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Trump beats Nikki Haley in South Carolina GOP primary

The former president defeated his top contender in her home-state primary, NBC News projects.
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CHARLESTON, S.C. — Former President Donald Trump won a resounding victory in South Carolina’s GOP presidential primary on Saturday, NBC News projects, continuing a winning streak through each Republican nominating contest so far — and putting him in position to potentially clinch the party’s presidential nomination within the next month.

Defeat for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is a blow in her home state. A total of 50 delegates were on the line in Saturday’s contest, which are split between the statewide winner and the winner of each congressional district.

And Trump’s dominant performance throughout the state allowed him to win nearly all of them, though Haley grabbed three delegates from South Carolina's Charleston-based 1st Congressional District, NBC News projects.

Trump won statewide by about 20 points over Haley.

With his victory on Saturday, the former president now looks to be cruising to the party’s presidential nomination despite being criminally charged in four separate jurisdictions and subject to hundreds of millions of dollars in civil penalties. He could reach the necessary 1,215 delegates to clinch by mid-March, with a number of states holding de facto winner-take-all primaries on Super Tuesday (March 5) and more following after that.

“There has never been a spirit like this,” Trump said at his election night party in Columbia. “I have never seen the Republican Party so unified.”

The NBC exit poll shows Trump and Haley fighting to a near-draw among Republican voters with college degrees: Trump with 51% to Haley’s 47%. But it was a blowout among the bigger group of primary voters without degrees: Trump 74%, Haley 26%.

Other figures in the exit poll illustrated the steep hill Haley had to climb here — and the massive advantage enjoyed by Trump. So much of Haley’s messaging painted her, as a much younger candidate, as having mental and physical fortitude that she said Trump lacks in his advanced age. Yet, exit polling showed that 38% of GOP primary voters think only Trump has the physical and mental strength needed for the presidency, while just 26% said only Haley did.

Haley has also been campaigning on polls showing she would be much more likely to defeat President Joe Biden in the fall. But the exit polling showed that while 57% of South Carolina primary voters think Haley would likely beat Biden, a whopping 83% said Trump likely would.

And when GOP primary voters who backed Haley were asked if Biden legitimately won the 2020 election, 79% said yes and just 11% said no. Among Trump voters, those numbers were flipped entirely, as just 11% said yes and 88% said no.

For Haley, who served as governor of South Carolina before she became Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, the loss was particularly brutal. Trump’s victory could be the most lopsided in a contested South Carolina GOP primary since President George H.W. Bush defeated right-wing insurgent candidate Pat Buchanan, a former aide to multiple GOP presidents, by more than 40 points in 1992.

But Haley made clear that a loss in her home state on Saturday would not be pushing her out of the race any time soon, pledging to campaign through the Super Tuesday contests next month. Already, she’s planned a cross-country trip to those states set to begin on Sunday.

Speaking at her election night party in Charleston, Haley reiterated that she is fighting on, saying, "I'm grateful that today is not the end of our story." Though she congratulated Trump on his victory, she said she does not believe he can defeat Biden.

"Today, in South Carolina, we’re getting around 40% of the vote," she said, adding, "I’m an accountant. I know 40% is not 50%. But I also know 40% is not some tiny group. There are huge numbers of voters in our Republican primaries who are saying they want an alternative."

"I said earlier this week that no matter what happens in South Carolina, I would continue to run for president," she continued. "I’m a woman of my word."

In a speech on Tuesday outlining why she planned to stay in the race regardless of results in the Palmetto State, Haley called Trump “a disaster” for the GOP who is “more unstable and unhinged” than when he first ran, adding she feels “no need to kiss the ring.” 

“And I have no fear of Trump’s retribution,” she said. “I’m not looking for anything from him.”

The pro-Trump super PAC Make America Great Again Inc., said in a statement following Haley's election eve address that she "celebrated Saturday night for getting 'around 40 percent of the vote' in her home state."

"Nikki Haley is moving the goal posts as she continues along with her doomed candidacy," the release continued, noting that she did not grow her percentage of the vote following last month's New Hampshire primary.

But a Haley ally, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly, told NBC News that the results in South Carolina actually showed danger ahead for Trump.

“South Carolina signaled a larger problem for Trump and Republicans supporting him — after losing 40-50 percent of the base in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, how can Trump and his allies make up that deficit in a general election match up with Joe Biden?” one Haley ally said. “He can’t.”

Trump, who held one major event in the state during the final days of the contest, paid little attention to Haley in the run-up to Saturday’s vote, though at a rally earlier this month he questioned where Haley's husband was, as he is deployed overseas with the military. 

Haley and allies repeatedly targeted Trump for those comments over the last two weeks, also targeting his comments at the same South Carolina event that he once told NATO allies he would “encourage” Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” if those allies did not increase their defense spending.

“Nikki has actually gone very far left, she’s very rude,” Trump said at his rally in Rock Hill on Friday, during which he only briefly referenced his rival. “Do you notice that? I don’t like to say that, but she’s very rude.”

Trump maintained wide polling leads in the public surveys released before Saturday's contest. But Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., Haley’s lone congressional endorser, predicted ahead of Saturday that Haley would “outperform” those surveys.

“It’s not going to be 30 points,” he said. “We’ll see how this turns out, take this state by state. I admire her for doing this. All those who are asking her to get out, they’re not putting the work in.”

Haley and allies increasingly targeted independent and Democratic-leaning voters in the final days of the election, with any voter who did not vote in the Feb. 3 Democratic presidential primary here eligible to vote in Saturday’s contest. Turnout in the Democratic primary was just 130,000, a massive drop-off from recent election cycles.

And Haley and her main super PAC spent far more in advertising through Tuesday, outspending Trump in South Carolina about 10 to 1.

Still, the deficit Haley faced versus Trump was too much for her to overcome. And with Trump’s win seemingly in the bag for weeks, Trump’s family members like daughter-in-law Lara Trump, whom the former president has endorsed to serve as co-chair of the Republican National Committee, asked in Beaufort: “Why is she still in the race?”

During an exchange with reporters following the event, Trump’s daughter-in-law suggested that Haley must only be staying in the race because she is hopeful that a criminal conviction will knock the former president out before Election Day.

“I can only assume, and I think what a lot of people only assume, is that you would only stay in if you were banking on possibly the least democratic and least American thing happening in this situation, which is that potentially one of these indictments takes Donald Trump out,” she said.

At her Georgetown rally on Thursday, Haley said she did not care how her presidential bid would impact her political future.

“First they wanted to say that I wanted to be vice president,” she said. “I think I pretty much proved that is not what I’m trying to do. Then they were talking about my political future. I don’t care about a political future. If I did, I would have been out by now.”

Haley supporters who spoke with NBC News said they wanted to see her push on, suggesting something beyond the results could impact the race.

“Regardless of how she fares in South Carolina, I would like to see her run the course,” said Liz Hood, a Haley backer from Beaufort. “Because from Feb. 24 to November is a long time. And there are many things that can happen.”

“I’m glad she’s staying in,” added Bill Pittman, a Haley supporter from Beaufort. “And I think she’ll win, but a lot can happen on both sides between now and Election Day. It is an eternity away in politics. I like the idea of her being in the mix, still in the hunt.”

The core problem Haley ran into in her home state was simple: Voters for the most part liked her, but most who voted on Saturday simply liked Trump even more.

“She was pretty good,” David, a Trump supporter from Georgetown, said of her time as governor. “I think she’s a great person. But I think the Democrat Party would eat her up, spit her out in the first week. I don’t think she can handle it."

"I don’t like the man," he added of Trump. "But I think he is the only one that can bring us out of the hole we’re in.”