Nikki Haley Lost Her Home State. The Entire Primary Is Next.

AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images

The state that launched Nikki Haley to national prominence over a decade ago dealt an embarrassing—and potentially lethal—blow to her campaign for president on Saturday.

As expected, the former governor of South Carolina was resoundingly defeated by Donald Trump in her home state’s primary election.

Shortly after polls closed on Saturday evening, the Associated Press projected Trump as the winner. The only drama in the contest will be in how wide his margin of victory is when all the votes are tallied.

Nikki Haley Was Doomed in South Carolina Well Before 2024

While Haley has pledged to remain in the race at least until March 5—when 16 GOP primary contests will be held—the South Carolina result further confirms what has been clear for weeks: that Trump will again be the party’s nominee for president.

Though Haley energetically canvassed her home state in the lead-up to the primary, Trump still trounced her despite holding just a smattering of rallies.

But for Trump and the campaign—who themselves insisted the race was already over by the Iowa caucus—beating Haley in South Carolina was less about the path to the nomination and more about a personal quest to destroy her political future right where her ascent began.

The drubbing Haley suffered on Saturday underscored just how distant she had become from the party base in a state where she was once highly popular. Nearly the entire South Carolina GOP apparatus lined up for Trump, and even former allies turned against her.

The embarrassment seemed so inevitable that many Republicans wondered why Haley endured in the race after falling clearly short in the early states, when she could have cut her losses far sooner. Instead, she stayed in the race and sharpened her attacks on Trump’s legal woes, fringe foreign policy stances, and cognitive ability.

In fact, Haley seemed to embrace the hate from Trump and his supporters. Instead of brushing off his claims that anyone donating to her would be “permanently barred from the MAGA camp,” her campaign sold T-shirts emblazoned with the words “BARRED. PERMANENTLY.”

One pro-Trump political operative, granted anonymity to speak candidly, hypothesized that this is all about Haley setting herself up for a post-political life in the private sector.

Why Nikki Haley Is Continuing Her Seemingly Hopeless Campaign

“There is no political decision for staying in this race and doing what she’s doing, there’s no path forward for her politically,” the operative said. “But, there is a path forward for her to make a bunch of money giving speeches and having a corporate board seat when this is all over.”

To whatever extent a re-entry into Trumpworld was possible for Haley earlier in the primary, Republicans in the former president’s orbit see that door as permanently shut. Now, the question for Haley is whether she’s bet on a post-Trump GOP which may never come to fruition, or if she’s chosen to end her presidential campaign in spectacular fashion in pursuit of some other goal.

In her comments ahead of the South Carolina primary, Haley spoke about remaining in the race as if it were her duty to provide GOP voters a choice. While she had previously said she would compete until the last person voted, she told NPR on Wednesday that “the furthest we've thought is we certainly are going to go past South Carolina, go into Michigan and go into Super Tuesday states.”

But Haley’s home state made clear that GOP voters do not really want the choice before them and are ready to back Trump into the general election.

It may never have been possible for Haley to outright win her home state, which has been transformed by the Trump movement, but Republicans familiar with her operation indicated she could have come closer.

In early February, The Daily Beast reported that some South Carolina Republicans believed Haley was cruising toward a huge loss in part because of her inability to maintain trust with key coalitions.

“I keep going back to it, it’s trust,” a longtime South Carolina Republican previously said. “She’ll tell people what they wanna hear in front of them, then tell another group what they wanna hear when she’s in front of them.”

Two high profile South Carolina Republicans whom Haley had previously backed and campaigned for, Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Nancy Mace, both ended up endorsing Trump and stumping for him in the home stretch of the primary.

Of the 17 current members of the South Carolina Freedom Caucus—the first state-level group to copy the House Freedom Caucus on Capitol Hill and their uncompromising tactics—all but five have endorsed the former president. None came out in support of Haley.

Trump’s RNC Takeover Is on the Brink of Becoming a ‘Purge’

Haley insisted her goal in the South Carolina primary was to improve upon her result in New Hampshire, which was always going to be a steep task given that state’s larger share of independent voters and higher share of Republicans who disapprove of Trump.

Still, Haley’s strategy this cycle has been perplexing. Attempting to tamp down expectations, Haley and her camp have routinely emphasized that she doesn’t have to win certain states, including South Carolina, despite the fact that she would obviously need to win somewhere before Super Tuesday to demonstrate strength.

On Friday, Haley’s campaign manager in a call with reporters said their race “has never just been about who can win a Republican primary. This battle is about who can win in November.” While many polls do show Haley beating President Joe Biden in a general election matchup, she isn’t winning over the voters who could put her in that position.

The Haley campaign still hasn’t named a contest they think they can win going into Super Tuesday, in which delegate-rich states like California, Texas, and North Carolina will cast their votes. With a strong enough performance, Trump could mathematically clinch the nomination that night.

Still, the Haley campaign announced on Friday a seven-figure ad buy across cable and digital platforms in the Super Tuesday states, once again signaling her intentions of enduring in the race.

In a recent campaign memo, Trump advisers Chris LaCivita and Susie Wiles outlined what they argued was a generous case for Haley’s near future where she would still lose the nomination by March 19 if the Super Tuesday states all replicated her performance in New Hampshire.

“Now, if we ignore this model and follow what the current data—both public and private—suggests, President Trump will win the Republican nomination one week earlier, on March 12, with 1,223 Delegates,” Wiles and LaCivita wrote. “Which is all to say, before March Madness tips off next month, President Trump will be the Republican nominee for President.”

As for whether Haley will have made the right call by sticking through the primary to make a broader point about how much Trump has corroded the GOP, that may have to wait until long after the confetti clears from the college basketball tournament.

There’s one scenario which could make Haley look prescient in her decisionmaking: the GOP getting trounced almost as badly Election Day in November as she did on primary day in South Carolina.

“It is a huge, significant miscalculation that I’m sure she’s aware of,” the former Trump official said of Haley burning bridges with Trump. “She’s ending her political career, at least with Republicans. Being a fool and being brave, it’s a fine line. I think we’ll know more by November.”

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