Web Stories Sunday, April 21

Nikki Haley’s presidential campaign has for weeks been looking ahead to the Republican primary in South Carolina, her home state where she was twice elected governor. After losing to former President Donald Trump in Iowa and New Hampshire, then Nevada and the US Virgin Islands, Haley’s candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination is nearing the brink.

And the Palmetto State appears poised Saturday to push it closer to – and possibly over – the edge.

Trump has led in every poll of South Carolina, before and after Haley emerged as his final roadblock to a third straight Republican presidential nomination. Nearly all of the state’s top GOP elected officials are supporting Trump, and the eyeball test – particularly when it comes to crowd size at campaign rallies – suggests they can see a landslide coming.

Haley’s team is under no illusions about the task at hand.

“We know the odds. We know the stakes,” campaign manager Betsy Ankney told reporters Friday. “Eyes wide open, we will take the arrows, we will take the slings, but we are focused on the fight ahead.”

Haley insists that, no matter the outcome, she will carry on to Super Tuesday in March and potentially beyond. Earlier this week, she told supporters – and others questioning her staying power – that she was digging in.

“South Carolina will vote on Saturday. But on Sunday, I’ll still be running for president,” Haley said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

The Trump campaign, for its part, doesn’t appear too concerned about paving an off-ramp for Haley.

In a memo released as Haley was pledging to stay in, Trump’s team declared that “the end is near for Nikki Haley,” calling her – in predictably Trumpian language – a “wailing loser hell-bent on an alternative reality and refusing to come to grips with her imminent political mortality.”

There is no doubt, of course, that Haley is the underdog. But on the flip side, that means an upset of Trump on some of his firmest ground in the country would reshuffle expectations – and prognostications – and deliver Haley momentum, along with a fundraising surge, ahead of the Super Tuesday contests.

Here are four things to watch for in South Carolina:

Barring a major upset, most discussions about the primary will, by late Saturday, turn to Trump’s margin of victory. The question: Is there a deficit that could make Haley rethink her stated plans?

Haley and her campaign have repeatedly brushed off any suggestion of ending her bid before next month, but she wouldn’t be the first candidate to change her tune when confronted with ugly numbers.

Republican Rep. Nancy Mace, who represents Haley’s home district, has endorsed Trump. That’s despite her past alliance with Haley, who vouched for Mace in a television ad in 2022 when the congresswoman was facing a tough primary. So while she is not a neutral voice here, Mace has some insight into the electorate. Her prediction (from a Politico interview published Friday): That Trump will “win by a huge margin. I’m going to say 25-28 (points), somewhere in there.”

Haley’s team has mostly refused to make any predictions, not about the outcome and certainly not over what kind of loss she could, or could not, move on from. The operation appears dedicated to carrying on at least into March and has the campaign cash to do it.

But there are other considerations. Trump has mocked and slighted his rival at every turn, even joking about the absence of Michael Haley, her husband of 26 years who is currently on a yearlong deployment overseas with the South Carolina National Guard.

Haley framed his comments as part of an ongoing pattern of disrespect toward military members and their service, telling CNN’s Jake Tapper earlier this month: “If you don’t respect our military, how should we think you’re going to respect them when it comes to times of war, and prevent war and keep them from going?”

It’s the kind of crude remark that could fuel a continued campaign, no matter the outcome in South Carolina.

Most South Carolina politicos do not believe it exists. And for good reason.

Much of what made Haley a national political figure – her call as governor for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds – is anathema to the state’s conservative GOP base. She is on the outs with nearly all state party leaders. Trump, meanwhile, has dominated there. South Carolina was the only East Coast state he won by double digits in the 2020 general election.

That said, there are some thin slivers of hope.

The primary in South Carolina is open, meaning Democrats and independents can cast ballots in the GOP race. Those are the voters, along with more traditional conservatives, that make up the (theoretical) Haley coalition. And they will know, going into Saturday, that anything short of a strong showing for Haley could spell the end.

New Hampshire offered a similar opportunity, in terms of voting rules, and Trump still won the GOP primary by 11 points, with 54% of the vote. Haley’s 43%, combined with the votes cast for the other non-Trump candidates on the ballot, would not have been enough to change the result.

But that was, in campaign terms, a good while ago. Haley is hoping the do-or-die nature of the moment will inspire a late, anti-Trump outburst. One that might carry into other states with open primaries, such as Michigan next week and Texas and Virginia on Super Tuesday.

Can Trump expand his base?

The former president does not need to open a larger tent in order to win in South Carolina. But one of the main concerns facing his campaign – one highlighted by Haley in the run-up to South Carolina – is his weak showing among independents, which was evident in New Hampshire.

According to CNN exit polling, Haley bested Trump 58% to 39% among Granite State independents who could vote in the GOP primary – a remarkable gap considering Trump won the overall primary vote by 10 points, powered largely by older voters from suburban and rural areas. And, of course, registered Republicans, among whom Trump romped, 74% to 25%.

But with independents allowed to vote in the South Carolina contest as well, we might get some insight into whether Trump has done anything to help his cause with these potential general election swing voters.

Of particular note, CNN’s Harry Enten writes, are Charleston and Richland counties – the only two Trump did not win during the 2016 Republican primary. Home to two of the state’s urban centers, defeat there would hardly spell doom for the former president but could be a preview of difficulties to come – and a sign that Trump has not yet brought the entire GOP under his thumb.

It would also provide Haley with new ammunition for her argument that Trump is uniquely ill-qualified to win back the White House later this year.

For all the expectation-setting and speculative arguments, there is still only one concrete measure of success: delegates. The eventual nominee will need 1,215 of them.

Trump currently leads Haley, 63 to 17. It’s obviously not insurmountable, and with 50 at stake in South Carolina, Haley could theoretically jump into the lead. Much more likely, though, is that she will be shut out entirely. South Carolina awards 29 of its delegates to the statewide winner and three apiece to the leader in each of its seven congressional districts.

Though it’s still early in the primary calendar, it’s getting late for Haley. There will be more than 850 delegates on offer during Super Tuesday, on March 5, when states like California and Texas vote. That’s roughly 35% of the entire delegate pot.

Haley, then, will be desperate to avoid a headline-grabbing goose egg in her home state, if for no other reason than its potential to discourage possible supporters ahead of mathematically bigger contests.

CNN’s Ethan Cohen contributed to this report.

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