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Trump sweeps South Carolina primary and closes in on Republican nomination

The former president has clearly defeated Nikki Haley in her home state, but she has promised she to stay in the race until Super Tuesday

Donald Trump speaks during his South Carolina Republican presidential primary election night party in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S. February 24, 2024.
Donald Trump speaks during his South Carolina Republican presidential primary election night party in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S. February 24, 2024.SHANNON STAPLETON (REUTERS)
Iker Seisdedos

The only excitement of the South Carolina primary elections on Saturday was to see by how many points former president Donald Trump would beat Nikki Haley, his last rival in the race for the Republican nomination. There was the added twist that Haley was playing on home ground; she was born in South Carolina and served as the state’s governor from 2011 to 2017, but even with that going for her, she couldn’t hope for anything more than a humiliating defeat. It took less than a minute from the closing of the polls for the U.S. media to declare Trump the winner. With more than 85% of the vote counted, the former president won around 60% of the vote. In number of delegates, that translates into at least 44 of the 50 at stake.

Trump gave his victory speech five minutes past 19.00, the time at which the polls closed. He did it in the capital, Columbia, and the appearance was pure Trump. He began with a racist barrage against immigrants arriving at the southern border with Mexico. “We have millions and millions of people and they came from prisons and jails. They came from mental institutions, and [were] insane,” he said, before jumping without apparent connection to the next statement: “There’s never been a spirit like this. I have never seen the Republican Party so unified.”

He cited all but one member of his family, Eric, his third son, for no clear reason, and said he would beat U.S. President Joe Biden in the November election. “He’s destroying our country — and we’re going to say ‘get out Joe, you’re fired’” — a nod to his TV catchphrase on The Apprentice. And then he passed the microphone to of the men who have shown him blind loyalty, perhaps the attribute he most admires in others: the state’s governor, Henry McMaster, and the two South Carolina senators, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott. Scott was one of the 14 contenders for the Republican nomination, and since throwing in the towel, he seems bent to the point of embarrassment on currying favor with Trump to pick him as his vice presidential nominee.

Trump won in the Iowa caucuses, in the New Hampshire primary and in the hybrid caucus/primary vote in Nevada. South Carolina closes the quartet of early contests in the long presidential campaign, culminating with the vote on November 5, in which all signs point that the Republican candidate will — saving a disaster — face off against Biden. Never before has a presidential hopeful — who was not the incumbent — won so overwhelmingly in the first four races in the primaries.

Saturday’s primaries are not only the “first in the South,” they also function as a bellwether for the Republican Party. Since they began to be held in 1980, the winner in South Carolina has ended up being the candidate for the general election, except on one occasion. That was in 2012, when Newt Gingrich won over Mitt Romney, the man who was ultimately chosen to face (and lose) to then-president Barack Obama.

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley hosts a watch party during the South Carolina Republican presidential primary election, in Charleston.
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley hosts a watch party during the South Carolina Republican presidential primary election, in Charleston.EVELYN HOCKSTEIN (REUTERS)

“I’m not going anywhere”

Haley appeared on Saturday at about 8:40 p.m. from her headquarters in Charleston, downstate, and gave a remarkable speech, which at times sounded like that of a hypothetical third party candidate. She said she did not plan to withdraw from the race, and that she was committed to continue in the fight “to save America.” But that was not the surprise the evening had in store for us either.

Last Tuesday, Haley summoned the press, also in Columbia, for one of the most unusual appearances in recent American politics. She wanted to announce that she didn’t plan on going anywhere no matter how hard she lost in South Carolina, and that she would hold on at least until Super Tuesday. “I said earlier this week that no matter what happens in South Carolina, I would continue to run. I’m a woman of my word. I’m not giving up this fight when a majority of Americans disapprove of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden,” she said, adding that she wanted to avoid a “Soviet-style election with only one candidate.”

The next contest is the Michigan primary is on February 27 and March 2. Super Tuesday falls this leap year on March 5, when 15 states decide 874 of 2,429 Republican delegates. It is also the date that usually settles the candidates of both parties. This 2024, the year of the great electoral déjà vu in the United States, it seems that there will be a repeat of the Trump-Biden face-off.

Election day began in South Carolina’s 46 counties at 7:00 a.m., and there were no major incidents. It was an open primary, so any citizen with an ID and a Social Security number could participate, regardless of whether they were registered as a Republican or not, unless they had voted in the Democratic primary, held in early February. This time, turnout was much higher than in the Democratic primary, when there was even less doubt that Biden would be the winner. Chris, a poll worker at one of the polling places, set up at a high school west of Greenville, a charming town in the foothills of Appalachia, explained at 11:00 a.m. that the number of voters in those four hours had already surpassed the number that had showed up for the Democratic primary.

The ballot showed Trump’s and Haley’s names, as well as those of two spontaneous presidential hopefuls, David Stuckenberg and Ryan Binkley, and three who dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination: Vivek Ramaswamy, Ron DeSantis and Chris Christie. Why were their names on the ballet? They dropped out before the deadline for election officials to remove them from the list.

Outside the high school, Mary and Tom, a retired couple, said they had voted for Trump, and that they thought it was a good that he had spent the last four years away outside of the White House “to become aware of the people’s problems and to come back stronger now.” At another polling station, located in a community center outside Columbia, Michael Edmondson defended his vote for Haley. “She was a good governor,” he explained, “and, frankly, I think Trump is not right in the head.”

While that last point is debatable, it is undeniable that the former president will be a candidate with a judicial sword of Damocles hanging over his head. There are four open criminal investigations against him, and he is charged with 91 felonies. Trump may continue to win primary after primary, but if he is finally chosen by the Republicans, his presidential campaign will be conditioned by whether he is called to sit in the dock.

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