The Pretend Primary

In a shocking development, the overwhelming frontrunner is winning.

The news is full of stories like this:

AP (“Here’s how Trump won in South Carolina — and what it could mean for his chances in November“):

Donald Trump won over South Carolina Republicans as the candidate who voters believe can win in November, keep the country safe and will stand up and fight for them as president.

Trump cruised to victory in the South Carolina primary with the support of an almost unwavering base of loyal voters. AP VoteCast found that Republicans in the state are broadly aligned with Trumps’s goals: Many question the value of supporting Ukraine’s fight against Russia; and overwhelming majorities see immigrants as hurting the U.S. and suspect that there are nefarious political motives behind Trump’s multiple criminal indictments.

Even in her home state of South Carolina, where she was once governor, Nikki Haley appeared to have little chance against Trump. Just over half of GOP voters had a favorable view of her, whereas about two-thirds had a positive view of Trump.

About 6 in 10 South Carolina voters consider themselves supporters of the “Make America Great Again” movement, a Trump slogan that helped catapult him to the White House in 2016. About 9 in 10 Trump voters said they were driven by their support for him, not by objections to his opponent. Haley’s voters were much more divided: About half were motivated by supporting her, but nearly as many turned out to oppose Trump.

NYT (“5 Takeaways From Trump’s Big Win Over Nikki Haley in South Carolina“):

Donald J. Trump lapped Nikki Haley in the Midwest. He beat her in the Northeast. He dominated in the West. And now he has trounced the former two-term governor in her home state of South Carolina.

After nearly six weeks of primary contests in geographically, demographically and ideologically diverse states, even Ms. Haley’s most ardent supporters must squint to see the faintest path to the presidential nomination for her in 2024.

The race was called the moment the polls closed, and within minutes an ebullient Mr. Trump took the stage, avoiding a mistake he made in New Hampshire when Ms. Haley spoke first and, even in defeat, gave a rousing speech that had irked him.

“It’s an early evening,” Mr. Trump beamed.

But Ms. Haley, the former United Nations ambassador, is still vowing to plow on, warning her party that sticking with Mr. Trump and the distractions of his four criminal indictments is a pathway to defeat in November.

“Today is not the end of our story,” she declared.

For all intents and purposes, Donald Trump is an incumbent running for re-election. As such, he attracted little opposition. While Nikki Haley might be a plausible contender for the Republican nomination otherwise, there was simply no chance that she’d win it this cycle if Trump remained on the ballot.

So why are we pretending that it’s a live contest?

I get that political coverage has something of a scripted formula. And that there’s a need to generate enthusiasm to “sell papers,” or whatever the right analogy is for today’s business model. But is anyone really fooled by this?

FILED UNDER: 2024 Election, Media, US Politics, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DK says:

    “What are the chances of a guy like you and a girl like me ending up together?”
    “Not good.”
    “Not good like one in a hundred?”
    “I’d say more like one in a million.”

    “…So you’re telling me there’s a chance.”

  2. Cheryl Rofer says:

    So why are we pretending that it’s a live contest?

    If that’s supposed to include me and the rest of the commentariat, “we” are not. Some portion of the media is, though.

  3. MarkedMan says:

    For all intents and purposes, Donald Trump is an incumbent running for re-election.

    Thats absolutely correct. And yet he still lost 35% of the Republican base. It gives me hope

  4. Kathy says:

    The only way it makes sense, and it’s a kind of real race, is if Haley is running implicitly with Smith, Bragg, and Willis.

  5. MarkedMan says:

    @MarkedMan: I was looking at early data. Turns out he lost 40% of the base. 40% of the most hard core Republicans want someone else.

  6. gVOR10 says:

    What @Cheryl Rofer: said. Who’s this “we” Kemo Sabe? She’s setting up for 2028 when we do our traditional octannual change of parties in the White House. And as she has nothing better to do this year, she’ll keep doing it until other peoples’ money runs out. In the meantime, if Trump’s mental deterioration becomes impossible to ignore before the convention, she’s playing the role of Fortinbras, hovering about and available. Meanwhile, the MSM horse race touts gotta pretend there’s a horse race.

  7. MarkedMan says:

    I still think the most important thing here isn’t that Haley is going to lose and Trump,will be the nominee – that was always virtually certain. It’s that the “someone other than Trump” candidate got 40% of the vote. That’s a fricking big deal.

  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    That’s my analysis as well. 300,000 South Carolinians said, ‘nah.’

    I don’t think this is a pointless exercise. Trump could meet with disaster, legal or healthwise, between now and the convention. And if Trump makes it to November and loses, Haley can say, ‘See? Toldja so.’

  9. Kylopod says:

    One point that’s worth noting is that, although SC has an open primary, exit polls suggest there were far fewer Dems and indies participating than was the case in NH (where registered Dems weren’t even allowed to vote, though many of the “unaffiliated” identified as Dem in the exit polls).

    Here’s WaPo:

    About 7 in 10 South Carolina primary voters said they usually think of themselves as Republicans, according to exit poll results – down slightly from 76 percent in 2016 – and 7 in 10 of them supported Trump. Another about 2 in 10 identified as independents, and a majority of them supported Haley. Few self-identified Democrats participated in the state’s open primary.

    And here’s CBS:

    Even so, just over a quarter of voters self-identified as independents and just about 4% as Democrats — a far smaller share compared to the GOP primary electorate in New Hampshire.

  10. Not the IT Dept. says:

    I have no doubt that Haley’s plan is focused on 2028. But something is different this time out: the MAGA voters are not going to just shrug their shoulders and drift away. They’ll be backing another candidate who’ll pledge to take up Trump’s fight and this time win. Trump will be in jail or out of business, or otherwise incapacitated. But now that they’ve flexed their muscles, that same group will not be friendly to Haley’s ambitions. It’s going to be a bad decade for the GOP.

  11. Kylopod says:

    I kind of wish the exit polls would ask Haley voters whether they voted for Trump in 2020. That would provide at least a slightly clearer picture of whether he’s losing any support relative to last election.

  12. gVOR10 says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    It’s going to be a bad decade for the GOP.

    ETTD. Let’s hope it’s the Party, not the country.

  13. DrDaveT says:


    she’s playing the role of Fortinbras

    Ouch. Touché.

  14. CSK says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    Yes, but who will that Trump replacement be? I can’t think of anyone who matches him, or even comes close to him, in terms of vulgarity and churlishness, and those characteristics are a HUGE part of his appeal.

  15. Michael Reynolds says:


    Yes, but who will that Trump replacement be?

    I don’t know, but an open GOP convention would be glorious TV.

  16. Franklin says:

    @gVOR10: Oh, my, are misogynist heads going to explode when they have to choose between Haley and Whitmer in 2028.

  17. DK says:


    She’s setting up for 2028 when we do our traditional octannual change of parties in the White House.

    The problem with this and similar theories is Haley campaigning herself into horrendously unpopularity with Republicans. If Trump loses to Biden, MAGA is already ready to blame her. Trump is now the Republican establishment, and his people will not forgive and forget. Bernie found out in 2020 that old feelings die hard, vis a vis primary contest dead-ender behavior.

    I believe her when she says she doesn’t care about a future in politics. She has hefty private sector paydays incoming.

    @Franklin: Haley’s favotibility rating with Republicans is in the low 30s. The only Whitmer vs. Haley contest in 2028 could be in the Democratic primary, because Nikki Haley will not be the Republican choice for anything.

  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Not the IT Dept.: I’m curious. Who do we, here in the disloyal opposition, think will be able to take the mantle and become Trump 2.0? I’m not challenging the idea at all–I think it’s one of the things that could bring on the destruction of the GOP (or alternatively, the nation) eventually–but I don’t pay attention to the “inside baseball” stuff that provides the fodder for this type of discussion. Who is the rising demagogue in the GQP?

  19. CSK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    That’s precisely what I’m wondering. There is no Trump clone. He’s unique in his boorishness, which may be his most compelling “asset.”

  20. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: I really think that the (apparent–who knows what, if anything, he really believes) commitment to bigotry and its adjacent values is the biggest attraction for his supporters. The boorishness is certainly there and he’s really good at it, but there have been lots of boorish people who never gained any traction in society.

  21. Franklin says:

    @DK: Yeah, I don’t really see that she’s angered anybody; she’s been careful not to. Any insults that Trump has hurtled towards her mean nothing because he insults everybody. She’s going to be able to say I told you so without saying she told you so.

    The only way I can see this not being the case is if a new personality appeared that rivaled Trump’s, and there are various reasons why that won’t happen in the near-term.

  22. DK says:


    From NBC News:

    According to January’s national NBC News poll, 34% of Republican primary voters view Haley in a positive light, versus 36% who have a negative opinion of her (a -2 net rating).

    That’s down from the NBC News poll’s findings in November, when Haley’s popularity among GOP primary voters stood at 43% positive, 17% negative (a +26 net rating)…

    …the erosion in voters who hold favorable opinions of her has come from key parts of the GOP base, including very conservative GOP voters (from a +22 net rating in November to -19 in January), non-college Republicans (from +19 in November to -11 in January) and men (from +25 to -3).

    Maybe Haley’s unpopularity among Republican voters will rebound the longer she stays in lol

  23. Kathy says:

    Looks like Haley’s campaign will need to make do with far less money.