Why is Nikki Haley losing to Donald Trump on home ground?

“I’M NOT GOING anywhere,” Nikki Haley vowed in a recent speech on the state of the race for the Republican presidential nomination. The former governor of South Carolina and former American ambassador to the UN meant that she would not drop out of the contest after her home-state primary on February 24th. But her campaign does not appear to be going anywhere in another sense: Donald Trump leads by some 60 points nationally and by 30 points in the state that she led for six years, from 2011 to 2017. How did a governor who was so popular during her tenure come to perform so poorly only a few years later?

South Carolina elected Ms Haley as its governor by a 4.5-point margin in 2010. Four years later, she won re-election by nearly 15 points. Although she sometimes had a combative relationship with legislators from her party, around 57% of South Carolina voters approved of her performance in the months before she left the governor’s mansion to serve as Mr Trump’s UN ambassador. Among voters she was one of the former president’s most popular appointees.

This appears to matter little to South Carolina Republicans now. Ms Haley polls on average at 34% in the state, according to FiveThirtyEight, a data-journalism website. That anaemic number, which is the best she has done there during the presidential race, has been boosted by her status as the last remaining Republican challenger to Mr Trump. The former president gets 64% in the same polling average.

Mr Trump’s campaign has attacked Ms Haley’s record as governor, for example when she proposed increasing a petrol levy in exchange for cutting income taxes, and derided her as a “globalist fool”. And Ms Haley has sharpened her attacks ahead of the South Carolina primary, declining to say whether she would support Mr Trump in a general election and accusing him of having a soft spot for Vladimir Putin, Russia’s war-waging dictator. But Mr Trump commands wild enthusiasm among probable Republican-primary voters in South Carolina: 82% approved of his record as president, from 2017 to 2021. Only 60% of those respondents have the same high opinion of Ms Haley’s performance as governor.

Her biggest problem is that South Carolina voters view the race for the Republican nomination through a national lens. Only 20% of likely Republican-primary voters say that they are more likely to support her because she is from South Carolina, according to a recent CBS/YouGov survey. A mere 11% of voters say issues specific to the Palmetto State are more important to them than national issues. More relevant than her local roots is that 76% believe she is not part of the “MAGA” movement, which nearly half of South Carolina Republicans identify with.

They also see Ms Haley as a weaker general-election candidate. Although some polls show her as a stronger opponent against Joe Biden, 55% of probable Republican-primary voters in South Carolina think that Mr Trump “would definitely beat Biden”. Only 33% believe the same about Ms Haley. They also show that the electorate largely thinks that under Mr Trump they will be richer and that the southern border will be more secure.

Ms Haley implied in her speech on February 20th that she had no interest in serving as Mr Trump’s vice-president. She also suggested that she was not staying in the race to lay the groundwork for a future presidential run. She insisted that she is running to win, but that is nearly impossible, especially without a boost from home-state voters. It is hard to believe that she does not see a future for herself as a Republican politician after Mr Trump secures the nomination. The question for her will then be whether Republicans will forgive her harsh criticisms of Mr Trump.