South Carolina exit polls: Conservative coalition propels Trump to victory over Haley

Sixty-two percent also falsely think Biden didn't legitimately win in 2020.

February 24, 2024, 9:06 PM

South Carolina Republican voters roundly rejected former Gov. Nikki Haley's arguments on age and electability, lifting former President Donald Trump to an easy victory in Saturday's primary -- in his sole remaining major opponent's home state.

Benefiting from the state's preponderance of conservatives and evangelicals, Trump prevailed on a range of key measures, exit polling shows. Voters picked immigration and the economy as their top issues of concern; Trump crushed Haley by 40 points in trust to handle border security, 69-29%, and by 67-31% in trust to handle the economy.

While Haley had argued that she was more electable, partially based on polling, 82% in the ABC News exit poll of the primary said Trump was likely to win in November's general election vs. 59% who said the same of Haley. Indeed, 60% saw Trump as "very" likely to defeat President Joe Biden vs. just 25% who said the same about Haley.

Haley's campaign pitch questioning Trump's age -- and her call for mental competency tests for candidates older than 75 -- also fell short. Slightly more South Carolina GOP voters said the 77-year-old Trump has the physical and mental health needed to serve effectively as president, 69%, than said so for Haley, at 61%.

In all, 70% said they would be satisfied with Trump as the nominee vs. 44% satisfied with Haley. So broad was Trump's support that 62% also said they'd see him as fit to be president even if he were convicted of a crime. (He faces 91 charges but denies all wrongdoing.)

Still, 35% would not see him as fit for office in the case of a conviction -- including 82% of Haley's voters --- leaving open the question of what they'd do in November if that were to occur.

Much of Trump's advantage in South Carolina was structural: Sixty percent of Republican voters identified themselves as evangelical white Christians (compared with 19% in New Hampshire's primary last month). Though that was off its peak, 67% in 2016, Trump won 74% of their votes. Further, 78% identified as conservative, including 41% as very conservative -- the latter, a group Trump won with 85% support.

There was solace for Haley in some groups. She ran closely with Trump among non-evangelicals, independents and college graduates; won moderates; and prevailed by a wide margin among the relatively few who were focused on foreign policy.

And she won half of those who were dissatisfied with the country's direction, rather than angry about it.

In one underwhelming result for Trump, 42% identified themselves as "part of the MAGA movement" that he started. It was similar in Iowa's caucuses in January but lower in New Hampshire.

Still, the conservative bent of South Carolina Republican primary voters was reflected in other attitudes. Sixty-six percent said most unauthorized immigrants in the United States should be deported. Sixty-two percent falsely said Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election. Fifty-one percent said they would favor a federal law banning all or most abortions nationwide. And, with Biden as president, 87% were dissatisfied or angry at the way things are going in the country, including 44% who were angry.

Among those angry voters, 83% backed Trump, who has campaigned on a message of retribution and judgment while restoring his prior policies.

PHOTO: Voters cast their ballot at Kilbourne Park Baptist Church during the Republican presidential primary in Columbia, South Carolina, Feb. 24, 2024.
Voters cast their ballot at Kilbourne Park Baptist Church during the Republican presidential primary in Columbia, South Carolina, Feb. 24, 2024.
Sam Wolfe/Reuters

Further demonstrating his appeal, 93% of Trump voters said they mainly voted for their candidate, rather than against his opponent. Among Haley voters, by contrast, 58% mainly supported her and 40% voted mainly to oppose Trump.

In a list of four issues, 37% said immigration was most important in their vote, 33% selected the economy, 13% said foreign policy and 10% chose abortion. On the economy, just 23% said they're getting ahead financially. And 47% rated the national economy as "poor," another very strong Trump group as he pulled in 86% of their votes.

Among four candidate attributes, 35% said they were mainly looking for a candidate who "fights for people like me," a made-for-Trump category in which he won 90%. A third were looking for shared values, with 65% in this group for Trump. The rest divided between the candidate with the right temperament and the one best able to defeat Biden.

Another result showed the extent to which vote preferences long were locked in place: Seventy-seven percent said they chose their candidate before January. Among them, 71% voted for Trump. Among those who decided this month, by contrast, 65% backed Haley. But they made up just 15% of the turnout.

Other notable data points from the exit polling include:

Despite Haley's attempts to make hay out of Trump's mocking comments about her husband, who is serving abroad as a member of the South Carolina National Guard, not being on the trail -- Trump still won veterans by a 34-point margin, 67-33%.

By age, Trump's best group (numerically, not significantly) was the youngest: 67% support among 17- to 29-year-olds, albeit just 7% of voters. Young people also were Trump's best age group in New Hampshire (again not significantly -- by a scant 2 points) but were his worst age group in Iowa.

The South Carolina Republican primary electorate looked a little more diverse than typical in terms of race and ethnicity. Ninety-two percent of voters identified as white people, a relative low for the state, compared with 96% in 2016 and up to 98% previously.

This year, 3% were Black voters (1% in 2016, previous high 2%, though these aren't statistically significant differences), 3% were Hispanic, 1% were Asian and 1% identified as other.

Sample sizes are too small for vote preference estimates among individual racial/ethnic groups other than whites. But when combined, voters of other racial/ethnic backgrounds went 56-43% for Trump with whites backing him 63-36%.