Independent Voter Guide to the South Carolina GOP Presidential Primary

Photo by Gage Skidmore / Flickr. Creative commons license.
Created: 20 February, 2024
5 min read

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr


The South Carolina Republican presidential primary is scheduled for Saturday, February 24. It's an open primary, meaning any registered state voter can participate as long as they did not vote in the February 3 Democratic presidential primary.

It is a make-or-break moment for former S.C. Governor Nikki Haley, who is counting on garnering the same level of support among independents in her home state as she did in New Hampshire -- or else the GOP contest will end before March.

South Carolina's Primary Type

South Carolina conducts open primaries for all contests. It does not register voters by party, which means all registered voters are free to choose between a Republican and Democratic ballot in the primaries. However, once they pick a party's ballot, they have to stick with that ballot and can only choose from the candidates of that party.

The presidential primaries are separate from the rest of the state's primaries, so it is possible for voters to participate in the Democratic presidential primary and the Republican state primaries and vice versa. However, the 131,000 voters who voted in the Democratic presidential primary on February 3 will not be allowed to cast a ballot on February 24.

What Does This Mean for the GOP Presidential Primary?

The South Carolina Election Commission reports that in 6 days of early voting, the number of ballots cast in the Republican presidential primary doubled the total early vote count in the two weeks of early voting for the Democratic primary. 

It is not uncommon for the GOP primary to draw more voters. In 2016, the last time there was an open nomination contest for both parties, nearly 741,000 voters cast a ballot in the GOP presidential contest while the Democratic vote total fell just short of 371,000. 

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) changed its schedule ahead of the 2024 presidential primaries to make South Carolina the first primary that counted in its nomination process. Party leaders hoped it would produce a strong showing for Biden.

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Yet, the total number of votes cast in 2024 was half the number of votes Biden (a single candidate) got in the state's 2020 primary

The small turnout in the Democratic primary means even more registered voters are eligible to participate in the 2024 GOP primary. Whether voters take advantage of this remains to be seen, but the early vote totals suggest its possible they are.

What Does the Contest Look Like?

Nikki Haley has put all of her chips in a strong showing in South Carolina. Her campaign focused all of its efforts on the state after New Hampshire, where she garnered enough support from independents to make the race between her and Trump notable.

The national press jumped on Trump's showing with independents in New Hampshire. The New York Times ran a piece titled "New Hampshire and Iowa Reveal Broader Weaknesses for Trump." Axios ran the headline "New Hampshire primary exposes Trump's shrinking tent."

Trump won the New Hampshire primary by about 11-points because of overwhelming support from the Republican base, but exit polls show that Haley hung in the race because 60% of independent primary voters supported her over the former president.

Haley supporters and Trump opponents hope the same thing will happen in South Carolina. The superPAC PrimaryPivot, which is committed to weakening Trump's candidacy, has called on non-Republican voters who didn't vote in the Democratic primary to show up for Haley.

Polls indicate that Trump holds a commanding lead days before the South Carolina primary. A Suffolk University/USA Today survey poll released on February 20 shows his support at 63% of likely primary voters surveyed.

Further, the poll shows that Haley's advantage among independent voters may not give her the showing she hoped for -- which at this point is to do well enough to stay in the 2024 Republican nomination race.

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The poll shows she has a 53% to 46% advantage among independents, but like in Iowa and New Hampshire, the GOP base is firmly behind Trump 72% to 25%. USC Professor Chase Meyer speculates that Haley needs 40% of the primary vote to keep her campaign going.

It All Comes Down to Independent Voters

It's possible independent voters in South Carolina could push Haley to the threshold she needs to stay in the race, but at the moment both the Republican and Democratic Parties are looking at a problem with appealing to independent voters.

The press and the parties are treating the nomination process as a done deal. They decided we were going to have a Trump and Biden rematch long before a single vote was cast. However, neither Trump nor Biden can rely solely on their party's base to win.

Independent voters are the largest segment of the voting population. These voters are not a monolith and cannot fit so easily into the boxes the parties, the press, the pollsters, and political scientists try to force them into. And they will be the ones who decide who wins in November.

The early presidential primary contests may indicate weakened support for Trump among independent voters -- many of whom were drawn to his anti-establishment message in 2016. However, Biden is also struggling to attract the independent vote.

Some polls have Biden over Trump. Some polls have Trump over Biden. But both candidates are largely unpopular with independent voters who are not satisfied with the options the parties continue to give them each election cycle. 

The US has an electoral system that has failed them at every level and refuses to offer them anything different than the same candidates each cycle -- candidates that put their interests and their party's interests first.

It is another election year in which voters cannot rely on pollsters to tell them how things will play out because no one knows what independent voters will do come November. It is clear though that no matter who they vote for, they will be holding their nose while doing it.

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