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Trump and Haley face off soon in South Carolina. Here's what to know

A supporter of former President Donald Trump drives past campaign signs for Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley in Irmo, South Carolina. The state's Republican presidential primary is on Feb. 24.
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
A supporter of former President Donald Trump drives past campaign signs for Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley in Irmo, South Carolina. The state's Republican presidential primary is on Feb. 24.

South Carolina votes Saturday in the state's Republican primary, and former President Donald Trump is expected to defeat the state's former governor, Nikki Haley.

Haley is trying hard to overcome the odds, spending millions of dollars on the airwaves, dwarfing what Trump and his allies are spending.

But even if she loses, Haley says she's sticking around.

"South Carolina will vote on Saturday," Haley said in a speech this week. "But on Sunday, I'll still be running for president. I'm not going anywhere."

Her road will perhaps be even more daunting after South Carolina, but before looking beyond the Palmetto State, let's take a look at the keys to winning the state and how it all works.

How will it work?

The primary is locally run at the county level and ultimately certified by South Carolina's State Election Commission. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. ET, and there are more than 2,000 polling precincts.

How many delegates are there?

Fifty — the most of any state so far. Still, after South Carolina's Republican primary, just 6% of the total number of delegates to the Republican National Convention will have been awarded. At this point, Trump leads Haley 63-17 in delegates. A candidate needs 1,215 to be the nominee.

How does the state award its delegates?

Winner-take-all by statewide vote and based on how a candidate finishes in the state's seven congressional districts.

What do the polls say?

There have been very few reliable polls ahead of the South Carolina primary, so any data should be taken with a grain of salt. That said, in an average of the polls, Trump leads by about 30 percentage points.

What are the keys to winning?

There are four distinct political regions: the Lowcountry, Pee Dee, the Midlands and the Upstate. In 2016, Trump won the primary with 32.5%, and it was pretty spread out, with him winning all but two of the state's 46 counties. He narrowly lost Charleston County (Lowcountry) and Richland County (Midlands), which is home to Columbia, the state capital.

  • The Lowcountry, in general, is the most moderate of the four. It includes lots of retirees, as well as active-duty military personnel and military veterans. It's also where Haley lives. Her husband, Michael Haley, is currently deployed overseas as a member of the South Carolina National Guard.
  • Pee Dee, named after the Native American tribe, is home to Myrtle Beach and Florence. The region was a stronghold for Trump in the 2016 primary. He won Horry County (Myrtle Beach) with 49%, his best showing (by both percentage and number of votes) of any county in the state.
  • The Midlands is home to the state capital, Columbia, and in Republican politics is the power center. That means traditional and pragmatic Republicans. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., won Richland County (Columbia) over Trump by 5 percentage points in 2016.
  • The Upstate is the most conservative section, with a heavy white, evangelical population. Lots of the Republican vote comes from here, about 30% of the total in a GOP primary. The counties to watch include Greenville and Spartanburg. Those two alone accounted for 1 out of every 7 votes cast in the 2016 Republican primary.

If Haley was governor, why is she seen as the underdog?

Haley is trying hard to remind voters of her record as South Carolina's governor, but demographically in a Republican primary against Trump, South Carolina is an uphill climb for her.

So far, Haley has done well with Republican-leaning independents, and Trump with self-described Republicans. But even in New Hampshire, where almost half were independents, Haley still lost by 11 percentage points.

And historically, South Carolina's GOP primary votersare more conservative and more religious. Perhaps most importantly, though, there have traditionally been far fewer independents than in New Hampshire.

In Iowa, 82% of caucusgoers identified as Republicans, and Trump won there by 30 percentage points. In New Hampshire, 50% of primary voters identified as Republicans, and there he won by 11 points.

Haley's team points out that, like New Hampshire, independents are allowed to vote in South Carolina's primary. But in 2016, 76% of South Carolina GOP primary voters were Republicans.

That makes Saturday a tough contest for Haley — and it doesn't get any easier heading into Super Tuesday.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.