grow,” said Haley Campaign Manager Betsy Ankney. “We are fully confident that we will have the resources to compete moving forward.”

Trump remains in the driver’s seat for GOP nomination

Winning the S.C. GOP primary is key to any presidential campaign. Since 1980 the winner of South Carolina’s nominating contest has gone on to win the GOP nomination every time except for 2012.

Trump has now won the first four early contests as he has remained the front-runner in the GOP race since announcing his reelection run in November 2022.

The former president’s margin of victory Saturday is expected to be much larger than his 2016 performance when he won the First in the South primary with 32.5% of the vote. Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who was backed by Haley, came in second with 22.5% of the vote.

“With such a clear contrast between the results we saw in Trump’s four years and Biden’s term, there’s no debate on why so many people would take Trump back,” said Mark Knoop, a veteran political consultant in South Carolina.

Going into Saturday’s primary, Trump held a tight grip on the state’s GOP. He had the support of all but one statewide elected official who was reelected in 2022, including Gov. Henry McMaster, and Attorney General Alan Wilson. He also had the support of U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, a former presidential candidate who dropped out of the race in November, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, and McMaster, the first statewide elected official in the country to endorse Trump in 2016.

“Voters clearly care what they think, and they overwhelmingly chose President Trump,” Knoop said.

Trump had the backing of all but one Republican member of the S.C. congressional delegation, and most of the GOP members of the State House of Representatives. Many rallied around Trump after his win in the New Hampshire primary and polling indicated a large lead in South Carolina.

In a state where many districts are safe seats in the general election, backing Trump in the presidential primary is more beneficial for Republican lawmakers who potentially face tough primary elections in June.

The consolidation of support among many of the GOP members of the State House of Representatives, highlighted Haley’s previous sour relationships with lawmakers.

At one Trump campaign news conference, state Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, even said Haley only had five friends at the State House at any given time.

“Nikki Haley is not the right candidate to be president of the United States,” Taylor said in January. “Nikki is always about Nikki. Nikki changes. Nikki isn’t that same person that I ran with in 2010, the one that was supported by conservatives that shot to the front of the crowd. She squandered six years of being governor in this state.”

When those attacks came, Haley remained defiant against the political establishment that rallied against her.

“You got the political class from the Bill Taylors of the world to everybody else,” Haley said in an interview last month. “Think about it, Why are they doing that? Is it because I forced them to have to show their votes on the record instead of hiding behind voice votes? Or is it because I made them disclose their income for taxpayers to see or is Bill Taylor mad because I vetoed half a billion dollars worth of pet projects that I didn’t think taxpayers should be paying for. So they’re mad because I didn’t buddy with them. I was serving the people of South Carolina. I served (them) well. My job wasn’t to please the political elite. My job was always to please the South Carolinians that I was serving.”

Trump led in the polls early on

Trump’s lead in the polls from early in 2023 to Saturday’s primary also meant his campaign did not have to spend heavily on television advertising. Trump only went on air in South Carolina roughly a week-and-a-half before the primary. Haley and aligned groups began advertising in South Carolina television markets on Jan. 24.

“Trump has brand and name ID. That is one thing money cannot buy, or at least it didn’t have to be bought this time,” Wilson said. “He doesn’t have to spend a lot of money to get people to show up.”

Haley’s campaign has argued she has a better chance of winning a general election race against Biden than Trump does, and she performs better than Trump in general election polls against the current president.

“This battle is about who can win in November, defeat the Democrats and finally get our country back on track,” Haley Campaign Manager Betsy Ankney said. “And the reality is no matter what all caps rants Trump goes on on Twitter about the polls, he will not defeat Joe Biden in November and he will drag the entire Republican ticket down with him.”

Haley echoed the remarks Saturday evening.

“I don’t believe Donald Trump can beat Joe Biden. Nearly every day, Trump drives people away, including with his comments just yesterday,” Haley said.

However, polling indicates that Trump can beat Biden in the electoral college, according to a Decision Desk HQ analysis. And the electoral college is what ultimately decides who wins the White House.

In 2023, Trump made a handful of appearances in South Carolina. In the final weeks leading up to the primary, he held rallies in Conway, North Charleston and Rock Hill. He participated in a Fox News Town Hall in Greenville, held a fundraiser in the Upstate and spoke at the Black Conservative Federation gala in Columbia.

The number of his events were dwarfed by Haley who held numerous more stops on a statewide bus tour, retail stops and rallies in the month before Saturday’s primary.

But crowd sizes at Trump’s events were much larger than Haley’s events.

Still she stayed at events to take pictures with anyone who wanted one and was often the last person to leave.

Trump was expected to run up the score among voters who believe in “America first,” evangelical voters, and those who strongly identify with the party, said Scott Huffmon, director of the Winthrop University Poll. Also Trump was expected to have strong support in the Upstate including Greenville County and in Horry County, where the GOP county party apparatus has been taken over by the Make America Great Again movement.

The Lexington County GOP also endorsed Trump ahead of the primary.

Trump consistently led in polls of GOP voters in South Carolina and his grip on the party only strengthened as court appearances and rulings made headlines. The latest was a New York judge ordering Trump to pay a $355 million fine and bar him from working in real estate in the state for three years only solidified his standing with the Republican base.

“President Trump is an earned media machine that no campaign ad dollars could overcome,” Knoop said.

Leading up to the primary, Haley said she was only trying to close the gap between her and Trump.

She had help from outside groups encouraging Democratic and independent voters to participate in the Republican primary if they did not vote in the Feb. 3 Democratic primary.

Robert Schwartz, a co-founder of Primary Pivot, a super PAC which encouraged Democratic voters to crossover the Republican primary, said Haley matching her performance in New Hampshire seemed out of reach in South Carolina because of the voter mix in the state.

“I think approaching 40% is a respectable outcome. And I think the only goal for us is that she survives,” Schwartz said.

Even as Haley performed better than what polling predicted the outcome would, she still came up short of a victory in a head-to-head contest.

“Beating expectations doesn’t count,” Knoop said. “Nikki Haley got her chance at a heads-up race and she couldn’t win a contest.”

Reporter Javon Harris contributed from Columbia, S.C.