South Carolina probably won’t save Nikki Haley

Any momentum Haley can claim out of New Hampshire runs into daunting polls and an expensive, month-long campaign to reverse them in a state where, if not for her connections, she’d likely have little chance of success.

The handful of contests over the next month will be largely inconsequential. Nevada is technically holding two GOP contests, but Trump and Haley aren’t even running on the same ballot, and the state party will award all its delegates in the caucus in which Trump is a candidate on Feb. 8. And only four delegates are at stake in the tiny Virgin Islands, also on Feb. 8.

It all comes down instead to South Carolina on Feb. 24, a full month removed from New Hampshire. It’s a make-or-break moment for Haley following her rise as Trump’s lone credible challenger after Iowa.

Haley is pushing forward: Her campaign is launching TV ads in South Carolina starting on Wednesday, and Haley has planned a Wednesday night campaign event near Charleston.

But despite winning two terms as governor there, Haley can’t count on her favorite-daughter status to save her.

South Carolina’s electorate is far more conservative and more evangelical — the types of voters among whom Trump has dominated in the first two nominating contests this month. It’s an electorate that’s different from the college-educated moderates and independents who comprised Haley’s coalition in New Hampshire.

More than a third of GOP primary voters in New Hampshire on Tuesday, 34 percent, identified as moderate or liberal, and Haley won 75 percent of them, according to the
National Election Pool exit poll
. South Carolina voters are more conservative: Just 19 percent of voters in the state’s 2016 GOP primary identified as moderate or liberal.

Among self-identified conservatives in New Hampshire — the kinds of voters Haley will face more of in South Carolina — Trump trounced Haley, 70 percent to 28 percent.

Anticipating this narrative, Haley’s campaign sent a memo Tuesday morning to reporters, pointing to her once-unlikely victory in the fractious 2010 primary for governor as evidence of a history running strong campaigns. But in that race, she had the backing of prominent figures on the right — like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

This time, her state’s top Republicans are lining up against her. All but one member of the state’s GOP congressional delegation is behind Trump, as is Gov. Henry McMaster. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), whom Haley appointed to the Senate in 2013, took the stage at Trump’s primary-night rally to declare the race over.

What Haley needs is a momentous surge of Trump skeptics who don’t typically vote in Republican primaries. South Carolina doesn’t have partisan voter registration, so anyone can vote in the GOP primary on Feb. 24 — as long as they don’t first cast a ballot in the Democratic primary three weeks earlier, on Feb. 3.

New Hampshire, with its libertarian history, does have a culture of independent voters who jump between primaries. (It’s also swung to the left in recent years, though, and now-President Joe Biden won it in the general election by 7 points in 2020.)

South Carolina doesn’t have that same independent streak, and there hasn’t historically been a large bloc of party-switching voters in Republican primaries.

And ironically, Biden’s push for a big win in the Palmetto State could undermine Haley’s efforts to beat Trump later next month on her home turf. Biden and the Democratic National Committee anointed South Carolina as the first in their party’s nominating order. And the president launched TV ads in South Carolina this week aimed at turning out voters in the Democratic primary, and he’s running spots on gospel radio stations and other outlets with large Black listenership.

If he’s successful at mobilizing large swaths of the electorate, those same voters would be ineligible to then vote against Trump — and for Haley — in the GOP primary.

The first-in-the-South primary — the brainchild of the famed GOP strategist Lee Atwater, among others — also has a long history of ugliness, including the racist 2000 smear campaign against John McCain.

Already, Trump and his allies have been
invoking Haley’s first name
, echoing some of the attacks Haley faced in that 2010 race, which also included
unfounded allegations
of marital infidelity.

When they picked their primary date, South Carolina Republicans
wanted the state to play a pivotal role
. They got their wish Tuesday when Trump failed to land a knockout blow against Haley.

And now we’re all in for a long, likely ugly slog — that, barring a major shakeup in the race’s dynamics, likely won’t stop Trump’s path to the nomination.

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