What to watch in the South Carolina GOP Primary

South Carolina voters head to the polls on Saturday to cast ballots in a Republican presidential primary that could determine the political fate of the state’s former governor, Nikki Haley, in her long bid to derail former President Donald J. Trump’s march to the Republican nomination.

Here’s what to watch in the Palmetto State as votes are tallied Saturday night.

As we saw in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries last month, the speed of the race call can give the winner — in both cases Mr. Trump — a sense of momentum, even the appearance of inevitability. Iowa was called for Mr. Trump before the lawmakers finished.

Polls in South Carolina close at 7 p.m., and Ms. Haley is expected to speak in Charleston after the winner is announced. The Trump campaign will hold a “watch party” in the state capital of Columbia, where the former president is expected to speak.

The early evening for the two remaining candidates will tell a lot about where the race is headed as they turn to Michigan next week ahead of Super Tuesday on March 5, when 15 states will vote to award 874 of the 2,429 Republican delegates.

If the contest results in the drumbeat that polls suggest it will, Ms. Haley, once considered South Carolina’s political star, will soon be crushed. Survey averages lag behind her Mr. Trump by 30 percentage points.

In the immediate aftermath of the New Hampshire primary, Mark Harris, chief strategist for Ms. Haley’s SFA fund, said the former governor didn’t have to win her home state, but she did have to exceed her share of the New Haley vote. Hampshire – 43 percent – to show he’s making headway with Republican voters.

Betsy Ankney, Ms. Haley’s campaign manager, reiterated that on Friday, saying: “We never ran into those benchmarks. We will not start now.” But beyond the win, Ms. Haley must take some sort of consolation prize from the state where she was born, raised, served as governor and still lives.

Ms. Haley has been adamant that she will stay in the race, regardless of the outcome in South Carolina. Still, she’d like to exceed expectations so she can remind voters of her favorite “Underestimate Me” campaign T-shirt. That will be fun.”

Poll after poll has shown that most Americans do not enjoy a rematch between President Biden and Mr. Trump, the major party candidates in 2020. Mr. Biden won the Democratic primary in South Carolina on February 8 with more than 96 percent of the vote. But only 131,302 people voted, the lowest level of an expected turnout that was always predicted to be anemic.

Unlike Iowa, where sub-freezing temperatures and snow likely dampened turnout, the weather in South Carolina will be good – even beautiful – on Saturday. The low turnout can be attributed to the state’s lack of drama: Even Ms. Haley’s supporters show little confidence that she can win. But the South Carolinian’s poor showing could add value to Ms Haley’s claim that Americans are desperate for a new, younger face to vote for in November – or more broadly, the point that neither candidate has inspired voters in a jittery mood.

South Carolinians like to divide themselves into three parts: the northern part around Greenville and Spartanburg, where the question is which church do you belong to?; The Midlands, dominated by the nation’s capital, where the question is which agency do you work for?; and milder Lowcountry Charleston and the coast, where the question is what are you drinking?

Mr. Trump’s strength will be with evangelical conservatives in the state, and his dominance with elected state officials in Columbia testifies to Ms. Haley’s weakness in the Midlands, whether because of the feathers she ruffled as governor or the tendency of politicians to side with the favorite.

That leaves the Lowcountry, where wealthy Republicans are decorating 19th-century mansions in Charleston and Beaufort, golfing on Hilton Head or building lavish beach houses in the suburbs of Charleston, Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island — and where Mrs. Haley lives, on Kiawah Island. Lowcountry should be Haley country.

But the influx of newcomers — the largest cohort from New York and New Jersey — has swelled the upper-middle-class, inland suburbs around Charleston, as well as in Horry County, home to Myrtle Beach. They weren’t there for Governor Haley.

As this region will vote, they will talk about the appeal of Mr. Trump to educated, wealthy Republicans who once controlled the party, and to suburbanites unaffected by their previous experience with Ms. Haley.

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