HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — Nikki Haley has lost big to Donald Trump in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and the coming states aren’t looking any better for her. But at a local BBQ joint here Thursday, Haley railed against the “political elite pushing us to name a nominee when only two states have voted.”
“Why would we stop now?” asked Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and ambassador to the United Nations.
The crowd was with her.
“Don’t stop!” her supporters shouted. “Don’t stop! Don’t stop!”
The message belied the realities on the ground — realities that haven’t escaped her own backers. Haley is on track to lose each of the GOP’s first four major nominating contests by significant margins — including in her home state, South Carolina, where a Monmouth University/Washington Post survey published Thursday showed her trailing Trump by 26 points, virtually unchanged since September. South Carolina is considered to be among Trump’s strongest states, and it looks as though Haley’s success here will depend considerably on how many Democrats cross over and back her.
Her supporters aren’t denying that reality. But they still see it as a worthwhile fight, even as many Republicans increasingly say it’s time for the primary campaign to come to an end.
Maureen Bulger, a Republican from Bluffton, South Carolina, who attended Haley’s rally Thursday, said she will continue to stand behind Haley for as long as she decides to stay in — if, for no other reason, then to send a message to Trump.
“Even if she loses to him [Trump], he will know there are a lot of Republicans that don’t want him,” said Bulger, who voted for Trump in 2016 but backed President Joe Biden in 2020.
Jerry, another supporter at the event, who declined to give his last name, shook his head repeatedly when asked whether Haley could still pull out a victory. But he said he will vote for her anyway, because “I simply hate both parties. I hate Trump and Biden, and I think she’s good.”
“I’ll vote for her; I voted for Ross Perot,” he said, adding that he will “move to Portugal” if this fall’s election is a Trump-vs.-Biden rematch.
Haley’s campaign said it is receiving about 1,000 emails a day from supporters telling her to “stick with it” and “keep up the good fight” — messages Haley has spent the past week promoting on her social media accounts. It’s looking like she will take them up on it, too.
On Friday, she announced a campaign rally for Wednesday in California — which holds its primary on March 5, known as Super Tuesday — a sign she isn’t planning on dropping out soon. Her campaign on Sunday announced its best fundraising month to date, bringing in a $16.5 million haul in January. She’s also attending a host of fundraisers this week as she blankets South Carolina with ads.
In a post-New Hampshire memo, campaign manager Betsy Ankney suggested there is “significant fertile ground” for Haley in numerous Super Tuesday states.
But with Haley trailing so substantially here, backers are already framing a positive outcome around trimming Trump’s margins rather than winning outright. State Rep. Nathan Ballentine, a Haley supporter, said that “as a competitor, you’d love to win your home state” but that it wasn’t required for her to win the primary.
“Did anybody go tell the 49ers to not come out after halftime because it’s over and Detroit’s the presumptive [conference champion]?” Ballentine said, pointing to San Francisco’s comeback victory against the Lions in last month’s NFC championship game. “They were down 17. It was early. There was still a half to play. We’ve got more than a half to play.”
Trump and his allies don’t think they’re in the middle of a game, though. They see the clock already showing no time remaining.
Trump’s co-campaign managers, Chris LaCivita and Susie Wiles, wrote in a memo after the New Hampshire primary that “even a 10-year-old knows there’s not a path to winning” and that if “losing four times in a row is a momentum builder, now might be the best time to buy plots of land on Mars.”
Then there’s the matter of endorsements, which has hung over this state’s contest more so than others given Haley’s having served in office here for 12 years. Trump has the backing of nearly every major federal or statewide elected official. Haley, on the other hand, has the backing of one member of Congress and some members of the Legislature.
Haley has taken her lack of endorsements here as a point of pride, saying it’s the result of actions she took as governor that were popular with constituents but unpopular with state lawmakers and that it’s a sign she’s the outsider in the race rather than Trump.
At her Hilton Head Island event, Haley said Trump “has surrounded himself with the political elite,” adding, “All those congressional members around him are the same ones that haven’t done anything for us.”
In Team Trump’s telling, though, the endorsement gap is because people who know Haley best are the ones who like her the least.
“She’s so bad that everybody wants her to go away,” a Trump adviser said. “There’s an old saying: If everyone you encounter today is an a–hole, then you’re the a–hole.”
Perhaps the most eye-popping of Trump’s endorsements in South Carolina was that of Rep. Nancy Mace, who campaigned arm-in-arm with Haley during her 2022 primary, in which Mace was able to hold off a Trump-backed primary challenger.
Speaking Friday at a Trump campaign news conference, Mace compared Haley to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and suggested Haley as governor would have been open to manufacturing Chinese spy balloons in the state. Questioned by NBC News, Mace said she endorsed Trump over Haley as Trump’s invincibility in the state became clear.
“He’s going to win it everywhere. Even down here,” Mace said of her congressional district near Charleston, which isn’t one of the state’s MAGA hotbeds.
Outside Haley’s Hilton Head Island event, a number of Trump backers gathered to voice their support for him.
Bill and Kris Ruffner said they felt he had kept all the promises he made and had the proper experience to be able to get back in the White House and continue to carry out his agenda.
“All these years, we’ve been waiting for someone like him to come out and say this stuff we were thinking,” Kris said. “We finally get him, and now we’ve got the other side telling us he’s too mean? Too bad. We need mean. We’re fighting monsters.”
Yet Trump supporters who spoke with NBC News said they didn’t necessarily dislike Haley, speaking approvingly of her job as governor and ambassador.
“I like her. But I like Trump a lot more,” Ron Clack, a Republican voter, said outside Haley’s event. “I don’t think it’s anti-her as much as it is the Trump factor. Nobody like him has ever run before.”
Few undecided voters remain ahead of the Feb. 24 primary. One exception is Shery White, a conservative activist and school board member in Sumter County. White, a former Scott backer, said she wants to hear Haley clear up her record on China as governor before she makes up her mind on voting.
Trump’s campaign and allies are hitting Haley for welcoming Chinese investment in the state. (Haley, meanwhile, has hit Trump for repeatedly praising his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping.)
White did notice something in her neighborhood that has her thinking the election is trending away from Haley.
“A house I passed almost every day has had a Nikki Haley sign in the yard for over a month,” she said. “This morning, it was a Trump sign.”
Other local activists said that’s no mistake: Trump has strengthened as the other candidates began dropping out. And with his winning big in Iowa and New Hampshire, they see a local electorate that is ready to move on.
“I think last year people were open to seeing the candidates,” said Steven Wright, the Dorchester County GOP chairman. “But when I speak to people today, the primary is a foregone conclusion. … And I don’t see any craters in [Trump’s] support between now and Feb. 24.”
That isn’t for a lack of Haley’s trying. She has ridiculed Trump for the tens of millions of dollars spent on his legal fees and has increasingly zeroed in on the criminal cases he faces. Stand for America Inc., the super PAC backing Haley’s bid, blasted Trump for having a light campaign schedule and for his campaign’s spending during the previous quarter.
“It’s more of a contact sport,” Olivia Perez-Cubas, a Haley adviser, said, pointing to the fact that the race is now a one-on-one contest “Nikki is drawing the contrast between herself as a new generational conservative leader, and Donald Trump who’s surrounded by chaos and grievances of the past.”
But there’s skepticism that it will serve Haley well both now and in the future as someone who may again seek office.
“A hard line against Trump could really hurt her 2028 chances,” said Trump’s former acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, a former House member from South Carolina who has since been critical of him. “And I imagine her big donors are encouraging her to do that. The thing is: They don’t have a chance to run in 2028, and she does. So you have to wonder if the advice she is getting is in her best interest or her donors.’”
Trump backers said they felt the only reason for Haley to keep running was a bet on Trump’s being imprisoned. Kris Ruffner said Haley would be “committing career suicide” by continuing her bid.
“Now, look what happened to the others, [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis and them. They were like heroes,” she said of the points when Trump’s rivals dropped out. “This is like her last hurrah. She better just get out.”
State Rep. Chris Wooten, a Haley backer, said Haley would end the campaign if she truly didn’t see a path forward.
“Nikki is incredibly brilliant,” he said. “If it gets to a point that she does not have a chance, then obviously she will not spend any more money to do that. But right now, she still has a chance.”
Responding to the voter chant at her rally Thursday, Haley made it clear where she stands.
“I have told this to the press; I’ve told this to anybody who will hear it,” she said. “I am not going anywhere.”