Nikki Haley has momentum. Two polls this week, one from CBS News and another from St. Anselm College, show her rapidly gaining on Donald Trump in New Hampshire. While far behind nationally, a credible — if narrow — path to a one-on-one race is taking shape in which she exceeds expectations in Iowa, upsets in New Hampshire, and shatters the notion of an inevitable Trump nomination.
But even if everything goes right for Haley (and it’s a big “if”), she still faces a significant challenge the next month: Her home state of South Carolina, where despite her time as governor, Trump still dominates.
In 2016, the state solidified Trump’s grip on the nomination and kicked off a winning streak across the South that helped him amass an insurmountable lead. If he has a weak spot there this time, it’s not showing up in the polling. Haley would have to find some way to pry a considerable share of for-now loyal Trump voters ahead of the Feb. 24 primary.
“Sure, lightning could strike,” Sam Skardon, the Charleston County Democratic Party chair, told Semafor. “But the South Carolina Republican Party is very pro-Trump…his pull on the Republican Party is unlike anybody I’ve ever seen in politics.”
To complicate matters further for Haley, her appearances in the state have so far been few and far between compared with those she’s done in Iowa and New Hampshire.
While her campaign headquarters are based in Charleston, she’s campaigned little in the state, as The New York Times recently reported. She’s picked up some endorsements there in recent days — and is courting Sen. Tim Scott, too — but Trump has backing from a slate of top elected officials, including Governor Henry McMaster and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Haley has recently argued that her path to winning lies in the race consolidating by the end of February, when the South Carolina caucus is slated for.
“Then you’ll have me and Trump going into my home state of South Carolina — that’s how we win,” Haley said recently during a New Hampshire stop.
By the time South Carolina actually rolls around, the race could look very different. Trump and his allies have largely refrained from attacking Haley thus far, instead seeing Ron DeSantis as the larger threat. That’s already changing. Haley, who has focused on rising above the non-Trump candidates rather than attacking the former president directly, would also have to change her approach to confront the man himself.
“What these candidates have to do to get within striking distance in any of the three early states — whether it’s Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina — is give voters who have been comfortable supporting President Trump for the past decade a reason to not vote for him this time,” Rob Godfrey, a Republican strategist who previously worked as Haley’s deputy chief of staff, told Semafor. “That means they have to sharpen contrast messages in this campaign and try to peel off supporters.”
The political environment would be different as well. Voters, who are historically prone to huge swings in polls once voting starts, would be paying more attention. Depending on how well she does in earlier races — and whether she’s fully cleared the field — she may be riding a raft of glowing John McCain 2000-esque horse race coverage or continued skepticism about her ability to carry on beyond the state.
“There’s a month between New Hampshire and South Carolina,” said Matt Gorman, a Republican campaign veteran who most recently worked on Scott’s presidential run. “That allows storylines to form, people to leave the race, things to happen. So that is also a very big runway. I think there is a path, absolutely.”
The hope for Haley is that there’s a considerable pool of “soft” Trump supporters whose minds are not fully made up. Logan McVey, a Republican political consultant, argued that despite Trump’s current popularity in the polls, a lot of voters are still waiting to see who emerges as a credible alternative. Haley’s familiarity in the state could matter a lot in that scenario.
“I think her proving viability in Iowa and then confirming it in New Hampshire just kicks the door wide open in South Carolina,” McVey said. “If you’re the Trump people, that’s what you have to be terrified of, right?”
One potential advantage for Haley: The state’s open primary. With President Biden’s own path to the nomination still looking non-competitive, there could be more room to court left-leaning voters who might be interested in taking a swipe at Trump by backing her despite her conservative platform. Already voters outside the GOP are a major focus in New Hampshire, where independents have long played a significant role in primaries.
The idea that there’s a pathway for Haley isn’t crazy. Anything can happen, and there are certainly scenarios in which she could begin to catch up a bit to Trump in South Carolina. But the question remains: Will it be enough, even if everything breaks her way?
Right now, Trump is up big in the state: The FiveThirtyEight average has him at 50.7% of support. Haley sits at a distant second with 21.8% of support. The good news is that she’s certainly rising there, too, overtaking DeSantis a few months ago. But even if every other candidate dropped out and she managed to get every single one of their votes (a miracle), she’d still be sitting behind Trump. And while Chris Christie’s popularity in New Hampshire offers a tranche of relative moderates to try to win to her side, DeSantis is her chief rival in South Carolina and has typically attracted voters with a more MAGA bent.
But setting aside the X’s and O’s of the primary schedule, I’m skeptical that ramping up the rhetoric against Trump will be effective when the time comes. Every non-Trump alternative has grappled throughout the primary with how to contrast themselves with the president without angering the huge base of Republican voters who remain attached to him. At no point has anyone come close to discovering a winning formula — in fact, his lead in national polls is hitting new highs as voting gets closer. Until there’s any sign Haley, or anyone, can drag him down, it’s difficult to see how a breakthrough happens.
The View From Nikki Haley's campaign
Haley’s campaign cited recent attack ads from a pro-Trump Super PAC in New Hampshire as evidence that the race between the two is heating up — and that a strong performance there could spark a chain reaction.
“We will head to South Carolina, where it’ll be a head-to-head with Trump,” a Haley advisor told Semafor. “And I think at that point, this is her home state. Voters know her, they love her here, they’ve taken a chance on her not once, but twice before. And I think that they’re going to do it again, especially the momentum that we’ll be feeling coming out of New Hampshire. If anyone can do it, it’s Nikki in South Carolina.”
The View From Donald Trump's campaign
Trump’s camp highlighted his support in South Carolina among both state and federal lawmakers, even comparing the landscape to Florida, where Trump successfully snagged a portion of the congressional delegation away from DeSantis early on.
“I know the narrative is that she’s surging, that she can catch up, she can play spoiler,” a Trump advisor said. “The fact is that sure, she overtook Ron DeSantis in a lot of these early states in a lot of polls, but it’s nowhere close to Trump.”
Some Republicans are growing increasingly concerned that Chris Christie’s place in the race is going to hurt Nikki Haley’s chances there, Politico’s Alex Isenstadt recently reported. One notable datapoint? 75% of people backing Christie are also looking at Haley, according to a recent CBS News poll.