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South Carolina Republicans told me why they want Trump and why Haley lost her home state

Former president Donald Trump continued his winning streak in South Carolina today, prevailing over Nikki Haley in the fourth primary election this year. Tonight’s defeat came in Haley’s home state.

Haley, a born-and-raised South Carolinian, served as the state’s governor from 2011 to 2017. Before that, she was in the state’s House of Representatives.

So why did she lose her own state? Prior to Saturday’s election, I spoke with two college students about the decision of their campus groups to back Trump over Haley in South Carolina. Their qualms with Haley outweighed any possibility of supporting the local candidate.

Our conversations affirmed what I assumed: that a hometown advantage doesn’t matter when you’re running against Trump. Not only do these students remember what life was like while Trump was in office, they are contrasting it with the last four years of Biden and assume that Trump is the only one strong enough to defeat him come November. They don’t have the same familiarity with Haley, nor do they have confidence in her leadership.

South Carolina college students dislike Nikki Haley’s track record

For younger Republican voters, the hometown connections weren’t enough to pull them away from Trump. In fact, her track record within the state is part of the reason that some College Republican chapters chose to endorse the former president ahead of the state’s primary.

Noah Lindler, the Vice President of University of South Carolina’s College Republicans chapter, said the decision to endorse Trump was unanimous among the club’s executive board. In their February 2 endorsement of Trump, the group said they “miss when our border was being secured, terrorism was being rooted out and destroyed, and gasoline did not cost an arm and a leg.”

“There’s always gonna be controversies with Donald Trump,” Lindler told me. “However, we’ve seen what his presidency looks like, we know how good it was for America and we want that again.”

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He says that he and the club analyzed the candidates based on five issues: gun rights, abortion, economic policy, foreign aid and immigration. The club hosted watch parties for the different debates and talked about them as a group. They picked topics to correspond with each of the candidates: one meeting was about Vivek Ramaswamy as a young conservative, another focused on Haley as a moderate.

“A lot of us like Trump, like what he did when he was president,” Lindler said. “And we saw that, compared to what Nikki Haley was saying during the debates and the way she’s voted in the past, what she’s done in South Carolina.”

Even Republicans at Haley’s former university passed on her

Clemson University’s chapter also endorsed Trump. The move was significant, considering it’s Haley’s alma mater.

“She continued to promise South Carolinians things,” Jeanais Mitchell, the PR chair for the Clemson University College Republicans, said of Haley in a phone interview. “As a native-born, we hoped for the best, but she just never delivered.”

The Clemson chapter has been visibly supporting the former president since October 2023, when they posted to Instagram about signing up students to volunteer for the former president at a tailgate. Their members phone banked and knocked doors for the Trump campaign, meeting MAGA-verse celebrities like Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, and Jim Jordan, from Ohio, along the way. During her volunteer shift, Mitchell said she talked to people who also liked Trump’s track record, while pointing to issues with Haley’s record in the state.

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In their February 7 endorsement, the club said Trump “came down on the D.C. status quo with a sledgehammer,” and that Haley was “bought, sold, and owned by deranged billionaires.” The statement also noted the “weaponization” of the justice system against the former president; in our phone call, Mitchell said the lawsuits and felony charges were “a ploy to take his time and energy.”

“People may assume that this is Nikki Haley’s voter base,” she told me. “It’s really, I think, way more than that. The momentum that Trump has has been huge, and I think that’s really important.”

Republicans object to Haley’s policy record

Both Mitchell and Lindler mentioned Haley’s record on taxes as reasons they did not support her. In 2006, Haley co-sponsored a bill in the South Carolina General Assembly that raised the state’s sales tax while cutting property taxes. As governor, she proposed a gas tax increase coupled with an income tax cut that never came to fruition.

Republican Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Nikki Haley. Photos by Getty Images

There were other concerns, as well. Lindler said Haley seemed to favor militarization over diplomacy in debate questions on foreign affairs and noted that her campaign has received donations from the left. He noted her surprise appearance on “Saturday Night Live” as another thing working against her, despite the fact that Trump hosted during his first campaign. Mitchell, meanwhile, disliked that Haley had gone back on her word; in 2022, she said she would not run for president if Trump were to seek re-election.

Talking to Trump supporters in South Carolina made it clear Haley had no chance

Looking back on these conversations, it’s hard to see a world where Haley would have won South Carolina. Trump’s branding still has a stronghold on conservatives, who can easily dismiss the red flags in favor of what they see as the United States returning to what it is supposed to be. Conversely, both of the college groups saw Haley as the weaker candidate and held onto the ways they said she’d let down conservative South Carolinians.

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For these two students – first-time voters who saw the Trump presidency, the 2020 election and everything that came after – there was a clear favorite. And if Haley couldn’t win over the young, politically engaged voters in her home state, she was doomed before the polls even opened.

The clubs’ Trump endorsements are in line with what the polls told us. A Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll from earlier in the week found that 63% of likely voters in South Carolina are for Trump, compared to the 35% supporting Haley. He has more support in every age group, as well as among both high school and college graduates.

Possibly seeing that polling, Haley held a press conference this week to announce that she would not suspend her campaign if she lost South Carolina. She intends to stay in the race until at least Super Tuesday.

“People have a right to have their voices heard, and they deserve a real choice – not a Soviet-style election where there’s only one candidate, and he gets 99% of the vote,” Haley said Wednesday.

It’s admirable that she plans to stay simply to offer voters a choice, but my conversations with the Republican college students made it clear that Trump’s time in the White House and his current messaging make him the more appealing candidate.

Come Super Tuesday, this will be apparent in half the country. Haley may drop out of the race or she might keep her word and keep trying. She has said she wants to give Republican voters a choice.

The thing is, they’ve already made it. They want Trump.

Follow USA TODAY elections columnist Sara Pequeño on X, formerly Twitter, @sara__pequeno and Facebook

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Haley lost the South Carolina primary. Young Republicans told me why

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