‘She abandoned us’: Haley’s South Carolina problem isn’t just Trump

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Olson said he understood that as the state’s executive, Haley had to compromise at times to govern. And he didn’t fault her for endorsing Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race, despite Olson himself being for Newt Gingrich. Olson said he wasn’t bothered by her decision to call for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from state Capitol grounds in 2015, even as many of the activists who originally supported her were furious.

But when Haley endorsed Marco Rubio in 2016 — and Olson saw her as dismissive of the populist movement that was fueling Trump’s rise — Olson said he no longer viewed her the same way.

“She started going too far to the establishment, so to speak,” he said.

If she wasn’t running, Haley might have remained in good standing with Republicans in South Carolina for a former governor. Despite being removed, of her own accord, from the state’s grassroots activist scene, Haley was still a popular political figure here prior to her presidential run.

Early in the 2022 election cycle, Haley’s favorability among Republicans in the state was only slightly below — and within the margin of error — of Trump’s, in the mid- to high 80s, according to one statewide candidate’s internal polling, shared with POLITICO. Public general population polling at the time showed similar results, even throughout 2023, after Haley entered the primary race against Trump.

But in a Winthrop University poll this month — and after ramping up her attacks on Trump directly —
Haley’s favorability with South Carolina Republicans had fallen
from 71 percent in November to 56 percent in February, as her unfavorable rating among GOP voters more than doubled.

Rob Godfrey, Haley’s former deputy chief of staff as governor, who is remaining neutral in the primary, said it’s not that Haley has lost South Carolina’s conservative base, who still “know her, like her and look back on her governorship with fondness.”

“But they also have grown comfortable, and, in fact, like Donald Trump as the national party leader,” Godfrey said.

“The two are near perfect foils,” Godfrey continued, saying Trump has “been something of the grievance peddler in chief,” who “more effectively than anyone in history weaponizes anger and emotion against political opponents.”

And today’s GOP in South Carolina and elsewhere, Godfrey said, has “an angrier party base than anyone saw during the rise of the tea party.”

Katon Dawson, former chair of the South Carolina Republican Party, who is working for Haley’s presidential campaign in the state, acknowledged that “Trump’s got a hold on a decent swath of voters in South Carolina,” but said Haley is able to increase the pool of voters participating in the state’s Republican primary.

Just 135,000 people cast a ballot in South Carolina’s Democratic primary earlier this month, leaving more than 3 million voters who are eligible to participate in the GOP contest this week, as the state does not register voters by party. Haley herself has urged voters across the political spectrum to participate in the GOP primary, while her allies are funding TV ads and mailers explaining a voter doesn’t have to be a Republican to cast a ballot on Saturday.

The Haley campaign is focused on turning out people who tend to vote Republican in general elections but who typically don’t participate in the primary process, Dawson said. But Dawson said despite pro-Trump protesters showing up at her events and the Trump campaign’s sharp attacks on Haley, even those in the state’s conservative base who are supporting Trump “don’t dislike Nikki Haley.”

“They’ll say, ‘I voted for her three times, it’s just not her turn,’” Dawson said.

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