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In South Carolina Nikki Haley’s Bill Comes Due

In South Carolina Nikki Haley’s Bill Comes Due

The afternoon before Donald Trump’s blowout win in South Carolina’s primary, Shellie Hargenrader and Julianne Poulnot emerged from a rally for the former president bubbling with righteous conviction.

They had spent the previous hour listening to the candidate’s son Donald Trump Jr. regale supporters at the campaign’s headquarters in an office park outside Charleston. The crowd had been energized, frequently calling out in response to his words as if at a church service as Trump Jr. lacerated President Joe Biden, the media, the multiple legal proceedings against his father and the punishment of the January 6 insurrectionists. “Trump is my president,” one man shouted.

Hargenrader and Poulnot were still feeling that spirit when they stopped on their way out from the rally to talk with me. When I asked them why they were supporting Trump over Nikki Haley, the state’s former governor, they started with conventional reasons. “Because he did a great job and he can do it again,” Hargenrader told me. Poulnot cut in to add: “He stands for the people and he tells the truth.”

But within moments, the two women moved to a higher plane in their praise of Trump and condemnation of Haley. “I think the Lord has him in the chair,” Hargenrader told me. “He’s God’s man.” Poulnot jumped in again. “And the election was stolen from him,” she said. “You have to live on Mars to not realize that.” And Haley? “I think she’s an opportunist and … she sold her soul to the devil,” Poulnot told me.

Such is the level of evangelical fervor for Trump within much of the GOP base that buried Haley in her home state on Saturday. Haley had said her goal in South Carolina was to match the 43 percent of the vote she received in last month’s New Hampshire primary, an exceedingly modest aspiration. But she appeared to fall short of even that low bar, as Trump routed her by a tally of about 60 percent to 40 percent, at the latest count.

Trump’s victory in South Carolina placed him in a virtually impregnable position for the nomination. Since South Carolina established its primary near the front of the GOP calendar in 1980, the candidate who won here has captured the Republican nomination in every contested race except one. With his win Saturday, Trump became the first GOP contender other than an incumbent president to sweep the big three early contests of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Reinforcing the message from the key initial contests of Iowa and New Hampshire, the South Carolina result showed that Haley faces a ceiling on her support too low to beat Trump. For Haley to catch Trump now would require some massive external event, and even that might not be enough.

But for all the evidence of Trump’s strength within the party, the South Carolina results again showed that a meaningful floor of GOP voters remain uneasy with returning him to leadership. “I like his policies, but I’d like to cut his thumbs off and tape his mouth shut,” Juanita Gwilt of Isle of Palms told me before Haley’s final rally before the primary Friday night just outside Charleston. In Haley’s speech to her supporters tonight, she insisted she would remain in the race. “I’m an accountant. I know 40 percent is not 50 percent,” she said. “But I also know 40 percent is not some tiny group. There are huge numbers of voters in our Republican primaries who are saying they want an alternative.”

As in Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump’s pattern of support in South Carolina simultaneously underscored his dominant position in the party while pointing to some potential vulnerabilities for the general election. In this deeply conservative state, Trump carried virtually every major demographic group. Trump beat Haley, for instance, by nearly as much among women as men and by nearly as much among suburban as rural voters, according to the exit polls conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of media organizations. The robust overall turnout testified again to Trump’s greatest political strength–his extraordinary ability to motivate his base voters.

Still some warning signs for him persisted: About one-third of all primary voters and even one-fourth of self-identified Republicans said they would not consider Trump fit for the presidency if he was convicted of a crime. Over four-in-five Haley voters said he would be unfit if convicted, about the same elevated share as in Iowa and New Hampshire. And as in the earlier states, Trump faced much more resistance among primary voters with a college degree than those without one, and among voters who did not identify as evangelical Christians than those who did. (The exit polls showed Haley narrowly carrying both groups.) As in both Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump only won about two-in-five independents in South Carolina, the exit polls found.

The magnitude of Trump’s victory was especially striking given the mismatch in time and money the two candidates devoted to the state. Haley camped out in South Carolina for most of the month before the vote, barnstorming the state in a bus; Trump only parachuted in for a few large rallies. Her campaign, and the Super PACs supporting her, spent nearly $9.4 million in South Carolina advertising, about nine times as much as Trump and his supporters, according to data provided by AdImpact.

In South Carolina, Haley also delivered a case against Trump that was far more cogent and cohesive than she offered earlier in the race. During the multiple nationally televised Republican debates through 2023, Haley barely raised a complaint about Trump. Through Iowa and New Hampshire–when she had the concentrated attention of the national media–she refused to go any further in criticizing Trump than declaring that “chaos follows him, rightly or wrongly.”

But after allowing those opportunities to pass, she notably escalated her challenge to Trump over the past month in her South Carolina rallies and a succession of television appearances. This morning, after she voted near her home in Kiawah Island, reporters asked her about some racist comments Trump made last night at an event in Columbia. In her response, no trace remained of that passive voice. “That’s the chaos that comes with Donald Trump,” she said firmly, now clearly describing him as the source of the chaos rather than a bystander to its eruption. “That’s the offensiveness that is going to happen every day between now and the general election.”

Yesterday, at a rally in Moncks Corner, a small town about an hour north of Charleston, Haley delivered a biting critique of Trump’s comments that he would encourage Russia to invade NATO countries that don’t meet the alliance’s guidelines for spending on their own defense. “Trump is siding with a thug where half a million people have died or been wounded because [Russian President Vladimir] Putin invaded Ukraine,” she said. “Trump is siding with a dictator who kills his political opponents. Trump is siding with a tyrant who arrests American journalists and holds them hostage.. ”

A few minutes later, Haley lashed Trump for questioning why her husband, who is on a military deployment, has not appeared with her during the campaign. “Donald Trump’s never been near a uniform,” she said. “He’s never had to sleep on the ground. The closest he’s ever come to harm’s way is if a golf ball happens to hit him on the golf course.” Later, she criticized Trump for using tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions to pay his own legal bills. And she insisted he cannot win a general election.

Haley remains careful to balance every criticism of Trump with an equal jab at Biden. But while she portrays both Biden and Trump as destabilizing forces, the core of her retooled message is a repudiation of Trump’s insistence that he will make America great again. No, she says, the challenge for the next president is to make America normal again. “Our kids want to know what normal feels like,”she insisted in Moncks Corner.

Taken together, this is an argument quite distinct from the case against Trump from Biden, or his sharpest Republican critics, like former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former representative Liz Cheney. Haley doesn’t join them in framing Trump as a threat to democracy or an aspiring autocrat. The refusal to embrace that claim as well as the staunch conservatism of her own agenda and her repeated indications that she’ll likely support Trump if he wins the nomination probably explains why Haley failed to attract as many independent and Democratic voters as she needed to participate today. Those non-Republicans only cast about 30 percent of the total votes, according to the exit polls. That’s about the same share as in both the 2016 and 2012 South Carolina primaries, and far less than the nearly 40 percent share then-senator John McCain turned out in his “maverick” 2000 presidential bid against George W. Bush. (And even with that Bush beat him by consolidating a big majority of partisan Republican voters, as Trump did earlier today.)

Instead in South Carolina Haley offered a case against Trump aimed more directly at wavering Republicans. She accused Trump of failing to display the personal characteristics that conservatives insist they value. It’s telling that at Haley’s rallies yesterday, she drew almost no applause when she criticized Trump on policy grounds for enlarging the federal deficit or supporting sweeping tariffs. But she inspired cries of disdain from her audience when she disparaged Trump, in so many words, as a grifter, a liar and a self-absorbed narcissist more focused on his own grudges than his voters’ needs. “Poor guy,” one man yelled out last night after Haley complained about Trump constantly portraying himself as a victim.

Would it have made any difference if Haley had pressed these assertions earlier in the race, when she had the large national audience of the debates, and Trump had not progressed so far toward the nomination? Several GOP strategists and operatives this week told me that attacking Trump while the field was still crowded would only have hurt Haley and benefited the other contenders who stayed out of the fray. Even now, in a one-on-one race, directly confronting Trump is rapidly raising Haley’s negative rating among GOP voters. Whit Ayres, a veteran GOP pollster, told me as the results came in Saturday night that GOP voters who voted for Trump twice might take it as a personal insult about their own prior decisions if Haley echoed Christie and Cheney in portraying the former president as “unfit for office and a threat to democracy.”

Read: The GOP has crossed an ominous threshold on foreign policy

Hargenrader and Poulnot underscored Ayres’s point yesterday: They speak for millions of Republican voters who see Trump in quasi-religious terms as uniquely fighting for them, and the legal challenges ensnaring him only as evidence of the burdens he’s bearing on their behalf. “I don’t think people appreciate sufficiently the fine line Nikki Haley has to walk with this coalition,” Ayres told me.

After months of vacillation and caution, Haley is now making a forceful case against Trump, and displaying great political courage in doing so: She is standing virtually alone while most of the GOP establishment (including virtually all of the political leadership in South Carolina) aligns behind him. Ayres believes that Haley is speaking for a large enough minority of the party to justify continuing in the race for as long as she wants—even if there’s virtually no chance anymore that she can expand her coalition enough to truly threaten Trump. “Nikki Haley represents a perspective, an outlook on the world, and a set of values that are still held by what remains of the Reagan-Bush coalition in the Republican Party,” Ayres told me.

But the bill for treating Trump so gingerly for so many months has now come due for Haley in South Carolina. Haley waited until the concrete in this race had almost hardened before giving Republican voters a real reason to think twice about nominating Trump again. Perhaps the circle of GOP voters open to an alternative was never large enough to support a serious challenge to the former president. What’s clear after his decisive victory in South Carolina is that neither Haley nor anyone else in the GOP tried hard enough to test that proposition until it was too late.

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