The South Carolina primary is likely to reveal the eventual Republican presidential nominee - 3 poin

While Nikki Haley trails Donald Trump in polling ahead of the South Carolina primary, the estimates don’t capture the Democrats and independents who are also able to vote in the Republican primary.

By Kendra Stewart Published on Feb 23, 2024.
Supporters listen to Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley speak at a campaign event in Beaufort, S.C., on Feb. 21, 2024. Julia Nikhinson /AFP via Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump is set to face off against former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley in her home state in the Republican primary on Feb. 24, 2024.

While Trump overwhelmingly beat Haley in both the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary in early 2024, Haley has said she is determined to stay in the race, even if she loses in South Carolina.

But even though Haley’s return to South Carolina will be a homecoming, she has long had a complicated, and not always friendly, relationship with the politics and people of South Carolina. And there’s strong evidence that Haley is trailing Trump heading into the state’s primary.

The Conversation U.S. spoke with Kendra Stewart, a scholar of public administration and South Carolina politics at the College of Charleston, to better understand the lay of the land and implications of the South Carolina primary. Here are three important points to understand:

A series of blue lawn placards that say 'Trump' in white writing stand outside of a small brick building, which also has a Trump flag.
Campaign signs for former President Donald Trump are displayed outside a local politician’s office in Columbia, S.C., on Feb. 22, 2024. Sean Rayford/Getty Images

1. The South Carolina primary offers strong clues about the general election

This primary can be a really important indicator for the rest of the election. South Carolina is a solid red state. It has often been said that however the South Carolina primary goes is generally how the rest of the Republican primaries will go. It’s generally been very predictive of which Republican candidate actually wins the primary. The one exception for this is when South Carolina picked Newt Gingrich over Mitt Romney in 2012, and Mitt Romney went on to win the overall Republican nomination.

South Carolina is the first primary in the South and the first primary in a state that has some racial diversity, which is more relevant to the Democratic Party, but still important. Since the South mostly votes as a block in modern presidential races, the Republican Party is always interested in nominating a candidate that will secure its base – and South Carolina is a good predictor as to how the rest of the South will vote.

2. One of the candidates – Nikki Haley – is a former South Carolina governor

Generally, you would anticipate that a candidate running in his or her home state would have an advantage in an election. But in this case, Haley is definitely the underdog. In general, Haley was not overwhelmingly popular in South Carolina even when she was governor from 2011 through 2017. She has framed herself as an outsider candidate, which is of course what Trump has done, as well.

A lot of Haley’s support in South Carolina is not from the Republican establishment. When she ran for governor the first time in 2010, she ran against a number of key, establishment Republican politicians and beat them all. While she was in office, she was not someone who lined up with the Republican Party in South Carolina on many issues. She was a governor who believed in small government and minimal spending, which often led to conflict with state legislators who were trying to bring projects home to their districts. Haley’s biggest buck to the South Carolina Republican Party was when she led the charge to take down the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds. This was an issue that was very connected to the identity of the Republican Party and led to a previous governor – David Beasley – losing his reelection when he came out against flying the flag.

A big part of what made Haley an outsider in South Carolina politics is that she is a woman. In many ways, South Carolina was still a good ol’ boy system while she was in office, and she was not one of them. Haley didn’t conform to what a lot of people think of as the standard for politicians. South Carolina has always been near the bottom of the list for the number of women elected to political office because of a political culture based on traditional gender roles.

Generally, Haley has very much downplayed the fact that she was the first female governor of South Carolina, as well as the gender discrimination that women generally face in politics. She is an extremely savvy politician and realizes that these issues do not have broad appeal in South Carolina.

A tall, slim woman wears a long sleeve button down shirt and fancy pants and stands on a stage at twilight, with people in the crowd and palm trees in the distance. There are several American flags on the stage.
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign event in Beaufort, S.C., a few days before the state’s primary. Julia Nikhinson/AFP via Getty Images

3. South Carolina has an open primary

In South Carolina, you don’t select a political party when you register to vote – you just register as a South Carolina citizen. A closed primary means that you can only vote in the primary of the party for which you are a member.

South Carolina’s open primary system creates a lot of flexibility when it comes to voting. The only registered voters who couldn’t participate in the state’s Republican primary are those who already voted in the Democratic primary. The South Carolina Democratic primary, on Feb. 3, had very low turnout. In 2020, four times as many people turned out to vote during this primary. To me, this says there are a lot of eligible voters – who typically don’t vote Republican – who might come out for the upcoming Republican primary.

I do think a good number of these people will turn out for the primary to vote against Trump, which would be a vote for Haley. The question is, will this be enough voters to change the primary’s outcome? I think this is highly unlikely.

One last point to remember is that the polling that is taking place in South Carolina is mostly focused on people who have voted in a past Republican primary. When polling predictions are wrong, it is almost always because the poll samples did not reflect the people who actually turned out. My assumption is that there are a fair number of Democrats and independents who are going to cast a ballot but who are not being polled because they traditionally do not vote in Republican primaries. Because of this, I think Haley’s support is going to be a little higher than polls are predicting. This could be enough to keep her momentum going.

Kendra Stewart does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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