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Nikki Haley charges into South Carolina showdown lagging far behind Trump

The South Carolina primary is Donald Trump’s contest to win.

Votes will be cast in the state’s primary election this Saturday; the fourth major state contest (not counting the US Virgin Islands which were unsurprisingly won by Mr Trump). And unless something downright crazy happens in the next 48 hours, there’s pretty much only one way this thing is going to go.

This, to be clear, is not New Hampshire. There’s no army of independents and Democrat crossovers hiding in the woods, ready to swamp Republican voting precincts with waves of anti-Trump votes. There’s no friendly, centrist Republican governor in the state cheering Ms Haley on, appearing with her at campaign events, and delivering the tough criticism of Mr Trump when his top rival declines to go for the throat.

It’s just South Carolina.

The electorate here is well-known, thanks to the state’s tendency towards relevance for both parties’ primaries. The Republican electorate is conservative, intensely so, and is consequently largely already backing Mr Trump’s campaign.

“Conservative Republicans already have their nominee and they've had him now since 2016,” Ashley Koning, an associate professor at Rutgers’s Eagleton polling centre told The Independent of the South Carolina GOP electorate.

The share of unaffiliated voters, meanwhile, is simply much smaller. Just about 10 per cent of the total electorate, compared to nearly 40 per cent of the voting population in New Hampshire. Yes, that’s very significant: South Carolina is a party state, regardless of whether one is a Democrat or a Republican. New Hampshire is not. And the most politically-active voters in the state are hardcore partisans, not undecideds who are looking to give either candidate a shot.

“Even though we do see an open primary, we have to remember in primaries and elections like this...we see those who are kind of the most dedicated, the most likely to turn out, the most active voters,” noted Ms Koning. In South Carolina, she explained, “That usually trends Republican.”

“Republicans don't need to be persuaded to go out and vote, and they certainly can't be persuaded in terms of who they're going to vote for.”

On the other side of the aisle, the Democratic electorate of South Carolina is much less white than their counterparts in the Granite State — and by extension, much less likely to pull the lever for a Republican, even one who made a name for herself by ending the reign of the confederate flag hanging at the statehouse in 2015. Technically, Democrats can vote in the GOP primary this year, provided they haven’t already participated in their own party’s contest which was held earlier in February.

That presents yet another issue for Ms Haley. Clearly hoping to reach those voters (especially South Carolina’s large contingent of Black voters), she made an appearance for an interview with The Breakfast Club’s Charlamagne Tha God, a native of the state, while her campaign’s allied super PAC blanketed the mailboxes of Democratic voters with urgent pleas for their participation in the GOP contest.

But that may have been for nothing. As noted previously, the Democratic contest has already taken place; party leaders in the state had urged their voters to turn out and participate, despite the uncompetitiveness of the Democratic race, out of a desire to maintain the state’s relevance in the DNC’s primary contest calendar. That means a smaller pool of high-information Democrats able to cross party lines to extend a lifeline for Ms Haley.

There are many reasons why Nikki Haley is expected to not just lose, but lose by a wide margin. There are comparatively few to suggest that she will pull off an upset.

“He's essentially an incumbent,” Ms Koning explained. “While she is an incumbent in the sense of being a former governor of a state and obviously being very well recognized to the state, he is, you know, an incumbent on the actual position for which he is once again running...This is essentially running for a second term for Trump, as opposed to Haley running for the first time around.”

Her campaign knows this. On Tuesday, the former UN ambassador and ex-governor held a “state of the race” speech in Greenville; during that address, she vowed to remain in the race through Super Tuesday and beyond, clearly serious in her belief that Donald Trump is not a winning candidate for a general election. She vowed to not “kiss the ring”, too — but at the same time, the speech was an implicit acknowledgement of the fact that she is likely going to lose her home state on Saturday.

As she touts her record as governor across a state which elected her to its highest office twice, Ms Haley is confronting a painful reality for her presidential bid — Republican voters in the state like her. But they love Donald Trump, and even a successful statewide record and as much name recognition as traditional politics can still provide cannot overcome those feelings with the majority of an increasingly conservative GOP electorate, whether it be local or national. Even in a state where Ms Haley has all the home turf advantages possible, her main constituency continues to be independent voters and anti-Trump Republicans: two factions whose numbers are, plainly, insufficient to carry a candidate to victory in a Republican Party contest.

Ms Haley has pulled out all the stops. She has crisscrossed the state where she made her political bones, and called in every favour she can. There’s nothing left except time. The slow march of time towards Donald Trump’s 91 felony criminal charges and the other debilitating legal issues which threaten to sap the frontrunner’s money, time, energy and positive image.

There is no changing of the calculus from here; at least not one that Ms Haley can direct herself. If Donald Trump loses his dominance over the GOP primary field from here, it will be because conservative Republicans defected to Ms Haley in huge numbers, a large enough sample to bridge polling gaps as high as 50 points in states like California, which votes on Super Tuesday next month. That would require a massive organic shift in Republican voter sentiment towards Mr Trump — something the GOP hasn’t experienced since 2015, to be honest.

“This is where the Republican Party could be potentially doing damage to itself by choosing to continue on with Trump instead of pivoting to someone like Haley, because obviously Haley is somebody who appeals much more to moderates and those who are on the fence like swing voters and independents,” said Ms Koning. “I think what this showing is that she’s a much better general election candidate that could actually do some real damage to the Democrats and to Biden in particular than she is a primary candidate against Trump.”

It’s all Donald’s game now.