Nikki Haley Lost the South Carolina Primary Back When She Was Still Governor

On Tuesday morning, after Nikki Haley announced that she was going to give a “State of the Race” speech in Greenville, South Carolina, Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign sent out a memo titled “The End Is Near for Nikki Haley,” calling her a “wailing loser hell-bent on an alternative reality and refusing to come to grips

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On Tuesday morning, after Nikki Haley announced that she was going to give a “State of the Race” speech in Greenville, South Carolina, Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign sent out a memo titled “The End Is Near for Nikki Haley,” calling her a “wailing loser hell-bent on an alternative reality and refusing to come to grips with her imminent political mortality.” In Greenville, a small, seated crowd waited for Haley’s remarks while her usual eighties soundtrack—Tom Petty, Queen, the Go-Go’s—played. “Some of you, perhaps a few of you in the media, came here today to see if I’m dropping out of the race,” Haley said, after taking the stage. “Instead of focussing on how to make America stronger tomorrow, some people want to know if I’m going to cave today.”

In Haley’s home state, Trump leads her by thirty-six points in the polls, and he has collected endorsements from almost the entire South Carolina Republican political establishment. Haley was resolute in her speech: “The only way you get to the blessing is by going through the pain.” She’s spent the past month on a “nevertheless, she persisted”-style crusade to stay in the race, living out what sometimes seems like a chapter from her book “If You Want Something Done: Leadership Lessons from Bold Women” who wouldn’t take no for an answer. “I’m not going to talk about an obituary,” she said in New Hampshire, responding to her party’s call for her to step aside and just anoint Trump as the nominee.

Haley had long hoped to become the last woman standing against Trump—“12 fellas down. 1 to go,” she tweeted—but she’s fared poorly in a two-person race. As the only candidate on the ballot for the Nevada primary, she was counting on at least a symbolic victory—Trump would automatically get all the delegates in that state’s caucus, in which he ran unopposed, but she could at least say she won something. She came in second, making history as the first Presidential candidate from either party to lose a race to “none of these candidates.” She set her hopes on the U.S. Virgin Islands as a possible surprise triumph; Trump beat her by forty-eight points. Campaigning across Iowa and New Hampshire all winter, she often told voters how cold she was, and gestured to her “sweet state of South Carolina” as a friendly beacon awaiting her just before springtime.

Haley’s home territory wasn’t hospitable. “You’re the senator of her state, and you endorsed me. You must really hate her,” Trump said to Tim Scott, the junior senator from South Carolina, appointed by Haley. Americans for Prosperity, the super PAC backing Haley, admitted that South Carolina would be a steep road. Trump’s campaign responded, “How about a rocky road straight up a mountain lined by legions of MAGA supporters?” The governor who tapped Haley as his successor said that her only chance of winning is “a meteor strike.” The congresswoman Nancy Mace, who owes her career in South Carolina politics to Haley, hosted a press conference on “the repeated failures of Nikki Haley.” After Tuesday’s speech, Haley’s national spokesperson, Olivia Perez-Cubas, said, “Yesterday, Nikki told the political élite for the umpteenth time that she doesn’t care what they think of her.” But what about the voters?

With two weeks to go before the South Carolina primary, Haley unveiled a bus tour with a new name, “the Beast of the Southeast”; the bus pulled up to its stops blasting Van Halen’s “Right Now.” I spent Presidents’ Day weekend on Haley’s swing through the state, and the events often seemed like a final sanctuary for crossover voters and MAGA refugees, adrift in today’s version of the Party. On Sunday evening, the Beast rolled into a high-end retirement community outside Fort Mill, a peaceful enclave where residents and locals—mostly seniors—assembled to welcome Haley. “We have a misogynist and then someone who’s mentally unfit,” Logan Hedges, a health-care administrator, told me. “It’s all a sea of bullshit. Most people are still cleaving to Trump like Tiberian bats in a cave. I’d rather vote for Genghis Khan than Donald Trump. I’m a moderate person.”

After Trump declared that Haley’s donors and supporters were “permanently barred from the MAGA camp,” Haley framed herself as the insurgent underdog—David going after Goliath, running against Trump as the establishment candidate. Though she rejects the label of the de-facto leader of the Never Trump movement, her long-shot campaign is heartening for those who like to imagine the Party as more than a subsidiary of Trump, Inc. Her rallies recently have something of a resistance-liberal energy to them, a release valve for the not small demographic who are sick of Trump and Joe Biden.

In Fort Mill, Haley descended from the bus as a Joan Jett song played. “Why wouldn’t we go forward and have a new generational conservative leader that can leave the negativity behind?” she asked the crowd. “This isn’t normal for our kids and grandkids.” At a rally of his own in North Charleston, Trump told the crowd, “The radical-left Democrats want Nikki Haley because they know she’s easy to beat . . . and she gets angrier, crazier, and suffers deeper scars from Trump derangement syndrome, she’s got a terminal case.”

Photograph by Hilary Swift / NYT / Redux

“Politics in South Carolina has a sad reputation as a blood sport,” Haley wrote in her 2src12 memoir, “Can’t Is Not an Option.” When Trump came to South Carolina, he moved from calling Haley “Birdbrain” to “Brain-dead.” He opened his rally with a video clip of fried chicken accompanied by text that read, “We all know how this ends. Stick a fork in Nikki Haley. SHE’S DONE.” Trump suggested that Haley’s husband, who is serving with the National Guard in Djibouti, got himself deployed as a way to get away from her. (“Where is he? He’s gone.”) Many trace the blood-sport nature of campaigns in South Carolina to Lee Atwater, who started as a Republican political operative in the state and was known for his scorched-earth tactics, in which no attack was too far below the belt. “South Carolina voters like that combative style,” Danielle Vinson, a professor of politics at Furman University, said. “We are the first state that seceded from the Union. I always have joked about South Carolina seceded not just over slavery but because they didn’t want anybody telling them what to do, not even North Carolina. It really is that individualism, and Trump is just the embodiment of all of that. It’s baked into our DNA.”

The bickering between the two remaining candidates has fuelled the race and Haley’s fund-raising: she brought in a million dollars in the forty-eight hours after Trump attacked her husband, campaign sources told the Wall Street Journal. After months of demurring when asked to denounce Trump, Haley’s decision to finally come out against him has been a successful refresh, even if it’s cast her more as a Liz Cheney figure—a martyred custodian of traditional conservative values—than as a winner. (“The Never Trumper transformation is complete,” Trump’s senior adviser responded, when Haley declined to confirm that she would support Trump as the nominee. “Haley is no longer a RINO. Haley is a Democrat.”) “It’s lonely,” Chip Felkel, a conservative South Carolina strategist, said, of Haley’s place in the state today. “You become an external critic because the Party is Trump’s.”

At an event in Irmo, just outside Columbia, a crew was setting up American and South Carolina state flags around a gazebo in the middle of the grass. A white pickup truck flying “Trump 2src24” flags—ultra-MAGA—silently circled the park. People filtered in, many of them wearing “Too Chicken to Debate” stickers, referring to Trump, who still refuses to take the stage opposite Haley. Karen Hess, a veteran in a U.S. Army sweatshirt, told me, “Haley’s trying to get a scrap. She’s the underdog.” The Trump pickup kept silently circling for the duration of the event. “I’m a born-again believer,” a schoolteacher named Amelia Schafer told me. “I believe in miracles. God can do the impossible.”

Haley’s story in South Carolina politics is often summarized as a Tea Party candidate who became the face of the new South. Her path to victory in South Carolina was always as an outsider in long-shot elections. For her first race, she ran for a seat in the state House of Representatives and took on Larry Koon, the longest-serving state legislator in Columbia at the time. In a deeply Christian, conservative, and white district, Koon referred to Haley, as Trump now does, by her birth name, Nimarata Randhawa, and sent out mailers showing her with her father in his Sikh turban. When she won, she arrived at the State House and was very much excluded by the good ol’ boys. Haley’s early years in the statehouse were molded by her reaction against the state’s Republican leaders, who despised her. She tried to force lawmakers to cast every vote on the record; this annoyed her colleagues so much that they stripped her of her committee assignments. “She was more antagonistic than cultivating,” Felkel, the conservative strategist, told me. She allied herself with the Tea Party and Governor Mark Sanford; they were both at war with the rest of the state’s G.O.P.

Sanford anointed Haley as his successor, but after he was politically defenestrated because what he said was a hike along the Appalachian Trail turned out to be a trip to Argentina to see his mistress, Haley thought it was probably all over for her. Without Sanford, she had no recognition and no money. She persuaded Sanford to give her four hundred thousand dollars of his. She won after getting endorsements from Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, and the Tea Party. “She continued as the outsider from inside the governor’s mansion,” Felkel told me. After she took office, she axed everyone who was too establishment, including some people who’d helped her. She published public report cards on how members voted. “The nature of politics is that your enemy today is your ally tomorrow. She never got that part of it,” Felkel said.

The political class had long memories for what they recalled as her pettiness and her focus on retribution. “People ask me all the time, ‘Why are you the only one?’ Well, she upset the stature of the good-ol’-boys system,” Representative Ralph Norman, the only member of Congress who has endorsed her in South Carolina, told me. Another supporter, Katon Dawson, the former state party chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, who met Haley when she first ran for office, told me that he saw her as the hope for an expanded, less insular version of the state’s G.O.P. that never came to be.

Trump ended up becoming a successor to the Tea Party, inheriting much of its constituency and taking up the mantle of draining the swamp. In the 2src16 G.O.P. primary in South Carolina, Haley stumped for Marco Rubio and railed against Trump throughout the national election cycle. Then, when Trump won and called up the state’s lieutenant governor, Henry McMaster, to ask what job he wanted in the Administration, McMaster said he simply wanted to be the governor of South Carolina, so Trump agreed to find a position for Haley, as the U.N. Ambassador. (“She was O.K., but I didn’t put her there because I wanted her there,” Trump said at a recent rally in Conway, South Carolina.)

Haley has spent the past few years revising how to position herself in relation to Trump, and her delicate balance when it came to the former President got her further than any of the “fellas” in the race. The day after January 6, 2src21, Haley gave a speech at the R.N.C. and condemned Trump; soon afterward, she said she considered him a friend, but she was certain he’d never run for federal office again. She was hoping to become the new generational leader of the post-Trump G.O.P. and built out her stump speech as the next part of her precarious Trump routine. As I listened to the speech for months of her campaign, it seemed carefully conceived by someone who intended to draw in the MAGA base to win, but perhaps didn’t realize she’d be running against the man himself.

Of course, at this point, both Trump and Haley are insiders; both of their main residences are adjacent to golf clubs, but Haley now plays the country-club Republican while Trump claims to stand for the blue-collar working class. Achievements of hers that have played well nationally—forcing transparency on lawmakers, taking down the Confederate flag from the State House—have alienated much of the conservative establishment in her state. She could paint herself as a moderate in Iowa or New Hampshire to appeal to crossover voters, but Democrats in South Carolina remember her as an ultra-conservative Tea Party union buster. In the past few months, her favorability in her home state has fallen, while Trump’s has improved.

Haley’s new slogan is “Make America Normal Again.” She started the second weekend of her bus tour in a picturesque mall on Kiawah Island, where she lives on a waterfront estate next to a notably posh golf resort. A small crowd assembled in a grassy square at the center of the shopping center, the sort of place where Santa or other special guests would greet shoppers, between J. McLaughlin, Southern Tide, and a wine bar. Palm trees, pastel, vests over polo shirts, floral patterns, salmon pants, topiary; couples in athleisure ensembles walked with golden retrievers and copies of the weekend New York Times.

“Right Now,” by Van Halen, played as an Escalade and a sheriff’s S.U.V. drove up trailed by the Beast of the Southeast bus. A man named Scott McGovern, who wore a Red Sox cap, said, “Who knows what’s going to happen to those two other guys? Biden’s done a wonderful job, but he’s doddering now. Maybe he has Parkinson’s.” McGovern was attending the event with his wife, who was setting up lawn chairs for the two of them. “I embrace her ambition to hang in there and not quit. It’s a real redneck state. Trump controls the state.” Many of Haley’s events had been interrupted by protesters and Trump supporters; this morning, a man walking by on his way to brunch screamed “Free Palestine!”

“A lot of people are bad-mouthing her,” Jerry Smoak, a retired advertising executive from Charleston, told me. Two Australian shepherds under the table had Haley stickers on their fur. The event was a pleasant vessel for Never Trump hope, but it also had a sense of resignation to a likely fate. Smoak went on, “We see Trump pulling in thousands of people. I’m tickled to death at the crowd here, but if Trump were here you couldn’t even get to the beach!”

The gathering in Kiawah was a slice of Haley’s imagined idyll of a normal weekend morning. “Meet Virginia,” by Train, played as moms browsed in Lilly Pulitzer with their daughters, then got Ben & Jerry’s. American flags blew peacefully in the ocean breeze, but nobody was chanting “U.S.A.!” as Trump hugged the flag. The Beaufort Bonnet Company advertised fashions “for babies & children born with a refined sense of style.” It felt like cosplaying a bygone era in politics, one that I had read about in campaign memoirs, a time when candidates took bus tours around their states and walked out to classic-rock hits as families clapped politely.

On Sunday, Haley continued on to a wedding venue in Rock Hill, where a crowd under a chandelier included young kids, many of whom took pictures with the candidate. The event seemed designed as a poignant expression of a desire for bipartisanship over polarization; Democrats cheered for Congressman Norman, of the ultra-right Freedom Caucus, one of Haley’s only backers in the state. “Don’t give up!” the crowd shouted.

South Carolina is a winner-take-all state, so even an encouraging amount of support for Haley won’t translate to delegates. In every Presidential race since 198src, save for a fluke in 2src12, the G.O.P. nominee has always won the South Carolina primary. Times have changed since the last time Haley won an election, in 2src14. Trump handily took South Carolina in 2src16, when Haley was, as she is now, speaking her hard truths about his shortcomings. South Carolina is the fastest-growing state in the nation, and also far more demographically representative of the country than other early states—a failed inroad here does not bode well for future contests. Even if some voters like Haley, they love Trump, just as they strongly preferred his style over those of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio eight years ago. Still, Haley’s speech reaffirming her dedication to running was her stern reminder that she won’t be bullied out of the race by Trump. “We don’t anoint kings in this country, we have elections,” she repeats.

In the ballroom in Rock Hill, I stopped to talk to Wayne, a Vietnam veteran who had just retired to the area because his kids lived there. “He’s here because he wants to be open to democracy, open to listen,” his daughter told me. Wayne said, “I don’t think Haley has the strength to turn this country around. Just another puppet. She’s going to subscribe to the current deep-state crap.” He went on, “Trump is fighting a battle against the current regime. The only thing we have is we’re waiting for the military to finally come in and take control of this country. He’s a wartime President. That’s the posse comitatus. What’s going to happen, it’s going to be martial law, what they’re going to do is clean out all the deep state to whatever extent they can.”

On Tuesday, in Haley’s “State of the Race” remarks, for the first time, when she got to the part of her stump speech in which she mentions her husband’s deployment, her voice broke, and she started to cry for a second. “Look at this normal, real person we could have as president,” Haley’s communications director tweeted, as the Internet parsed her rare display of emotion. In 2srcsrc8, when Hillary Clinton teared up while talking to a group of undecided voters in New Hampshire, many treated the episode as a ploy, studying the tape, analyzing the tears against her chances, and declaring that she pretended to cry as a strategy. Now Haley’s last stand seemed conceived as a moving counterpoint to Biden and Trump’s bids for office. “My own political future is of zero concern,” she said.

As Haley delivered a classic political speech, talking about childhood-literacy rates and e-mails she gets from a mom who wants America to be normal again, a crowd of hundreds of Trump supporters was gathering nearby at an airport to welcome the former President when he landed in his plane, which he calls Trump Force One. He took a motorcade to the Greenville Convention Center, to do a town hall with Laura Ingraham. Jesse Absher, an electrician who came to Haley’s Rock Hill event alone, having cut ties with much of his family over their support for Trump, told me, “She’s the only damn alternative.” Haley still maintains that, as President, she would pardon Trump if he were convicted of a crime—to help the country heal, instead of dividing it further. It seems like much of her party isn’t ready to go back to normal yet. “He normalized crime—these things that we all have a part of us that wants, he made these things O.K.,” Absher said. “He made the government fail, and our people see that as a good thing.” I asked Absher if she could win any of them over. “No,” he said. “It’s a drug. They’re hooked.” ♦

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