Trump Leads Haley in South Carolina, but both candidates are finding advantages in the state

February 16, 2024

The Citadel Poll’s survey of 1,000 registered voters in South Carolina gauged the candidate preference of 505 likely Republican Primary voters. Consistent with the national trend, former President Donald Trump (64%) holds a considerable lead over Governor Nikki Haley (31%) in the state’s open primary. The 33% lead is well above the 4.4% margin of error for the likely voter sample. What makes the race truly interesting, is the variation in where each candidate’s support is.

 Likely VotersCharlestonColumbiaMyrtle Beach-FlorenceUpstateRest of SC
Fmr. President Donald Trump64%54%60%65%70%71%
Fmr. Governor Nikki Haley314137252527
Someone else342432
Not sure201511

Former President Trump benefits from above-average support in areas outside of the Charleston and Columbia metropolitan areas. The rallies held in Conway and North Charleston show that President Trump is trying to build enthusiasm in major population centers to keep or grow his support. Next week, he gives his closing pitch in Greenville to a region of the state where his popularity is the highest. Voter enthusiasm shows that Donald Trump still has supporters in Charleston and Upstate that are not certain they will vote in the next week (see Table 2).

Former Governor Haley’s modern day whistle-stop tour in the Midlands and Lowcountry is a recognition that she is well liked in the state, but needs her supporters to be more enthusiastic about voting before Saturday February 24. Early voting is a key to her beating expectations, because a majority of Governor Haley’s supporters plan to vote in-person early. She begins to narrow the gap with former President Trump with voters who would plan to vote early but were not definite that they would actually vote.

Table 2: Enthusiasm to vote in GOP Primary among those still eligible, by candidate preference

CharlestonColumbiaMyrtle Beach – FlorenceUpstate
Definitely will vote68%55%83%53%80%50%76%53%
Probably will vote2332162710261910
Probably not61117715424
Definitely will not1201329113

A total of 707 respondents said they would support Trump or Haley in the primary. There were 140 respondents who did not receive this question because they voted in South Carolina’s Democratic Primary on February 3rd.

Is South Carolina truly Trump’s to win?

Both Republican candidates are electable in the eyes of the South Carolina voters. In a head-to-head contest, preference among registered voters for former President Donald Trump (54%) is 19% higher than President Joe Biden (35%). Similarly, former Governor Nikki Haley (50%) is preferred by 22% more of the respondents than President Joe Biden (28%). The key difference is that if Governor Haley is on the ballot most Trump supporters continue to prefer her (69%, another 15% are undecided). Her edge is that 21% of voters who prefer President Biden over Donald Trump would vote for Nikki Haley. Only 7% of voters who prefer Biden over Trump would be undecided if Nikki Haley was the candidate.  Thus, says Citadel political science professor DuBose Kapeluck, “the poll suggests that Republicans would win more decisively in the general election if Haley was the Republican nominee but Republicans will carry the state regardless.”

The public’s anticipation of who they will support in November 2024 when the field of candidates is larger than the two party nominees shows the race could look different depending on who wins the Republican nomination. The head-to-head question asking which candidate a voter would support was expanded to include independent Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Senator Joe Manchin, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein. In a larger field, President Biden (31%) still trails Donald Trump (50%) in South Carolina by the same percentage as the head-to-head contest. “This pattern contradicts any expectation that a third-party contest would draw more votes from one candidate than another,” said Citadel political science professor Mark Owens, who conducted the poll with Professor Kapeluck.

Third-party candidates could gain more traction with voters if Governor Haley wins the Republican nomination. With more candidates in the race, Robert Kennedy, Jr.’s support increases to 20% in a Biden-Haley contest (+10% if Trump were on the ballot). Kennedy’s appeal detracts from both candidates, but more heavily from Haley, who’s lead over Biden drops from 21% to 17%. The largest shift is that 28% of Trump supporters in a Biden-Trump contest would prefer Kennedy over Haley. Prof. Kapeluck notes, “This suggests that Kennedy has positioned himself right in the middle ideologically between the two major party candidates.” Kennedy would seem to be a second-best for many Republicans, though for some it’s Trump or nothing.” Governor Haley maintains support from 55% of the Trump supporters, but we should be somewhat cautious to read into this as 10% of the Trump respondents refused to indicate who they would vote for if Trump was not the nominee. Haley’s lead remains strong, because she gains support from 19% of those who back Biden in a head-to-head race with Trump. If Haley wins the nomination, it appears more difficult to win back Trump supporters, however she is the candidate that draws support away from Biden.

Are the leads reflective of leadership traits the public wants?

The Citadel Poll asked voters what leadership traits they would like to see the President of the United States have. The broadest agreement among registered voters in South Carolina is that the President should accomplish tasks efficiently (85%), reduce uncertainty (70%), respect the ideas and feelings of the public (68%), and project a sense of calm (65%). This reveals that the public currently favors leadership that prioritizes accomplishments where the outcome is likely certain, more than feeling calm and secure.

The poll shows that Governor Henry McMaster has the highest approval of elected officials in South Carolina. When voters were asked if they supported or opposed sending the South Carolina National Guard to the Mexico border, the voters who were told Governor McMaster had already done so were more supportive of the policy.

What’s the role of Senator Scott’s endorsement?

The possibility that Senator Tim Scott is on the short list to be tapped as a running-mate, if Donald Trump wins the Republican Primary, has captured the attention of South Carolina voters. A majority of Republican primary voters (51%) would be more enthusiastic about Donald Trump’s candidacy if he selected Senator Scott as his running mate. The selection offers future benefits to Trump since enthusiasm for selecting Scott is higher among voters who support Donald Trump over Joe Biden in a head-to-head contest (62%). Enthusiasm is also greatest among voters who already prefer Donald Trump to Nikki Haley in next week’s election, but the selection holds little risk with the primary voters who support Haley who say it will have no impact on their preference (32%). This is consistent with the idea that Senator Scott can mobilize a base and also propel momentum. Among voters who are currently considering other candidates (34%) or unsure how committed they are before they vote in the primary (51%) would be more enthusiastic about Donald Trump in the general election if Senator Scott was on the ticket.  “We can’t be sure this ‘can’t lose’ Tim Scott VP dynamic will hold in other states, but in South Carolina it is impossible to deny,” says Prof. Kapeluck.

 Trump (Primary)Haley (Primary)Trump (General)Biden (General)
Extremely more enthusiastic29%12%28%1%
Somewhat more enthusiastic3419343
Somewhat less enthusiastic1412138
Significantly less enthusiastic622447
No impact17321938
 Moved in last 5 yrsMoved 5 to 10 yrsOver 10 yrsAlways in SC
Extremely more enthusiastic11%16%14%18%
Somewhat more enthusiastic32222317
Somewhat less enthusiastic9191111
Significantly less enthusiastic20122718
No impact21292532

Finally, are candidate preferences influenced by how long someone has lived in South Carolina?

Donald Trump attracts a majority of voters who will probably vote in the Republican primary across each category of residency. Among the most recent residents Donald Trump leads Nikki Haley by 15% (52-37). It is important to remember that while the state has a growing population only 10% of the registered voter population is new. In this primary election, they are as enthusiastic to vote as the rest of the state. Donald Trump’s greatest advantage is among voters who have lived in South Carolina their entire life (+48%, Trump 68%; Haley 20%). To be competitive Haley will have to narrow the gap with long-time South Carolina residents. Voters who either moved here more than 10 years ago or have not lived anywhere else combined are 80% of the state’s registered voters.

“Enthusiasm in the electorate varies based on length of residency in the state” added Owens. Respondents who have lived in South Carolina their entire life are the least enthusiastic about this primary (49% definite, 24% probably). The highest enthusiasm is among voters who moved to the state 5 to 10 years ago (63% definite, 24% probably). The residents who moved to the state while Governor Haley was in office or had a high-profile position in the Trump administration are an important target. To this group, Donald Trump’s campaign has shaped their political memories in South Carolina in the primary and general elections and few – if any – have had the opportunity to vote for Governor Haley.

Looking back to 2016, Donald Trump won the state in 2016 (32.5%). Governor Nikki Haley endorsed Marco Rubio in 2016 in the last week of the campaign, who came in second place (22.5%). Today, Governor Haley’s name is on the ballot and her opponent Donald Trump won the general election in South Carolina twice.

About the Poll

The Citadel Poll is a public service initiative of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Through presidential debates, the Symposium on Southern Politics, public lectures, and leadership opportunities The Citadel is a leading venue for discussing what is on the minds of voters in the region and across the country.


Newly launched, The Citadel Poll will survey South Carolina voters each year 

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