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How Trump won in South Carolina and what it could mean for November

Trump's victory in South Carolina looked remarkably similar to his wins in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
How Trump won in South Carolina and what it could mean for November
Posted at 7:48 AM, Feb 25, 2024

Donald Trump won over South Carolina Republicans as the candidate who voters believe can win in November, keep the country safe and will stand up and fight for them as president.

Trump cruised to victory in the South Carolina primary with the support of an almost unwavering base of loyal voters. AP VoteCast found that Republicans in the state are broadly aligned with Trumps's goals: Many question the value of supporting Ukraine's fight against Russia; and overwhelming majorities see immigrants as hurting the U.S. and suspect that there are nefarious political motives behind Trump's multiple criminal indictments.

Even in her home state of South Carolina, where she was once governor, Nikki Haley appeared to have little chance against Trump. Just over half of GOP voters had a favorable view of her, whereas about two-thirds had a positive view of Trump.

About 6 in 10 South Carolina voters consider themselves supporters of the "Make America Great Again" movement, a Trump slogan that helped catapult him to the White House in 2016. About 9 in 10 Trump voters said they were driven by their support for him, not by objections to his opponent. Haley's voters were much more divided: About half were motivated by supporting her, but nearly as many turned out to oppose Trump.

AP VoteCast is a survey of more than 2,400 voters taking part in Saturday's Republican primary in South Carolina, conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago.

SEE MORE: Will Nikki Haley's battle strategy against Trump work?

How Trump Won in South Carolina

Trump's victory in South Carolina looked remarkably similar to his wins in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. It's a sign that regional differences that once existed within the GOP have been supplanted by a national movement that largely revolves around the former president.

Trump, 77, won in South Carolina with voters who are white and do not have a college degree, one of his core constituencies. About two-thirds of Trump's backers in this election fell into that group.

A majority believe Trump is a candidate who can emerge victorious in November's general election, while only about half say the same of Haley. Voters were also far more likely to view Trump than Haley as someone who would "stand up and fight for people like you" and to say he would keep the country safe. And about 7 in 10 say he has the mental capability to serve effectively as president.

Trump's voters also backed his more nationalist views — they are more likely than Haley's supporters to have lukewarm views of the NATO alliance or even consider it bad for the U.S., to say immigrants are hurting the country and to say immigration is the top issue facing the country.

Nikki Haley's Political Future 

At the age of 52, Haley has bet that she can offer a generational change for the GOP. But the future she articulated has little basis in the present-day GOP, even in South Carolina, where she previously won two terms as governor. About 4 in 10 of South Carolina Republicans — including about 6 in 10 of those supporting Trump — say they have an unfavorable opinion of her.

Haley has said she will stay in the race until at least the Super Tuesday primaries, though so far there are no signs that she has disrupted Trump's momentum. She's struggled to convince the core of the Republican Party that she's a better choice than the former president — losing most conservatives and those without a college degree to Trump.

Who is her coalition? Haley dominated among South Carolina voters who correctly said that Democrat Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election. Roughly three-quarters of her supporters say Biden was legitimately elected president in 2020, and about 4 in 10 voted for Biden in that election. Her problem is that about 6 in 10 Republican primary voters say they believed Biden was not legitimately elected.

Trump's Potential Weaknesses in a General Election 

Trump has an iron grip on the Republican base, but that might not be enough of a coalition to guarantee a win in November's general election.

South Carolina was a chance to show that he can expand his coalition beyond voters who are white, older and without a college degree. But about 9 in 10 of South Carolina's primary voters were white, making it hard to see if Trump has made inroads with Black voters whom he has attempted to win over.

Haley outpaced Trump among college-educated voters, a relative weakness for him that could matter in November as people with college degrees are a growing share of the overall electorate. Even though South Carolina Republican voters believe that Trump can win in November, some had worries about his viability.

About half of Republican voters in South Carolina — including about a quarter of his supporters — are concerned that Trump is too extreme to win the general election. About 3 in 10 voters believe he acted illegally in at least one of the criminal cases against him, even though about 7 in 10 believe the investigations are political attempts to undermine him.

Trump dominates among conservative voters. But his challenge is that those voters were just 37% of the electorate in the November 2020 presidential election. The other 63% identified as moderate or liberal, the two categories that Trump lost to Haley in South Carolina.


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