'She abandoned us': Haley's South Carolina problem isn't just Trump

Olsen said she understands that as the state's executive officer, Haley sometimes has to compromise and govern. Although Olsen was rooting for Newt Gingrich, he didn't blame her for endorsing Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race. Olson said he's not worried about his decision in 2015 to call for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state Capitol grounds, even though many activists who originally supported him were angry.

But when Haley endorsed Marco Rubio in 2016 — what Olson saw as rejecting the populist movement fueling Trump's rise — Olson said he no longer sees her the same way.

“She started going too far into the establishment, so to speak,” he said.

Had she not run, Haley might have been in good shape as a former governor with Republicans in South Carolina. Despite being removed from the state's grassroots activist scene by her own choice, Haley was a popular political figure here even before running for president.

At the start of the 2022 election cycle, Haley's favorability among Republicans in the state was just below Trump's high since the mid-'80s — and within the margin of error, according to an internal poll of statewide candidates shared with POLITICO. Even after Haley entered the primary race against Trump, and even throughout 2023, public opinion polls at that time showed similar results.

But in a Winthrop University poll this month — and after directly increasing his attacks on Trump —
Haley's favorability with South Carolina Republicans plummeted
His unfavorable rating among GOP voters more than doubled, from 71 percent in November to 56 percent in February.

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Haley's former running mate, Rob Godfrey, who was a moderate governor in the primary, said it's not that Haley has lost South Carolina's conservative base, but that “the way she is, she's still looking back at the governorship.”

“But they've also grown comfortable, in fact, with Donald Trump as the national party leader,” Godfrey said.

“Both are close to perfect foils,” Godfrey continued, adding that Trump “has been one of those who embraces flaws,” adding that he “weaponizes anger and emotion against political opponents more than anyone in history.”

Today's GOP, in South Carolina and elsewhere, “has an angrier party base than anyone saw during the rise of the Tea Party,” Godfrey said.

Caden Dawson, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party who is working for Haley's presidential campaign in the state, acknowledged that “Trump has captured a decent number of voters in South Carolina,” but said Haley could increase the pool. Voters participating in the state's Republican primary.

Just 135,000 people voted in South Carolina's Democratic primary earlier this month, and because the state doesn't register voters by party, there are more than 3 million eligible voters in the GOP race this week. Hawley has urged voters across the political spectrum to participate in the GOP primary, while her allies use television ads and mailers to explain that a voter doesn't have to be a Republican to vote Saturday.

The Haley campaign is focused on converting people who want to vote Republican in general elections but don't typically participate in the primary process, Dawson said. But despite the appearance of pro-Trump protesters at her events and the Trump campaign's sharp attacks on Haley, Dawson said even those in the state's conservative base, which backs Trump, “don't like Nikki Haley.”

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“They'll say, 'I voted for her three times, it's not her turn,'” Dawson said.

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