Haley may be bracing for a loss, but home state supporters vow to stick with her until the end

<span>Voters wait to cast their ballots in Johns Island, South Carolina, on 24 February 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA</span>
Voters wait to cast their ballots in Johns Island, South Carolina, on 24 February 2024.Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA

Cindy Tripp, still recovering from a surgery she’d undergone earlier that week, convinced her husband to accompany her to Patriots Point on Friday night to watch Nikki Haley rally supporters one last time before the voters of South Carolina rendered their verdict in the Republican presidential primary.

“I’m not supposed to be here,” Tripp said, laughing as the sun set over the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier, the backdrop for Haley’s rally on the eve of the Republican primary. “But I couldn’t miss this because I’m so proud of her.”

Related: South Carolina Republican primaries: Haley defiant as Trump confident of win

Tripp, who turns 60 next week, cast her ballot for Haley just after polls opened on the first day of early voting on 12 February. Ahead of Saturday’s primary, she has worked to get out the vote in South Carolina, where Haley is bracing for a loss to Donald Trump in the state that twice elected her governor.

But some of her supporters are vowing to stick with their candidate until the end.

Haley is Trump’s last remaining primary rival. Casting herself as David taking on Goliath, she has refused to drop out of the race, thrilling voters like Tripp who say they no longer feel welcome in Trump’s Republican party.

“Nikki represents an opportunity for us to finally speak,” Tripp said.

On a Beast of the South-East bus tour across her “sweet” South Carolina, Haley was often greeted by crowds of women and girls eager to see her make history. But also – and more importantly, they emphasize – she would restore a sense of normalcy to American politics.

“She’s not the best woman for the job. She’s the best person for the job,” said Judith Smith, who carried a homemade Run Nikki Run sign at a Haley event in Moncks Corner on Friday.

South Carolina primary: read more

Those like Smith who recall Haley’s tenure as governor point to her stewardship of the state’s economy and her leadership in the wake of the racist massacre at the historically Black Mother Emanuel AME Church in 2015. Others cite her foreign policy experience as United Nations ambassador under Trump.

But a not insignificant source of her support is her opponent.

“To be honest, I hate Trump,” said Barbara Bates, 76, of Goose Creek, when asked about her support for Haley.

Bates – a Republican who voted for Haley as governor, and who was wearing a Haley campaign shirt that quipped “underestimate me, that will be fun” – said she was under no illusion that Trump could be stopped from winning the nomination. She nevertheless believed it was important for Haley to stand in his way as he attempts to stamp out any strain of resistance to his nomination.

“I appreciate her hanging in and not dropping out,” Bates said. “In 2020 I didn’t get a vote in the presidential primary because South Carolina went ahead and anointed Trump. At least she gave me a vote.”

With most of the Republican base in Trump’s thrall, Haley’s coalition is a hodgepodge of conservatives who remember her as the “Tea Party governor”, and anti-Trump Republicans and independents disillusioned by the prospect of a November rematch between Trump, a 77-year-old former president facing 91 felony charges, and Joe Biden, the deeply unpopular incumbent.

She also appeals to some Democrats fearful of a Trump second term and indifferent toward Biden. South Carolina is among the states that allow registered Democrats to vote in the Republican primary – as long as they didn’t participate in their party’s contest earlier this month.

At an event in Georgetown this week, Morgan Derrick, a self-described “curious Democrat”, said she liked Haley’s foreign policy approach and her economic plans. But she has concerns with Haley’s conservative views on abortion.

Derrick said abortion was “probably the highest policy on my mind” though she had disagreements with Biden on other issues, leaving her unsure of how she would vote.

“It’s a very complicated field out there,” Derrick said.

A Suffolk University/USA Today poll of South Carolina Republican primary voters found that 59% of respondents who identified themselves as liberals or moderates said they’d vote for the former South Carolina governor, compared with just 38% who said they would back Trump. Among those who said the most important issue of the future is democracy, 63% favored Haley.

Not all of Haley’s supporters are anti-Trump. Some are enthusiastically pro-Haley. A group of Republican women cheered wildly and danced in the crowd as they waited for Haley’s bus to arrive in Moncks Corner. Some wore shirts that said “barred permanently” – a reference to Trump’s threat to ex-communicate any donor who continued giving to her campaign.

Several of those same supporters arrived at Haley’s evening event wearing feather boas and “women for Nikki” pins. They praised her as a “role model” and a “leader” who was “smart as a whip” and could unify the country.

When she finishes speaking, Haley is regularly mobbed by women and young girls, who often receive extra attention from the candidate. She autographs their posters with a heart and a personalized note and poses for selfies.

“She seems like a voice for the future,” said Trish Mooney, 60, who attended a Haley event in Georgetown this week.

Haley has also attracted a loyal group of out-of-state volunteers, some who have followed her campaign from Iowa. A Massachusetts man handing out yard signs in Moncks Corner said he felt compelled to do what he could to defeat Trump.

Marti Leib, an independent who said she never votes a straight party-line ticket, came from Florida with her tiny dog, Kipper, to support Haley’s campaign in the state. In a view shared by several attendees at the candidate’s Friday campaign stops, Leib said the November election presents an existential choice for Americans – and that Haley is the only candidate left in the race who can save the country.

“If we don’t do something right this election season, we’re gonna fall like the Roman empire,” said Leib, 73. “It’s downright scary.”

Despite Haley’s dwindling odds, some of her most loyal supporters aren’t ready to confront the question of who they will vote for in November if – but if they’re honest, when – she drops out of the race.

“That’s like choosing between a hedgehog and a porcupine,” said Smith. Neither, she clarified, were desirable choices.