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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

February 1: Will South Carolina Democrats Save Nikki Haley to Stop Trump?

There have been some odd twists already in the 2024 presidential contest, and today I wrote about one of them at New York.

After a nearly monthlong drought in public polling of South Carolina, the state whose February 24 Republican primary could for all practical purposes clinch the GOP nomination for Donald Trump, we finally have some fresh data. And the new Washington Post–Monmouth survey shows Trump still has a big lead over Nikki Haley in her home state.

The former president is up by a 58 percent to 32 percent margin among voters interested in and eligible to (we’ll have more on that below) participate in the open Republican primary, and he leads Haley comfortably in voter enthusiasm and on multiple issue-position and candidate traits, including electability. Fifty-seven percent of poll respondents say Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election “due to voter fraud,” and 60 percent believe Republicans should stick with Trump as nominee even if he’s convicted of criminal conduct in connection with his efforts to overturn that election result. Trump’s favorable-unfavorable ratio is 66 percent to 28 percent; Haley’s is 45 percent to 41 percent. He leads among women as well as among men, and in every age category of voter. And Trump leads the former South Carolina governor by 60 points (77 percent to 17 percent) among those who call themselves “strong Republicans” and by 26 points (60 percent to 34 percent) among “soft” or “leaning” Republicans.

There is some good news for Haley in this poll: She slightly leads Trump (46 percent to 44 percent) among college graduates, and she leads him strongly (61 percent to 15 percent) among those who self-identify not as Republicans but as independents or as Democrats. These independents and Democrats make up 19 percent of the poll’s sample. Ifthey were a much bigger portion of the GOP primary electorate, Haley might have a chance at an upset win. That’s a very big “if,” though.

South Carolina has no voter registration by party. Registered voters can choose either party’s primary in any given election cycle (though the registration deadline for this year’s presidential primaries has already passed), but once they choose one, they are barred from the other until the cycle is over. As it happens, South Carolina’s Democratic presidential primary will be held on February 3. President Joe Biden has made a real effort to turn out the Democratic vote to resolve some doubts about his intraparty support in the state that gave him his big breakthrough in 2020. Nikki Haley really needs a lot of Democrats and Democrat-leaning indies to pass up that opportunity and turn out for her on February 24, says Monmouth polling director Patrick Murray:

“Haley’s hopes appear to hang on pulling in Democratic-leaning voters who would never support her in a general election but simply want to stop Trump. Our sampling frame for this poll did not include voters who have participated only in Democratic primaries. If a sizable number of those voters decide to skip this week’s primary and show up for the Republican contest instead, she could narrow the gap. It would remain a tough challenge, though, for her to actually close it.”

Keep in mind that for all of Nikki Haley’s self-portrayal as a beacon of civility and potential bipartisanship (at least as compared to the savage 45th president), she was the very partisan governor of South Carolina for six years after winning the election in 2010 as the candidate of the hard-core conservative DeMint-Sanford wing of the GOP and the high-profile tea-party protégé of Sarah Palin. As governor, she was known as a fierce advocate for big-business interests and for absolutely hating organized labor. Her one big enlightened gesture, the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse, was finally taken after a racist massacre at a Charleston church made the step largely noncontroversial.

For South Carolina Democrats to enter a Republican primary en masse to save Nikki Haley from a humiliating loss on her home turf would require either a great deal of amnesia or a fear of Donald Trump that makes all things possible. It would also represent a level of strategic voting that is rare in practice.

With three weeks to go before the GOP primary, we should be able to discern a major movement of South Carolina Democrats into the enemy camp if it happens. You can bet Team Trump will again warn (as it did prior to the New Hampshire primary) that Haley is inviting Democrats to “infiltrate” the Republican contest because they fear the former president. Sooner or later, of course, if Haley is to remain in the contest, she’s going to have to beat Trump among the “strong Republicans” who will dominate most primaries down the road. For the present, though, she needs a miracle and a lifeline from the other side of the partisan barricades.

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