Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks with supporters after signing papers Oct. 13 to get on the Republican presidential primary ballot in New Hampshire. (Associated Press photo/Michael Dwyer)
Nikki Haley is slowly closing the gap for the Republican presidential nomination in South Carolina as former President Donald Trump holds a 30 percentage-point lead in the polls.
It’s an unusual primary contest with no direct historical comparisons given Trump’s lead, said University of South Carolina professor of political science Robert Oldendick.
“It would be historic because usually, when you have a primary contest like this, like even if you go back to Republicans in 2016, where you had a number of candidates, all of them had, in the beginning this far out, they had some support,” Oldendick said.
South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary, the first in the South, is Feb. 24.
Haley was the first female governor in South Carolina. And now, she’s looking to make history again as the first female president. But despite Trump’s 91 felony charges in a handful of criminal and civil cases that include election fraud related to the 2020 election, he has a loyal following in the state and a still-strong lead.
On Oct. 26, Trump posted a 48.6% lead in South Carolina. Haley trailed with 18.8%, according to Five Thirty-Eight polling.
“She’s got to convince some Trump voters to vote for her because that section of the electorate is, is so big at this point,” Oldendick said.
Nationally, Haley’s popularity surged after a strong showing in the first Republican presidential debate.
Haley winning the Republican nomination is still possible, even though it would be unprecedented, Oldendick said.
“There are some non-direct comparisons where large leads have evaporated, but this is, given a primary contest like this, is very unusual,” Oldendick said.
The president of Students for Haley at the University of South Carolina, Celia Hadjin, said moderate voters are important for Haley’s success in the state.
“Because of her electability, she’s going to get a lot of the moderate vote,” Hadjin said.
Republican U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman worked with Haley during her time as governor and has endorsed her for the nomination.
“She just is real,” Noman said. “And that’s what South Carolina knows about Nikki Haley.”
Norman thinks she has the right kind of experience as a former United Nations ambassador at a time when strong foreign policy is crucial.
“She will put the funding to make our military stronger again,” Norman said. “The reason the countries are moving against America … is because they know this administration won’t do anything. It’s a toothless tiger.”
It’s uncommon for a candidate to win a party nomination after losing the primary in their home state. But Norman said Haley doesn’t have to win South Carolina in the primary to win the nomination.
“Nikki doesn’t have to beat Trump,” he said. “I think it is very important for her to come in second – which if she doesn’t win it, she will come in second. You will see over time as more people know Nikki Haley across the country, her poll numbers will go up.”
Hadjin thinks the Republican nomination needs to go to someone who can beat President Joe Biden. She said Haley is that candidate.
“I think if it comes back to Trump or Biden (in the general election), that could go either way,” Hadjin said. “There’s a toss up there. But Nikki can beat him.”
Haley will officially file to be on the S.C. presidential primary ballot Monday at the Statehouse.