Trump’s underperformance in South Carolina is an anti-MAGA triumph


When Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley won 43% of the vote in New Hampshire’s GOP primary last month, it seemed like a probable blip in a nominating process that was destined to be dominated by front-runner Donald Trump. The Granite State’s highly educated electorate, with its healthy libertarian streak, was custom built to give Haley a hopeful but short-lived boost—a spirited protest vote—before Trump continued his glide path to the Republican nomination.

But Haley’s surprise 40% showing in deeply conservative South Carolina was something altogether different, signifying a substantial strain of resistance to Trump and a rejection of MAGA politics. Sure, Haley is the former governor of South Carolina, but pre-election polls had predicted a bloodbath, with Trump trouncing her by some 30 percentage points.   

During her buoyant election-night speech on Saturday, Haley told a room full of jubilant supporters that while they didn’t win the Palmetto State, her share of the electorate also was not “some tiny group.”

“Today, in South Carolina, we’re getting around 40% of the vote,” Haley said, adding, “I’m an accountant. I know 40% is not 50%. But I also know 40% is not some tiny group. There are huge numbers of voters in our Republican primaries who are saying they want an alternative.”

In other words, her anti-Trump 40% isn’t a blip. It’s a trend.

Election analyst Ronald Brownstein echoed the point in The Atlantic, writing, “[F]or all the evidence of Trump’s strength within the party, the South Carolina results again showed that a meaningful floor of GOP voters remains uneasy with returning him to leadership.”

Brownstein then quoted a female Republican voter from the Isle of Palms, part of the greater Charleston region, saying of Trump, “I like his policies, but I’d like to cut his thumbs off and tape his mouth shut.”

Haley’s unexpected resiliency in both the primaries and the financial race has little or nothing to do with her policies or her popularity—it is quite simply a distillation of anti-Trumpism. 

For instance, voters signaled no negative reaction whatsoever after Haley totally flubbed an answer about in vitro fertilization following an Alabama ruling declaring that frozen embryos are children under state law. Support for IVF is extremely high, sometimes polling north of 80%, despite extremist anti-abortion Republicans seeking to ban the procedure. 

Shortly after one of Alabama’s largest hospitals said it was pausing IVF treatments, Haley appeared to signal her agreement with the court ruling. “Embryos, to me, are babies,” she told NBC News. But in a subsequent interview, the candidate quickly tried to moderate that statement, telling CNN, “I didn’t say that I agreed with the Alabama ruling.”

But voters weren’t walking through Charleston—a Haley stronghold—registering concern about her IVF statements. They were talking about cutting off Trump’s thumbs and curing his verbal diarrhea with a little duct tape.  

On Saturday night, the vibe of Haley’s room full of losing supporters felt triumphant. And the night arguably was triumphant—not for Haley but for the anti-MAGA resistance and for the country as a whole. Haley will not win the GOP nomination, because the party has been subsumed by Trump extremism. But Trump’s continued underperformance against Haley is a reflection of the fact that Trump and his MAGA base are still far too extreme for the country, including some 40% of Republican primary voters.

In exit polling, Haley performed best among late-breakers, independents, anyone who didn’t identify as a white evangelical Christian, college graduates, high-income earners, people of color, and women. 

  • Decided within the last month: 67%

  • Independents: 62%

  • People who aren’t white evangelical Christians: 55%

  • College graduates: 54%

  • Family income $100,000 or more: 49%

  • Nonwhite voters: 46% 

  • Women: 43%

The data provides President Joe Biden with a wide berth of persuadable voters to target for the general election. As former Obama White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer wrote in his “Message Box” Substack, “Based on the exit polls, Trump’s campaign team should be popping some Xanax with the champagne over his win in South Carolina.”

Democratic voters know Joe Biden is old and MAGA voters like to pretend that Trump isn’t just as long in the tooth. Both men were old the last time we did this and the only thing that’s changed is Biden is now a successful incumbent, while Trump is busy juggling trials and indictments.

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