The Trump campaign shrewdly worked to gain the backing of top Republicans early in the 2024 race.
Before other GOP candidates had entered the primary, Trump was already working to cultivate support.
Those early moves benefited Trump, as he now boasts strong institutional backing over Nikki Haley.
Last January, former President Donald Trump headlined a campaign event at the South Carolina State House, with the former president already eyeing the state's critical primary even before any major competitor had entered the GOP presidential race.
Flanked by Gov. Henry McMaster and Sen. Lindsey Graham, Trump basically put his would-be competitors on notice that he had already locked up support from the state's GOP establishment and that anyone who dared to enter the race would start miles behind him.
Fast forward a year and Trump has been largely correct in his assessment of the race. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott exited the primary months ago. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis left the race in January after a disappointing finish in Iowa. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley remains in the race but lacks substantial institutional backing in her home state ahead of the February 24 primary.
Through early endorsements and organizational moves on the ground, Trump finds himself in an enviable position ahead of the string of primary contests across the South in the coming weeks. How did this come about?
Staking his claim
McMaster and Graham were both early high-profile endorsees of Trump's reelection bid. And the former president replicated that show of support across the South, notably in Texas.
Texas Republicans will head to the polls on March 5, or Super Tuesday, in what could be the day that Trump effectively runs up the score in the delegate math against Haley. In the upcoming Republican primary, Texas will have 161 delegates up for grabs, which is second only to California in the number of delegates that a GOP candidate can win.
It's a prize that Trump has long eyed, and during a high-profile rally last April, the former president touted his support among many of the state's top Republicans. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state Attorney General Ken Paxton threw their support behind Trump, and Rep. Wesley Hunt and state Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller were at the rally to pump up the former president. Since then, Gov. Greg Abbott, who has repeatedly tussled with President Joe Biden's administration over border security and immigration, has also endorsed Trump's reelection bid.
By courting Republicans early, Trump essentially created a sense of inevitably around his campaign among many GOP voters, a significant impediment for Haley.
Fortifying Trump's appeal with GOP voters
In addition to South Carolina, where Trump remains popular with key voting blocs like evangelical Christians and traditional conservatives, the upcoming primaries on Super Tuesday feature several Southern states where the former president remains wildly popular with the GOP base: Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
The March 12 primaries in Georgia and Mississippi are also poised to solidify the former president's dominance in the race. DeSantis was once seen as a major threat to Trump's hold over the South, but the Florida governor didn't even make it to the South Carolina primary.
Last August, Trump made an appeal to Alabama Republicans at a high-profile party dinner, using his 91 criminal charges to make the case that he was being targeted politically because he represented the party's best chance to win back the White House.
Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville at the time echoed much of that message.
"He's had a tough week. We need to stand behind him," the conservative senator said after Trump pleaded not guilty to federal charges connected to his alleged attempts to overturn the 2020 election results. "He needs encouragement. They're after him."
By lashing out against his pending court cases early, Trump got ahead of what could have been an issue for him in the early contests, helping him retain his support in GOP strongholds.
The evidence? Trump now leads Haley among potential GOP primary voters 81%-18%, according to the latest Morning Consult tracking poll.
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