Nikki Haley’s home state comeback didn’t materialise. Now what?

It all came down to this: Nikki Haley had her shot tonight to prove this is still a contest. She failed.

South Carolina voted today. It’s the fifth Republican primary or caucus, after three previous states and the US Virgin Islands were all won by her opponent, frontrunner Donald Trump. But now, the race turns to Ms Haley’s backyard.

In any other contest, a popular two-term governor and former UN ambassador would be presumed to take her home state. Instead, Ms Haley heads into her Charleston election night watch party down 30 points in all available polling and still struggling to make inroads with the conservative Republican base which is firmly backing Mr Trump.

Ms Haley needed a miracle tonight. Her campaign is staring at Super Tuesday down in the polls in every state. She appears to have the fundraising momentum of a candidate with the wind at her back, but is not yet showing any signs of pulling off a victory in any individual state.

To put that in perspective: Donald Trump has won every state so far. He is slated to win every state going forward. In 2016, he lost several states, including Texas, which threw its substantial delegate count behind Ted Cruz instead.

He still ended up winning the GOP primary that year; this year, it seems increasingly unclear if he will lose a single state.

South Carolina was far from the last presidential nominating contest, and Nikki Haley has made it clear: She’s not dropping out until after Super Tuesday at the very least.

But she needed to show signs of life tonight. The 15-to-20-point margin of defeat in her home state may undermine her own electability arguments while simultaneously making it harder for her to keep moving forward. Donors like winners. They don’t particularly enjoy backing candidates who do not have a path to the nomination. Ms Haley needed to prove that this is a real campaign, not just an effort to provide GOP bigwigs with an alternative at a brokered convention.

Her allies dispute this. A source with knowledge of the direction of the main super PAC backing Ms Haley’s campaign told reporters after results came in on Saturday that she had cleared the threshold needed to secure a mandate to stay in the race, given that her final total was likely to be within a hair of 40 per cent of the vote.

“Absolutely,” that source told The Independent when asked if Ms Haley’s campaign was showing momentum, refusing to attribute the night’s outcome to a home-field advantage.

Haley supporters piled onto the shore at Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant for the candidate’s last rally in the state on Friday, One expressed doubts to The Independent that the GOP would even consider Ms Haley were Mr Trump to be hopelessly sidelined from the presidential race by a criminal conviction, a mountain of legal fees, or some combination of both.

Nikki Haley’s barnstorming of her home state came to an end with a picturesque sunset illuminating the silhouette of an aircraft carrier to her back on Friday. She descended from the steps of her massive tour bus, the “Beast of the Southeast”, after several triumphant honks (and an admission from Congressman Ralph Norman that they had initially missed their turn). Addressing supporters who cheered when she joked that Donald Trump had permanently “banned” them from the Maga movement, Ms Haley made her case once again for the GOP to move on from a 91-times-indicted former president who she fiercely attacked for devaluing the military service of American troops, including her own husband.

Haley greets a supporter after voting in Kiawah Island, South Carolina (AP)
Haley greets a supporter after voting in Kiawah Island, South Carolina (AP)

“The best America can do is two candidates in their 80s?” she asked the crowd.

Going on the offence, she continued: “You mock one member of the military, you mock all members of the military…The problem now is he is not the same person he was in 2016. He is unhinged. He is more diminished than he was.”

Supporters of the former governor, several of whom identified themselves as former Trump voters, told The Independent that they agreed with the description of the former president pushed by Ms Haley’s campaign: losing a step, consumed by personal grievances, and unable to move past his anger. Some clearly fell into Ms Haley’s main constituency within the GOP: anti-Trump Republicans, who never fell in love with The Donald in the way much of their party did in 2016.

Alyssa and Donny Wingard, two South Carolineans who lived in the state when Ms Haley was governor, complained that they couldn’t understand why their fellow Christian, conservative Republicans were backing a man like Donald Trump, who last May was found by a jury to have been liable for sexually abusing a woman in 1996. He also continues to face four separate criminal prosecutions as he viciously attacks any Republican who points that out.

“I’m baffled. Baffled,” Alyssa repeated, speaking to The Independent after a rally held by the former governor as a sunset painted the sky behind a massive aircraft carrier at the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum.

“How could Christians want to vote for Trump?” she asked in exasperation. “What does he do that’s Christian every day?”

She and her husband had attended Ms Haley’s campaign launch and had been behind their former governor from the beginning.

“She tells us what needs to be done, and she tells us how she’s going to do it,” Donny Wingard said.

With a smile on her face, his wife diplomatically avoided a question about the decision of Tim Scott, the GOP senator appointed by Ms Haley in 2012, to back Mr Trump after ending his own ill-fated presidential run.

“I’m going to do what she did,” Ms Wingard said, laughing. “Bowed out with grace.”

There were some in the crowd who told The Independent that they had supported Mr Trump during his runs in 2016 and 2020. But they remain a minority in their party, which after Saturday night remained clearly in Mr Trump’s camp. The former governor was sitting at just under 40 per cent of the vote in the state she won twice shortly after the race was called; networks handed the call to Mr Trump at 7pm on the dot, and he spoke in front of a raucous crowd in Columbia.

Haley’s election party after her defeat in her home state of South Carolina (John Bowden / The Independent)
Haley’s election party after her defeat in her home state of South Carolina (John Bowden / The Independent)

Ms Haley’s election night watch party was a muted affair. The former governor neglected to send out a press release to supporters about the watch party until the morning of the primary, too late to draw a crowd that filled the Grand Ballroom at Charleston Place downtown in the state’s capital city. A sparse crowd of Haley supporters broke out into chants of “Nikki, Nikki!” several times after the race was called at 7pm, each time drawing cheers and a horde of journalists eager to get a picture of Ms Haley’s actual supporters. The vibe was not unlike a zoo, with eager cameras pressed up together to take pictures of endangered animals in an enclosure. Attendance seemed to have picked up shortly before she was due to speak.

One of the Haley supporters who did support Mr Trump in the past told The Independent that the ex-president’s actions after his 2020 defeat indicated a downward spiral.

“I voted for Trump before but he showed what he really is. The people like him because he was a fighter,” Steven Landrum said.

Since his time in the presidency, Mr Landrum suggested, the former president has “shown what he really is.” He also faulted the Republican frontrunner for constantly picking fights with his critics and opponents.

“I don’t think he’s a very honest person,” he explained. “He didn’t know how to keep his mouth shut about certain things when he was president.”

“Sometimes when you have an issue with the police, you keep your mouth shut,” Mr Landrum said, giving a hypothetical example. “He was fighting everything…he was not looking at what he could do to help the United States.”

After Saturday, the race heads across the country. Ms Haley has her eyes on Michigan, as well as the Super Tuesday batch which includes California, Texas, and others. But one fact was clear after her defeat at home: there’s no reason to think that Ms Haley is going to win a single state in the primary unless a massive shift occurs within the GOP electorate — specifically, the conservative Republicans who make up the majority of her opponent’s base.

Exit polls illustrated why that will be difficult. Hardcore partisans are the most likely to turn out for statewide party primary elections, and that hasn’t changed in 2024. CNN’s exit surveys indicated Saturday evening that more than six in 10 of the voters who participated in South Carolina believe the 2020 election was stolen by Joe Biden; that result has been duplicated in every other primary so far.

Nikki Haley’s path to the nomination is now one of pure attrition. Absent an earthquake to shake up GOP voter sentiment going forward, her best hope is to wait and see whether Mr Trump’s mountain of legal issues drag him down to the point where a presidential run becomes unviable. Whether that will even happen before the primary concludes — if at all — remains a total mystery.

The Palmetto State was Nikki Haley’s chance to beat Donald Trump. She didn’t. Now, as we march towards the party’s June nominating convention, two questions remain: will anything shake Donald Trump’s core faction of supporters? And is this exercise by Ms Haley really anything more than one, big, expensive waste of time?