The real question about Donald Trump’s South Carolina victory is: Why did Nikki Haley do so well?

New,York,,Ny,-,Sept,20,,2018:,Ambassador,Nikki,Haley, republican presidential candidate
Nikki Haley Photo: Shutterstock

With his victory in South Carolina on Saturday, Donald Trump is continuing his march toward the GOP nomination. But the media description of his win over the state’s former governor, Nikki Haley, as a blowout doesn’t do justice to how surprisingly poor a showing it actually was.

Yes, Trump beat Haley by 20 points. The media variously described the results as a “trouncing,” a “landslide,” and “overwhelming.” And that’s true when you look at it strictly from the perspective of a horse race that Haley had to win.

There’s no question that the results were humiliating for Haley. Her candidacy has always been a long shot, as the GOP disappears as a political party and emerges as a Trump cult. Trump won the endorsements of practically all the major politicians in South Carolina. Meanwhile, as much as Haley pinned her hopes on the state, she had long neglected tending to relationships in it, squandering her home turf advantage.

Yet in the face of a one-time president who effectively controls the party, Haley managed to pull 40 percent of the vote, pretty much the same margin as she did in New Hampshire. The media keep looking at the results and seeing that Haley has no path forward to the nomination. But the other way to look at it is to see that even facing a weak candidate, Trump still has a lot of Republicans who don’t like him.

All things considered, Saturday should have been more of a rout for Trump. With the entire political apparatus of the state lined up behind him, Trump should have done a lot better than he did.

Instead, Trump keeps bumping up against the hard reality that some Republicans just won’t vote for him. Last January, an NBC poll found that more than 40 percent of Haley’s Iowa supporters said they would vote for Biden instead of Trump in November.

As her campaign faces its inevitable demise, Haley has been attacking Trump directly. Other candidates have largely tiptoed around the ex-president for fear of incurring his wrath, but Haley knows she has nothing to lose. She has questioned his mental status, excoriated him for siding with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and even said he didn’t “deserve a driver’s license” and left the presidency after mocking service members.

Rather than looking at how Haley didn’t manage to win over the majority of Republicans in her state, the better question might be, how did she not manage to turn off more than 40 percent of voters in her state by being so scathing in criticizing Trump?

The fact is, Trump is a weaker candidate than he looks. He has consolidated power within his own party, but he’s leaving a lot of Republicans on the sidelines in the process.

That doesn’t mean that many of those Republicans won’t return to the fold when November rolls around. But Trump should be worried that not enough of them will.

Then there is his upcoming criminal trial in Manhattan next month on charges related to the hush money he paid to hide his affair with adult actress Stormy Daniels. On the same day that the trial started, Trump had to post bond to cover more than $400 million in fines and interests from the ruling in the fraud case this month.

That kind of news isn’t going to help Trump’s candidacy any. Unfortunately for Haley, it won’t do her much good either. By then, Trump will probably have enough delegates to have sewn up the GOP nomination. That means when Republicans convene this summer, they will be doubling down on a candidate that even a sizeable number among their own ranks just can’t bring themselves to support.

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