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Takeaways from South Carolina’s Republican primary

<i>Brian Snyder/Reuters via CNN Newsource</i><br/>
Brian Snyder/Reuters via CNN Newsource

By Gregory Krieg and Eric Bradner, CNN

(CNN) — Donald Trump has won the South Carolina Republican presidential primary, defeating Nikki Haley on her home turf as he completed his sweep of the early voting states.

Already the prohibitive favorite to claim his third straight nomination, the former president’s victory in the Palmetto State, where Haley was twice elected governor, has all but ended the race — even as Haley insists that she will keep battling at least into next month.

Trump’s dominance in South Carolina was hardly surprising. The state is among the most conservative in the country and has backed the former president every time he’s been on the ballot. According to a CNN exit poll of primary voters, more than 4 in 10 described themselves as being affiliated with the MAGA movement, while roughly 8 in 10 described themselves as conservative. Only a third of respondents acknowledged President Joe Biden as the rightful winner of the 2020 election.

Biden and Trump both pivoted to the general election campaign weeks ago, but Haley’s decision to play out the race has been gnawing at the former president, who is positioning himself to close his grip on the GOP political apparatus.

While the result in South Carolina was never really in doubt — most polls showed Trump with a 25- to 30-point lead — there are still a few outstanding details. Chief among them: How many delegates can Haley win? South Carolina gives most of its plunder to the statewide winner but also doles out delegates to the winner in each of its seven congressional districts.

CNN projected late Saturday night that Haley will win the state’s 1st Congressional District and its three delegates.

District wins for Haley won’t change the trajectory of the race but could tell us something about Trump’s road ahead.

While we’re waiting, here are takeaways from the GOP’s 2024 South Carolina presidential primary.

The race accelerates now

The contest shifts into a new gear starting now. The slow march through the early voting states is over. The primary is now a national one.

By March 12, 56% of the delegates to the Republican National Convention will have been awarded. And in most states, Republicans’ delegates are winner-take-all — which means Haley gets no credit for strong second-place showings.

With Haley winless so far, the finish line — 1,215 delegates necessary to clinch the nomination — could be in sight for Trump within weeks.

The next test comes Tuesday in Michigan’s primary, though state Republicans have opted to award their delegates partially through the primary and partially through a caucus convention days later. Caucuses in Idaho and Missouri, along with primaries in North Dakota, follow. Then, on Super Tuesday, 36% of the party’s delegates are at stake.

Trump dominates the GOP establishment — again

In case it wasn’t clear when he won the nomination in 2016, became president, ran all but a select few Republican critics out of office or the party, then stormed into the 2024 race despite facing multiple indictments, the GOP belongs to Donald Trump.

But his success here, in Haley’s home state, underscores how much has changed in less than a decade. Nor has it been a hostile takeover, no matter how hostile Trump can be toward his rivals. Most Republican voters are all in on Trump — as evidenced by the majority who claim to believe his 2020 election lies — and the parts of his personality that make establishment Republicans cringe are, as we’ve seen, actually a large part of his appeal to a majority of voters.

Haley herself, when she first became a national figure, ran as a tea party conservative— as part of a loosely knit group of Republicans who wanted to push the party further right. But as the GOP shifted toward Trump’s right-wing populism, even Haley is seen as an establishment figure.

Her policy positions and general tone in discussing the issues reflected that. Her fate in this primary confirmed it.

Where does Haley go from here?

There was once a narrow, but tantalizing, path for Haley to seriously challenge Trump for the Republican nomination. She’d need to win New Hampshire, with its much more moderate electorate built in part on a slew of independents participating in the state’s GOP primary. Then she’d ride a wave of momentum into her home state and deliver another stunner — one that would put her on even footing with Trump going into Super Tuesday.

She’s now 0 for 2. And that potentially game-changing stretch of the Republican primary race is over.

So where does Haley go from here?

For starters, her campaign announced a swing through Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado and Utah starting Sunday. She’s also spending money on television and digital advertising targeting the states that vote on Super Tuesday on March 5.

“In the next 10 days, another 21 states and territories will speak. They have the right to a real choice, not a Soviet-style election with only one candidate,” Haley said in her concession speech.

Whether she’ll actually notch any wins and begin to seriously challenge Trump in the delegate race, though, is a tougher question.

A big enough pro-Haley coalition doesn’t exist in GOP primaries

Haley’s campaign has long touted general election polls that show her in a much stronger position than Trump in a hypothetical matchup against Biden.

But she can’t skip the step of defeating Trump in a primary first.

There’s long been a theoretical coalition for Haley. It starts with moderate Republicans and those turned off by Trump, particularly suburban, college-educated voters who have fled the party since Trump’s ascension in 2016, and includes independents allowed to vote in Republican primaries in some states, such as New Hampshire and South Carolina. But that coalition isn’t showing up for Haley — at least not in enough force to substantially change the makeup of a Republican electorate that still strongly backs Trump overall.

Haley has said she’ll stay in the race through Super Tuesday. With Trump’s support among the Republican base showing no signs of cracking, she’ll have to somehow shake things up dramatically — and do so at a much more difficult point in the race than she’s faced so far.

“There are huge numbers of voters in our Republican primaries who are saying they want an alternative,” Haley said Saturday night. “I said earlier this week that no matter what happens in South Carolina, I would continue to run for president. I’m a woman of my word.”

Tim Scott’s veepstakes audition

The most important result of South Carolina’s primary might be the cozy relationship Trump seemed to develop with his onetime 2024 GOP primary rival, Sen. Tim Scott.

The last few weeks may have served as Scott’s audition for the vice presidential nomination. He campaigned with Trump, appeared alongside him in a Fox News town hall and other interviews, and urged Haley — who appointed him to his Senate seat when she was governor — to get out of the race.

“South Carolina is Trump country,” Scott declared from stage Saturday night after Trump asked him to speak.

Scott has become a key Trump surrogate since dropping out of the presidential race in November — and the former president has noticed.

“He’s the greatest surrogate I’ve ever seen,” Trump said at a rally Friday night. “He’s a much better representative for me than he is a representative for himself.”

This story has been updated with additional developments.

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