Will Democrats cross party lines for SC primaries? Some are debating


South Carolina voters are set to cast their ballots in the first presidential primary in the nation this month, starting with the Democratic primary on Saturday. But with former President Donald Trump on the ballot once again as a Republican candidate, some voters are considering crossing party lines to disrupt his chances for the GOP nomination.

The state is the first to vote in an official Democratic presidential primary after a decision from the Democratic National Committee at the president’s request. The request was made to allow states with more diversity among voters to go earlier in the primary schedule as the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries kicked off presidential races in the past.

Because the state holds open primaries, voters can choose to vote in either the Democratic primary on Saturday, Feb. 3 or in the Republican primary at the end of the month on Feb. 24. However, voters cannot vote in both primaries. Along with incumbent President Joe Biden, House Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) and former 2020 candidate, author Marianne Williamson will be on the Democratic ballot Saturday.

But for some in the state, skipping Saturday’s Democratic vote and casting a ballot in the Republican primary represents a chance to weaken Trump’s performance, who is currently the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. On the other hand, higher voter turnout for the Democratic primary could show the state’s support for the Democratic president in a ruby-red state.

If turnout is low, Democrats could risk losing their spot to vote first in the nation in 2028. As of Jan. 31, 25,749 voters participated in early voting for the Democratic primary, which kicked off Jan. 22.

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Some on-the-fence voters see Haley as a safer option, especially those dreading a rematch between Trump and Biden.

Should a Democrat vote in the Republican primary for Haley?

Kathryn Harvey, chairwoman of the Spartanburg County Democratic Party, said she’s received this exact inquiry from voters seeking advice.

Harvey said it is important to vote in the Democratic primary to secure a spot to be the first to vote in 2028.

“Our ability to be first in the nation in the next presidential election cycle is our ability to make sure that South Carolina’s issues are top of mind and top of ticket in 2028,” Harvey said.

In 2020, 262,336 voters turned out to vote for Biden in South Carolina for the state Democratic primary. At a dinner hosted by the South Carolina Democratic Party on Jan. 27, the president said the state helped catapult him into victory. With the state holding primaries first for the first time, party leaders want to ensure that momentum.

While some voters may feel Haley is a better alternative to Trump, Harvey said Haley also had a “Make America Great Again agenda” during her tenure as governor, before Trump even became a potential candidate in 2016.

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On Jan. 20, during a Democratic rally, Greenville County Democrats like County Councilman Ennis Fant and state Rep. Chandra Dillard emphasized the importance of voting in the Democratic presidential primaries. South Carolina Democratic Party Executive Director Jay Parmley spoke briefly about Democrats who are questioning if they should vote in the GOP primary this month.

“I have heard good Democrats say to me, ‘I’m going to vote in the Republican primary because I’m going to stop Donald Trump by voting for Nikki Haley,'” Parmley said. “She is as bad as Donald Trump.”

Although Biden is predicted to be the frontrunner for the Democratic nominee for the general election, some Democrats still see a benefit in casting a vote for Haley to prevent another Trump nomination.

Jalen Elrod, a Democrat based in Greenville, said he understood why some might choose to vote in the GOP primary, though for him, it presents a “moral dilemma.”

“If we as Democrats and more so as Americans are going to argue he’s (Trump) an unprecedented threat to democracy to the extent that his Republican opponents aren’t, I don’t see how you don’t take every measure to stop him,” Elrod said. “It’s a matter of principle over politics for me.”

Counter campaigns push for Haley votes

To drum up support for voters to cross party lines, some groups have launched counter campaigns to encourage voters to vote for Haley.

Primary Pivot is a national nonprofit “dedicated to protecting our democracy by defeating Donald Trump in the 2024 Republican primaries,” according to its website. The organization targets Democratic and independent voters to motivate them to cast their ballot for the former South Carolina governor.

“Trump is an existential threat to our democracy,” Tiffany James, a South Carolinian working as a political consultant for the organization, said. “He has violated our democracy in so many different ways.”

However, James said the organization cannot deny the fact that they expect Trump to win in South Carolina.

“But what we’re doing is giving people another option and letting them know that they still have a chance to vote against him,” James said. 

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Todd Shaw, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina, said counter-vote schemes are usually “ineffective.”

“You have to convince a significant number of voters to turn out to the polls to have a credible level of turnout to begin with,” Shaw said. “Then you have to ask them to not necessarily vote for their preferred candidate but to vote for an alternate candidate as part of a strategic calculation.”

In the New Hampshire primary Haley counted on the independent vote to reinforce her campaign against Trump. However, she ultimately lost by 11 percentage points. 

This election is not the first time South Carolinians considered crossing party lines to weaken a candidate.

In 2020, Republican groups in the Upstate organized efforts by encouraging Republicans to vote in the Democratic primary. Tea Party organizers in Spartanburg encouraged voters to cast a vote for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a candidate they described as the “worst Democrat,” as reported previously by Greenville News.

Republicans deemed the initiative “Project Chaos.”

In 2020 exit polls from CNN, only 5% of Republicans voted in the Democratic primary, but 23% of voters for Sanders identified as conservative.

Ultimately the operation didn’t work as Biden won 48% of the vote in the 2020 state primary.

How has Trump fared in South Carolina previously? 

After losing both the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primaries to Trump, Haley faces an uphill battle to win over voters. Although South Carolina is Haley’s home state, one she led as Governor for almost two terms from 2011-2017, polls continue to show favor for the former president.

As of Jan. 31, a poll from 538 shows Trump leading by 64%, with Haley trailing at 31% for the presidential primary in South Carolina.

In the Iowa caucuses, Trump won by a 30-point margin with 51% of the vote prompting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who came in second, to drop out the following week. DeSantis endorsed Trump days before the New Hampshire primaries. Haley came in third in the Iowa Caucuses, garnering 19% of the vote.

Shortly after in New Hampshire, Trump secured a win again by defeating Haley by a 11% margin.

Following the two races, Trump accumulated 32 delegates to Haley’s 17. There are 1,215 delegates needed to win the GOP nomination. In SC, 50 delegates will be allocated for the Republican primary. To secure the Democratic nomination, 1,968 delegates are needed, with 65 delegates up for grabs in the SC Democratic primary.

In 2020, Trump secured South Carolina with 55% of the vote, while President Joe Biden earned 43%. In 2016, Trump won 32% of the vote in the state’s Republican presidential preference primary.

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A majority of Republican South Carolina politicians have backed Trump over Haley, including U.S. Representatives Nancy Mace, Jeff Duncan, Russell Fry, William Timmons and Sen. Lindsey Graham. Despite Haley nominating Tim Scott for his seat in the Senate, he also endorsed Trump. Gov. Henry McMaster and Lieutenant Gov. Pamela Evette showed their support by visiting Trump on stage at a rally in New Hampshire before the state’s primaries.

Still, Haley vowed to stay in the race for the GOP nomination, despite calls for her to back out.

“We want people to think about if they would rather give their votes to Haley, not because they love Haley, but because it will give us a better opportunity to secure our democracy,” James said.

Savannah Moss covers Greenville County politics and growth/development. She will also be covering Nikki Haley’s campaign for the News. Reach her at smoss@gannett.com or follow her on X @savmoss.

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