Former President Trump is facing intensifying political headwinds in South Carolina, a key early primary state that will play host over the weekend to one of the first high-profile stops of his 2024 White House campaign.
While he’s already racked up endorsements from prominent South Carolina Republicans like Gov. Henry McMaster and Sen. Lindsey Graham, both of whom are expected to attend Trump’s event at the state Capitol in Columbia on Saturday, others are keeping their distance.
The state’s junior senator, Tim Scott (R), hasn’t backed Trump’s 2024 campaign and is said to be seriously considering a presidential bid of his own. Likewise, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, another influential South Carolina Republican, has hinted that she’s weighing a run for the White House.
There are also growing rumblings of support for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), according to several Republicans in the state, who warned that Trump’s grip on South Carolina’s GOP voters is far more tenuous than it used to be.
“The reason that Donald Trump is coming to South Carolina is because it’s an important state, but he’s trying to really lock up some of that support,” said Alex Stroman, a former executive director of the South Carolina GOP. “And I think that support is fairly soft.”
“I know people who have endorsed him who have felt like they were kind of pressured into it and had to do it, but don’t plan on being with him when the election happens early next year in South Carolina,” he said.
The visit could also give the former president the opportunity to build momentum in an early primary state that has played a consequential role in choosing presidential nominees in the past.
“South Carolina was really the divisive blow for him in terms of winning the 2016 Republican presidential primary,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist.
And national polls show that while Trump’s support has softened since leaving office, he is still in good standing with voters inside out and outside of the GOP.
An Emerson College survey released earlier this week showed Trump leading President Biden in a hypothetical head-to-head match-up by 3 points. The same poll also showed Trump holding a 26-point lead over DeSantis in a hypothetical Republican primary.
“You see that he is gaining steam, and now it’s time to cash in on that,” O’Connell said.
Trump’s appearance at the state Capitol on Saturday is expected to be a smaller affair than his typical rallies, which tend to draw thousands of supporters. One South Carolina Republican said that the former president’s allies have been calling around in the state in recent weeks in an effort to secure endorsements and attendees for the event.
“I think for now you have a lot of people hedging their bets,” the person said. “Some of the folks you would expect to show aren’t going to show, I don’t think. I’ve talked to several people in the last few days, and not a lot of them are saying ‘I’m going to see the former president on Saturday, come out and show support.’”
Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for Trump’s campaign, pushed back on the notion that the former president’s support among the grassroots may be softening.
“President Trump will unveil his leadership teams, which will show the significant support he has from grassroots leaders to elected officials,” Cheung said. “He has continued to dominate in the polls and there is no one else who can generate enthusiasm and excitement like President Trump.”
A poll released this week by the conservative South Carolina Policy Council provided some early evidence for Trump’s struggles. Only 37 percent of likely South Carolina Republican primary voters said that the GOP should nominate Trump in 2024, while nearly half — 47 percent — said they would prefer someone else.
That someone else may be DeSantis. The poll showed the Florida governor leading Trump by a staggering 19-point margin in a hypothetical head-to-head match-up.
Dallas Woodhouse, a longtime Republican operative and the executive director of the South Carolina Policy Council, said that there’s a growing desire for change among voters in both parties, noting that 54 percent of voters in his group’s recent poll said that the country would be better off if neither Trump nor President Biden is elected next year.
“It’s not to say these people wouldn’t vote for Trump if he were the nominee,” Woodhouse said. “But they certainly desire the option to choose somebody else at this time.”
Woodhouse and other Republicans said that GOP voters in South Carolina and elsewhere “want to win and see some fresh ideas,” and especially after the party’s lackluster performance in the 2022 midterm elections, there are lingering concerns about whether Trump is the candidate best positioned to recapture the White House.
“I get a sense that Republicans are being just walloped by inflation, that they have a desire to get back to debating issues,” Woodhouse said. “The issue with Trump is can you debate real issues? Or is Trump himself always the issue? And I think some voters are coming to think the latter.”
Trump’s Saturday visit to South Carolina marks his first real campaign swing since launching his third presidential bid in November. But he’s not the only Republican to make a foray into the Palmetto State.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo headlined a major Republican fundraiser in the state last year and has been running digital ads there as he weighs a bid for the 2024 GOP presidential nod. Likewise, former Vice President Mike Pence has made several trips to the state in an effort to bolster his support among evangelical voters.
Haley and Scott — both South Carolina natives — also remain “very, very popular” in the state, Woodhouse said. Haley, a former South Carolina governor, has been particularly aggressive in positioning herself for a 2024 run, telling Fox News earlier this month that it’s “time for new generational change.”
And that sentiment appears to be resonating within the GOP ecosystem.
“Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Ron DeSantis, Glenn Youngkin — these are folks that really represent ways of winning over a broad coalition of voters as Ron DeSantis did in Florida,” Stroman said.
But it’s DeSantis who many South Carolina Republicans say is the party’s must-see attraction.
“I think if Ron DeSantis showed up in South Carolina on Saturday that his popularity and the number of people clamoring to see him would be larger than that of Donald Trump’s,” Stroman said.