Former President Donald Trump currently holds majority support in the early primary state of South Carolina, where his strongest challenger is Nikki Haley, the state’s former governor, according to a new CNN poll conducted by SSRS.
Fifty-three percent of likely Republican primary voters in South Carolina call Trump their first choice for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, with 22% picking Haley and 11% backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, whose campaign is currently focused on Iowa more than his home state, follows at 6%. No other candidate saw more than 2% support.
South Carolina is one of the earliest contests on the GOP nominating calendar next year, holding its Republican primary on February 24 after Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. Trump’s support in South Carolina, though broad, falls slightly shy of his even wider leads over the field in recent CNN polls nationally and in Nevada. Recent polling in New Hampshire and Iowa from CNN and others, though, finds Trump with narrower support in those two states, where several of his rivals are hoping a strong showing will dent his support in later contests such as South Carolina’s.
But, echoing the dynamics of the primary campaign nationally, Trump’s base of support in South Carolina is far more solid than his rivals’ pool of core supporters. An 82% majority of his current backers say that they’ll definitely support him. Just 42% of Haley’s supporters and 38% of DeSantis’ backers say they’re certain they won’t change their minds.
Many of the demographic and ideological divides present at the national level hold true in the state as well. Trump leads Haley by 50 percentage points among likely voters without a college degree (66% to 16%) and by 40 points among Republicans (59% to 19%). By contrast, Trump and Haley are tied among college graduates (32% support each) and see similar levels of support among independents who say they’re likely to vote in the GOP primary (38% back Trump, 34% Haley).
Trump also sees particularly widespread support among likely voters younger than 45 (63% of whom back him), those who describe themselves as “very conservative” (66%) and those in households making less than $50,000 annually (69%). While there’s relatively less support for the former president among self-described moderates and liberals (41%), those in higher-earning households (44%) and those age 45 and older (49%), the difference is a matter of degrees – he continues to lead his nearest rival by double digits among each of these groups.
White evangelical Christian voters, a group that has traditionally made up a substantial share of South Carolina’s GOP primary electorate, largely back Trump (55% say he’s their top choice) with Haley (18%) and DeSantis (16%) both well behind.
With less than four months to go until the contest, likely South Carolina GOP primary voters are a broadly defined group in the survey, including some who intend to participate in the primary but aren’t certain they’ll do so. Most of the potential electorate, however, say they definitely plan to vote, with that conviction particularly strong among Trump supporters.
The poll also finds that 80% of likely South Carolina GOP primary voters say they either currently support Trump or would consider supporting him, the broadest share of any candidate tested. Majorities also say they support or would consider supporting Haley (72%), Scott (72%) and DeSantis (68%). By contrast, majorities of likely GOP primary voters say they’ve ruled out entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy (60%) and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (71%). Most (62%) had also ruled out former Vice President Mike Pence, who ended his campaign for president after the poll was completed.
Relatively few express concern over the ongoing criminal case stemming from Trump’s alleged attempt to overturn his 2020 electoral defeat. Overall, 67% of likely South Carolina primary voters say that, if true, the criminal charges related to that effort are not relevant to Trump’s fitness for the presidency, with 17% saying they cast doubts on his fitness but aren’t disqualifying and 16% that they should disqualify him from the presidency.
While 61% of those backing candidates other than Trump say that the election charges cast at least some doubts on his fitness for the job, only about one-third of those backing his opponents view them as disqualifying (34%). Trump has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Most likely Republican primary voters in South Carolina say it’s essential that the GOP presidential nominee care about people like them (75%), will fight for conservative values even when they are unpopular (66%) and represent the future of the party (62%), with a smaller 49% calling it essential that the nominee be able to win support outside of the GOP.
Of those four attributes, 4 in 10 likely GOP primary votes say it’s most important that the nominee fight for even unpopular conservative values, with 27% saying it’s most important to have someone who cares about people like them and fewer calling the ability to win support from Democrats or independents (16%) or represent the party’s future (10%) most crucial. Nearly half of Trump’s current supporters, 47%, say that it’s most important that the nominee fight for conservative values, a position shared by a smaller 32% of those backing other candidates.
Just over half of likely South Carolina GOP primary voters, 53%, call the economy their top issue, with 21% picking immigration, 8% voting rights and election integrity, 5% abortion, 5% foreign policy and 2% energy policy.
Trump supporters are 8 points likelier than other GOP primary voters to call immigration their top issue. That pattern echoes the results seen in CNN polling nationally and in other early states, as does Trump supporters’ desire for a candidate who will champion conservative causes and who cares about people like them.
South Carolina has not voted for a Democrat for president in a general election since Jimmy Carter’s victory there in 1976. The new poll finds the sitting Democratic president, Joe Biden, broadly unpopular in the state. While 63% of Black registered voters and 78% of Democratic registered voters in the state give him positive marks for his job performance, he’s under water with most other demographic groups, with an overall approval rating of just 33%.
The CNN South Carolina poll was conducted online and by telephone by SSRS from October 18-25 among a random sample of 1,140 registered voters in the state, including 738 likely Republican primary voters. The survey included an oversample to reach additional Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters in order to better assess views among likely GOP primary voters. Results among the oversampled group have been weighted so that they reflect their actual share of all registered voters within the overall results. Likely primary voters were identified based on their answer to a question about their intention to participate in the primary. Results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points; it is 4.8 points for results among likely Republican primary voters.