Nikki Haley Can’t Count on South Carolina’s Newcomers for Help


After Nikki Haley’s disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire earlier this year, she promised she would storm back in the next big Republican primary to deliver “a great day in South Carolina,” the state where she was born and raised and where she occupied the governor’s mansion for six years.

But her struggles to gain traction ahead of the South Carolina primary on Saturday stem in part from a simple demographic fact: The state that she left in 2017 to become Donald J. Trump’s first ambassador to the United Nations is not the one she is now running in for the Republican presidential nomination.

South Carolina has, since 2017, had a net gain of 372,000 new residents who are old enough to vote. That means that nearly 10 percent of the current electorate did not experience Ms. Haley’s state leadership. South Carolina beat out Florida and Texas last year to be the fastest-growing state in the country.

And the largest contingent of new South Carolinians hails from New York and New Jersey, many of them bringing with them an affection for the Republican front-runner, former President Donald J. Trump.

It’s all Joe Harvey said he hears when he listens to his customers at Ruby’s New York Style Bagels, which he opened 17 months ago in the Charleston suburb of Mount Pleasant after he had moved from Madison, Conn.

“I give her credit for pushing on,” Mr. Harvey, 57, said of Ms. Haley, hastening to add that he was absolutely not taking political sides. “But if you hear people talking politics, you hear them talking Trump. He’s in the news everywhere. It’s impossible to get away from him.”

Ms. Haley tends to acknowledge all of the newcomers at her events in the state, asking for a show of hands from those who were not living in South Carolina when she was governor. But the transplants who come to her events are not the ones who should worry her. It’s the ones who don’t.

The Lowcountry, in and around Charleston, should be her natural base of political support. Her home on Kiawah Island, just south of the city, speaks to her understanding of seaside South Carolina, with its Spanish moss, elegant cocktails and politics that are less influenced by the evangelical Christianity of the Upstate, in the state’s northwest, and the elbows-out mind-set around the state capital, Columbia, where Ms. Haley’s time in the Legislature and the governor’s mansion left bruised egos and lingering resentments.

But greater Charleston and Horry County, home to Myrtle Beach, are also the epicenters of South Carolina’s growth. Thirty-seven people move to the Charleston region each day, mainly from out of state, said Jacki Renegar, the director of research and business intelligence for the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, up from 33 in 2021.

And those newcomers are not primarily New York hedge-fund managers buying up 18th-century mansions south of Broad Street in Old Charleston, or retirees building swollen beach homes on Sullivan’s and Kiawah Islands.

“Most are regular folks,” Ms. Renegar said, filling townhouse developments on Daniel Island, just outside the city, or the modest subdivisions sprouting along the highway to Moncks Corner, the seat of Berkeley County, which has grown 17.4 percent since Ms. Haley left office. About 83 percent of the transplants have some higher education, 54 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree, and 74 percent are of prime working age, between 18 and 54.

Only about 6 percent are 65 and older, Ms. Renegar said.

And many of the newcomers draw a blank when it comes to the old governor.

“I really don’t know a lot about her, to be honest,” said Grace Friedl, 26, a pharmaceutical saleswoman who moved to Daniel Island in May from Haymarket, Va.

For Ms. Haley, Ms. Friedl should be a prime target. She said she was in the middle of the political spectrum, willing to vote for either party and concerned about women’s issues. She is frustrated by her options, whom she sees as too far left or right. But asked about her vote on Saturday, she responded with her own question: “What’s on Saturday?”

Gibbs Knotts, a political scientist and the dean of humanities and social sciences at the College of Charleston, said he understood Ms. Haley’s frustration.

“Folks moving to South Carolina, especially those leaning Republican, should be receptive to her brand of politics,” he said. “It just hasn’t happened.”

To be sure, Ms. Haley’s campaign has tried to reach those voters. Erick Lopes, 28, was walking his dogs Tuesday on Daniel Island, in his boyfriend’s Buffalo Bills ski hat. Mr. Lopes, an engineer with the Defense Department, had moved to the area from Orlando, Fla., during the coronavirus pandemic, “like everyone else,” he said. His boyfriend joined him from Buffalo.

“People knew about this place, and when they could move, they did,” he said. The remote work rules of the pandemic prompted a surge of migration to the greater Charleston area.

The Haley campaign has been bombarding Mr. Lopes’s phone with text messages, he said, and he conceded that, as a Republican-leaning newcomer, he should like her platform: fiscal conservatism mixed with more social tolerance than Mr. Trump. But he is not planning to vote.

“It’s not that I oppose her,” he shrugged. “It’s that I’m not making an effort.”

The tristate New York metropolitan area remains the largest feeder to booming Charleston, and certainly many of those new arrivals are Democrats.

Jenny Ouellette, 36, and her husband moved to Mount Pleasant from the Upper East Side of Manhattan in 2015, looking for space to raise their two children. A Democrat, she said she would vote for Ms. Haley. (Voters can participate in South Carolina’s Republican primary regardless of party affiliation as long as they did not vote in the state’s Democratic primary earlier this month.)

“It might be futile in the long run,” she said, “but any sort of anti-Trump support she can get is important, at least optics-wise.”

Ms. Ouellette, however, is not the rule. Representative Nancy Mace, a Republican whose newly drawn district includes the fastest-growing suburbs of Charleston, said the newcomers from the New York area were mainly independent, fiscally conservative and more socially liberal — but largely siding with Mr. Trump.

“They lean right, not hard right, but they are supporting Trump,” she said. “He’s a fighter, and they’re looking back at the crazy leftist ideology they left behind.”

It is a sign of how ideological divisions in the country are often driven by the self-sorting of voters, Mr. Knotts said. Democratic northerners, especially those who are voters of color, are also heading south. But they are moving to greater Atlanta, helping to turn Georgia into a swing state, he said.

On the other hand, he added, “conservatives may move intentionally to where there are more conservatives.”

A case in point are Paul, 36, and Victoria, 33, a married couple who asked that their last name not be used for fear that harm could come to them if they spoke publicly about their support for Mr. Trump. They were in Mount Pleasant on Tuesday, their third visit to the area in eight months, scouting for a home to move to from Marlboro, N.J. The catalytic converter had been stolen off their brand-new Chevy Tahoe back in New Jersey last week, they said.

New Jersey was headed in the wrong direction, Victoria said as she tried to get the couple’s two toddlers to settle down at Mr. Harvey’s bagel place. If she and her husband could vote in the South Carolina primary, it would be for Mr. Trump.

“We don’t know much about Nikki Haley, but we don’t care to,” Paul added. “We know what we like.”



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