South Carolina’s Republican Primary Contest: Can Nikki Haley Defend Her Home State From Donald Trump?

By: Alex Trent | Published: Feb 22, 2024

This Saturday, the Republican Presidential Primary contest reaches another stop, South Carolina. Trump’s dominant performance so far in the race has caused many other candidates to drop out. Nikki Haley has been the notable exception despite her own disappointing results.

However, South Carolina is Haley’s home state where she was governor for six years, could she pull off an upset victory to change the direction of the primary?

Home Court Advantage

South Carolina represents Haley’s best chance to put a stop to Trump’s flawless primary record so far. She is banking on her name recognition and likability among South Carolinians to deliver a victory that will raise her perception as a viable alternative to Trump.

Nikki Haley smiles at a podium with a blue background behind her.

Source: Gage Skidmore/Unsplash

Haley entered politics in the state as a House representative in 2004 where she served three terms. She ascended to the governor’s office in 2010, where she remained until becoming US ambassador to the United Nations in the Trump administration.


A Longshot for Haley

Despite Haley having a homecourt advantage and being generally liked by the residents of her state, these residents also have an overwhelming love of Donald Trump.

Nikki Haley talks to a resident in South Carolina.

Source: South Carolina Governor Nikki R. Haley/Wikimedia

In a Suffolk University/USA Today poll from February 20th, Trump leads Haley nearly 2 to 1. (via USA Today) In that poll Trump received 63% of the respondent’s support, while Haley only got 35%.

Some Republicans Aren’t Finding it a Hard Choice

Despite framing herself as the opponent of Donald Trump, some voters are choosing to like both, but with a clear favorite. One South Carolina conservative, Doug Roberts, was reportedly seen attending a Haley rally but wearing a Trump T-shirt.

Donald Trump does a dance on stage at a campaign rally in New York.

Source: Liam Enea/Wikimedia

“Ms. Haley did some fine things as governor — but Donald Trump is the man!” he said. “Donald Trump is just not a regular man.” (via AP News)

Trump Has Baggage

One factor that may see voters break for Haley is the numerous investigations, court cases, and scandals Trump finds himself in this election year. One Haley rally attendee, Debra Weiss talked about how it could affect her decision.

Former President Donald Trump is pictured speaking into a microphone at a public event. He is wearing a dark suit with a bright blue tie and an American flag lapel pin. The focus is on him with a blurred American flag in the background

Source: Getty Images

“I wonder if Nikki would have more sway in Washington without all his baggage. I want to see whether she is strong enough. We know Donald Trump is strong,” Weiss said. “I hope Nikki can do it, make it close. … But I do still love Trump.” (via AP News)

Haley Has Been Previously Building Toward This

Nikki Haley’s primary strategy has been to slowly build support in the preceding states’ primaries before diving into a head-to-head contest with Trump in South Carolina. The Haley campaign’s hope was that as other candidates dropped out, many of their supporters would unite around Haley.

Nikki Haley speaks at a podium in 2023.

Source: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia

When speaking to voters of earlier contests in Iowa and New Hampshire she promised she would win “my sweet state of South Carolina.” (via AP News)


Shift in Rhetoric

While Haley is no doubt aware of the stakes of South Carolina’s primary, there has been a recent rhetoric shift that suggests she is hedging her bets. Instead of South Carolina, she has been talking more about the decisive primary day on Super Tuesday, which she has promised to stay in the race until.

Nikki Haley signs a bill as governor of South Carolina.

Source: Wikimedia

“There were 14 candidates in this race,” she says. “I’ve defeated 12 of the fellas, and I have just one more to catch up to.” (Via AP News)


Trump is Confident

For his part, Donald Trump seems unconcerned with the possible results of the South Carolina primary race. He previously predicted his victory at a town hall interview with Fox News, where he would win “bigly”. (via ABC News)

Former President Donald Trump and Mike Johnson with other men, sitting down, in the White House in 2019.

Source: Office of Representative Mike Johnson/Wikimedia Commons

“Everybody knows you can’t lose your home state,” he said. Both candidates have started ramping up attacks against each other as the South Carolina contest drew closer.


Haley Is Highlighting Trump’s Legal Struggles

Haley’s attacks have intelligently focused on Trump’s numerous legal troubles, which are unprecedented for a presidential candidate. Donald Trump is the first former president in US history to face criminal charges. (via CNN) Keeping track of his indictments and cases is not easy.

A brown gravel in front of an open book

Source: rawpixel

“He’s going to be in a courtroom for the rest of this year,” Haley told CBS News. “You can’t win a general election if you are sitting in a courtroom.”


Open Primary

In South Carolina, there is no party registration and Republicans hold an open primary in the state. This means that any voter, regardless of their party-loyalty can participate as long as they don’t also vote in the Democratic primary.

A person sliding an envelope into a vote box.

Source: Arnaud Jaegers/Unsplash

This means there is a chance for Haley to make up the gap in Republican voters by drawing support from Democrats and Independent ones.


Echoes of the Past

In 2016, Trump had a lot to prove on the primary field. Florida senator and candidate Marco Rubio banked on winning his home state to carry him through the nomination. However, Trump defeated him handily in his own state by nearly 20 points. (via The New York Times)

Marco Rubio speaks into a microphone.

Source: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia

After finishing second place in the Florida primary, Rubio suspended his campaign the next day.


Saturday Could be Make or Break

Haley’s campaign has trudged along despite not having any solid primary results so far. South Carolina might be a make-or-break moment for her campaign. If she fails to win or capture a sizeable portion of the vote, then her campaign might permanently be hobbled.

Nikki Haley talks to a voter in 2016.

Source: South Carolina Governor Nikki R. Haley/Wikimedia

Not only would losing badly in your home state be embarrassing in the minds of many voters, but it deflates any case she tries to make that she can rally voters around her if she loses in such a way.