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Trump racked up another win in South Carolina. But Haley isn't giving up yet

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

With his victory in South Carolina last night, former President Donald Trump is one step closer to winning the Republican presidential nomination. He beat the state's former governor, Nikki Haley, by about 60% to 40%. But Haley has vowed to stay in the race, warning Republicans of a November defeat if Trump is their nominee. NPR's Stephen Fowler joins us from Columbia, S.C. Hi, Stephen.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Good morning.

RASCOE: So I guess you got some sleep last night because the race was called for Donald Trump as soon as the polls closed at 7 p.m. So then I guess you just relaxed. But Trump took the stage at State Fairgrounds right after. What did he say?

FOWLER: Yeah. I mean, it was a bit of a shock for everybody at the Trump watch party in Columbia with how quickly things were called. I mean, he came out basically as soon as the polls were closed, flanked by a ton of Republican officials, both from South Carolina and across the country. There was some mingling, some photos. And then basically, they turned the lights on, and everybody cleared out early into the evening.

Now, Trump's remarks were equal parts thanking those Republicans for supporting him and talking about the sort of dire stakes he's painting for this November's election if he doesn't win, talking about the border and immigration and the need to, quote, "fire Joe Biden." Even before any votes were actually counted, he continued this message, seeking to pivot towards the general election and basically reiterated to him, the primary's over.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: There's never been a spirit like this. And I just want to say that I have never seen the Republican Party so unified as it is right now.

(CHEERING)

FOWLER: But I'll point out, Ayesha, even though Trump didn't mention Nikki Haley by name in his remarks, she's still in the race and still garnering a sizable share of Republican primary voters.

RASCOE: Well, let's get into that. Yesterday's results pretty much closed the door on Haley winning the GOP nomination. So what did she say about the outcome?

FOWLER: Haley came out later in the evening Saturday. And listening to her speech and her supporters, you wouldn't really know that she suffered a blowout defeat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: I'm going to count it. I know 40% is not 50%.

(LAUGHTER)

HALEY: But I also know 40% is not some tiny group.

FOWLER: Let's be clear. Haley hasn't beat Trump in any election so far. And future states look the same, especially when you consider the complicated delegate allocation math that officially determines the nominee. But she still will earn some delegates in South Carolina. She got about 40% of the vote. And her argument that a healthy segment of Republicans want someone else to be the nominee is partly why she's still in this race. Trump is a former president, is wildly popular with a certain slice of the Republican primary electorate, and it's not surprising that he's winning. But Haley's argument is that Trump cannot win the general election because of his chaos and baggage and criminal charges and so on and so forth.

RASCOE: Trump seems ready to move on to November, but on paper, this is still a two-person race. So where do we go from here?

FOWLER: Well, there's more to come. A Haley super PAC dropped money in Michigan, which starts its voting on Tuesday. There's a multimillion-dollar ad buy in 15 states and one territory that will vote on Super Tuesday the following week. And Haley's speech last night seems to reiterate that she's going to stay in it as long as she can. That said, at the rate this is going, the March 19 primaries in Ohio and Florida will very likely provide Trump enough delegates to officially clinch the nomination, so that may be a moot point.

Trump has tried for weeks to say, this race is over, and it's time for Republicans to unite and move forward. And Haley isn't giving him that satisfaction, even though the result will likely be the same. What remains to be seen is how Nikki Haley does in these next states and if the money and momentum continues and, more importantly, what her voters will do in November.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Stephen Fowler in Columbia, S.C. Thank you so much.

FOWLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Stephen Fowler
Stephen Fowler is a political reporter with NPR's Washington Desk and will be covering the 2024 election based in the South. Before joining NPR, he spent more than seven years at Georgia Public Broadcasting as its political reporter and host of the Battleground: Ballot Box podcast, which covered voting rights and legal fallout from the 2020 presidential election, the evolution of the Republican Party and other changes driving Georgia's growing prominence in American politics. His reporting has appeared everywhere from the Center for Public Integrity and the Columbia Journalism Review to the PBS NewsHour and ProPublica.