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The Assignment with Audie Cornish

Each week on The Assignment, host Audie Cornish pulls listeners out of their digital echo chambers to hear from the people whose lives intersect with the news cycle. From the sex work economy to the battle over what’s taught in classrooms, no topic is off the table. Listen to The Assignment every Monday and Thursday.

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What is Nikki Haley Doing in South Carolina? With Eva McKend
The Assignment with Audie Cornish
Jan 29, 2024

Donald Trump is leading in the polls for South Carolina GOP primary, by a lot. But it’s also Nikki Haley’s home state and she refuses to go quietly, ramping up her attacks on Trump even as most of her fellow Republicans call on her to drop out. Eva McKend is national political correspondent for CNN and she checks in with a view from the ground.

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Episode Transcript
Audie Cornish
Tell us where you are, where you're reporting from this week.
Eva McKend
I am on a balcony at my hotel right now in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Audie Cornish
Oh, Myrtle Beach.
Eva McKend
The sun is glistening on the ocean.
Audie Cornish
Eva McKend
'Listen, I survived -20 in Iowa, so I really deserve this.
Audie Cornish
As we're recording this episode, Nikki Haley says the GOP race isn't over yet despite every Republican on every other political Sunday talk show saying that it is.
David Polyansky
She's got all the resources in the world. But the reality is this race, this primary ended the night of Iowa on January 15th.
Audie Cornish
That's David Polyansky, who was deputy campaign manager for Ron DeSantis, on CNN's State of the Union. But Haley has another theory of the case that Trump and his supporters should not, cannot, ignore the voters who keep eyeing the alternative. Here she is on Meet the Press.
Nikki Haley
He was totally unhinged. Went on a rampage election night talking about revenge. Then the next day, he goes and says, anybody who supports me is not going to be allowed to be part of MAGA. Well, that means those people that voted for me in Iowa and New Hampshire and those people who've donated to me, really? You're going to go and say they're not in your club?
Audie Cornish
So what's the view on the ground, say, from South Carolina? Haley's home territory, where Donald Trump is up between 30 and 40 points in the polls. Well, we're going to hear from Eva McKend, national political correspondent from CNN. She is there now in sunny South Carolina. I'm super jealous. Eva, welcome to the show.
Eva McKend
Hey, Audie.
Audie Cornish
So you've been following, I think, Tim Scott, you've definitely been following Nikki Haley. You followed some other folks who have just dropped out since. But South Carolina is interesting because Tim Scott's from there, Nikki Haley's from there. And yet, if you look at all the lawmakers who have lined up to hand out endorsements, they've been handing them out to Donald Trump. So give us a sense of what's going on there.
Eva McKend
She's really flipping this around and saying that she doesn't want these endorsements. She doesn't need them, that this is further illustration that Trump sort of represents the old guard and that it's time to pass the torch. And she suggests that these people are sort of lining up behind him because they're they're scared. And that's where the wind is blowing. But I don't know, I think it's somewhat of a convincing argument because, I mean, how much do these endorsements really matter? Even the McMaster endorsement, she kind of jokes with the crowd. She says...
Nikki Haley
Someone asked me, why is the governor standing with Donald Trump? I said, oh, I'm sorry, the one that I defeated when I ran for governor?
Eva McKend
And then, you know, the crowd will sort of erupt in laughter. So.
Audie Cornish
Right. Like, so, that's a great example. Henry McMaster, who was Nikki Haley's lieutenant governor, of course, endorsed Donald Trump. But do the voters really think that warmly of Nikki Haley?
Eva McKend
Well, certainly the ones showing up to her rallies do. Those are the folks that I'm speaking with, mostly. And she does seem to have a pretty strong base of support here. So folks will turn out and say, well, we really liked how she performed during her time as governor. I think we can't sort of underestimate the faction of the party, it isn't the bulk of the party, you know, the base is firmly behind Trump, but there are, I think, a sizable amount of conservatives who have real concerns about Trump as their nominee and are really sort of resentful of this coronation process that we're seeing from the Republican establishment.
Audie Cornish
Nikki Haley won votes from about two thirds of independents in New Hampshire. Donald Trump, of course, won 74% of Republicans. How is she talking about this now?
Eva McKend
Well, she's telling voters plainly that moderates and independents, that they are going to vote for her in a general election in a way that they won't support Trump. And she's really resisting this idea that it's a liability to have people who are not hard right MAGA Republicans actually like you and want to engage with your campaign. But it's a tough sell, I think, for for people who are hard right and firmly conservative. They don't want to hear that you have, you know, a more moderate constituency that might be interested in your campaign. But she's, her whole argument is really about electability.
Audie Cornish
'It's really interesting watching how she is managing this moment, because she is somebody who, when they first came on the scene, was considered right-leaning, right? Out of that Tea Party era. Then it reaches a point where it felt like she was almost establishment, right? Certainly more of a person who cared about foreign policy and institutions and things like that. Now the Trump people are saying she's establishment and she's saying that the Trump people are establishment. There's a very, like, "up is down" quality to Republican primary politics right now.
Eva McKend
For sure. And, I mean, even the Nikki Haley that we're getting now was a different Nikki Haley than just a few weeks ago. Which has been really fascinating to watch on the trail. You know, she would often say that she was only going to reserve her criticisms of Trump to very specific policy issues, that she wasn't going to get in the gutter. She wasn't going to be pressured by the media to go after Trump personally. And that has really changed. I mean, she calls him thin skinned, now unhinged. She even is using, I think, a gendered language here that's really interesting to me, what stuck out as gendered to me, she's chiding him as overly sensitive. And, Audie, you know that that is something that often women are characterized as as overly sensitive. Well, now she's saying that of Trump. So, that's something that really is sticking out to me. And the crowd is responding well to actually these these attacks against Trump. But it's much, much different than how we saw her in the early days in New Hampshire, for instance.
Audie Cornish
Okay, so staying in the gutter for a minute, Trump loves to give his rivals nicknames. He calls Nikki Haley "birdbrain." He always tries to get the audience to weigh in, and of course also calls her Nimarata, right? Her given birth name, which I think for people who watch these things closely, they hear it as Trump trying to make her sound foreign. Right? And kind of appealing to the the new born conspiracy theories out there that are kind of designed to discredit her. Is she responding to those things?
Eva McKend
She's not. That's on brand for Trump. But you know, Nikki Haley really shies away, I think, for the most part from talking about race. I think that she thinks that Republican voters don't necessarily want to hear that.
Audie Cornish
So you think when he uses that name, he's, I said foreign, but you're saying, like, that she is, that that is also racial kind of code. Is that how it's being heard by critics?
Eva McKend
'It is. But she's not going to take the bait. You know, she doesn't want to be viewed as whining about race. So even if he makes arguments that are explicitly racist, Nikki Haley is not going to respond to that. She's asked, you know, are these racist attacks? And she she throws it back on the questioner and says, well, that's for you to decide. So she's not going there. You know, she actually characterizes Democrats as talking too much about race and resists. She calls it conversations about race as too concerned with self-loathing. You know, she's like, America is a great country. It's not a racist country. We are too wrapped up in this self-loathing. So even if Trump is leveling an attack at her that is explicitly racist, Nikki Haley is not going there.
Audie Cornish
All right. Please stay with us. I'm here with Eva McKend, the national politics correspondent for CNN. She's speaking to us from South Carolina.
Audie Cornish
Okay. We're back. We're talking about Nikki Haley. We're talking about the Republican primary race. Weirdly, South Carolina has this kind of outsized impact on 2024. We mentioned Nikki Haley. We talked about Tim Scott on the Republican side. And then on the Democratic side. You've got Congressman James Clyburn, who has a lot of sway with Joe Biden. Can you talk about, like, how the state's politics have become so important to both parties?
Eva McKend
Yeah, it's the first primary in the South. Historically, it has just always been make or break for candidates. Even though South Carolina is not a, purple state by any means, it is solidly red. It's just become so important for Joe Biden because it's a true test of his momentum. You know, Saturday is the Democratic primary here. It was Biden that really influenced the DNC to change the rules, to make this state go first for the Democrats. Typically, you don't see sort of young voters turnout in a primary. Turnout is not as high in a primary, especially one that is not expected to be all that competitive. But I think that the level of enthusiasm we hear, we see here, especially among key coalitions like Black voters for Biden, could be instructive of the sentiment of those core coalitions in the rest of the country.
Audie Cornish
Can we dig into that a little more because we've talked so much about Republicans, but this state, obviously, as you mentioned, it's taken on this kind of new life for Democrats because Joe Biden said, Look, hey, I agree with you. Let's make South Carolina first, sorry, New Hampshire. And he technically wasn't on the ballot in New Hampshire. And a lot of this does come down to, frankly, it feels like Black voters, right? Like, kind of, honoring the support of Black voters that put Joe Biden over the top last time around. So, after all this handwringing about Democrats being like, (sigh,) enthusiasm, (sigh,) no one's going to turn out for Biden, what are you actually seeing?
Eva McKend
He definitely has a really strong infrastructure here. The party apparatus is solidly behind him. In the coming days, I'm going to be able to speak to more Black voters across the state to really get the temperature and the pulse here. But President Biden and his team would argue that they are routinely underestimated, and that he does have a significant amount of Black support, even though that that's not showing up in the polling right now. But listen, you know, voters that I speak with, they want to be inspired. And sometimes it feels like the argument that President Biden is making is, look, I'm not a threat to democracy. We lost reproductive rights under this Supreme Court. And, you know, if Democrats regain more control, are able to to take back the House, we're going to do things that we didn't do before. Which is a hard argument to make, because when Democrats were in control of all chambers, it's not like they tried to codify Roe. But certainly Democrats are centering this, this reproductive choice, argument.
Audie Cornish
So the reporter's notebook, you're in South Carolina, you're going to be looking to talk to some Black voters. What are the things you want to ask? What are you going to be listening for? What are the kinds of things you want to ask that you think people aren't paying attention to?
Eva McKend
I'm meeting with a small business owner in Charleston this week. She owns a jewelry shop. You know, what is her life like right now? Often when we talk about Black voters, it's a conversation about voting rights and criminal justice reform. But as a small business owner, for her, it's likely the economy, it's likely the regulations that small businesses have to endure. And so I'm really curious to know, has she been able to be successful under President Biden?
Audie Cornish
That's a good way to ask it, too. It's not just about like, what do you think of this guy? It's like, do you feel successful under this regime of laws, loans and support, right? Because I think I've read in a number of places that people of color, women of color are at the forefront of starting businesses, like, their rate of starting businesses is higher than other groups. So you're right, this is something she would feel acutely.
Eva McKend
It is. It is. And, I don't know, I think that there's so often we just want to pigeonhole Black voters to just like maybe 3 or 4 issues.
Audie Cornish
Oh, yeah. Usually I used to get sent to the barber shop. That was the thing. It was like, okay, we're going to do a story about Black voters. It's going to be about voting rights, whether they like Obama. Do you want to go to a barber shop or a hair salon like that was the suggestion from editors.
Eva McKend
(laughs) I'm resisting the barber shop and the hair salons and the churches, and I'm trying to to speak to Black folks in other spaces. I want to try to get to like, farms and small businesses and, and do something a little different so we can hear some other voices.
Audie Cornish
'Now, there is one reason to go to the barber shop this time around, despite what I just said, which is what I call the Kanye vote. I feel like this is the thing the media is preoccupied with right now, which is the numbers of Black men, in some cases, Latino men who are Trump-curious, I'll call them. And I feel like that's a safe space for them to share that, right?
Audie Cornish
Rather than their auntie's house or the church or, you know, frankly, with their wife, given what we know about Black women voters in the Democratic Party. I am curious, right? Like, that's why they talk about Tim Scott being on the ticket, because there's this idea that there is a Black male voter who does not find Trump to be disqualified in any way for any reason. They think that he's done some good, especially around the economy.
Eva McKend
I mean, I've been hearing that since the midterms in Georgia, when I was speaking to Black men out there in barbershops, voicing that very concern. And because Black voters have been supporting Democrats for so long, there is sort of a weariness there. I think sometimes, Okay, do we have to support these folks again? Why? What have they done for me lately is the common refrain. And it doesn't have, Audie, it doesn't have to be, like, a huge number, right? Like, even if the former president is able to chip away at a small segment of the Black male vote, it could be the difference between losing or winning the election. So, yes, that is of concern as well.
Audie Cornish
And we should say just so people understand the math on that, if you only have a couple of swing states, and in those states you only have a couple of swing districts and both Trump and Biden, they actually brought in a lot of new voters, right? Some of those people might just stay home. They're called "irregular voters." They don't vote in every single election. And it occurs to me that those people who are sort of curious, who might go one way or another, they're actually kind of irregular voters, right? They're not the diehard people going to rallies or the people who go, you know, maybe I should give this guy a chance, whoever they decide that should be, this guy or this woman a chance, whoever they decide that should be.
Eva McKend
Yeah. And there are a lot of young voters that I speak to as well who don't have an appetite for continuing to support Democrats. They see Democrats switch positions on immigration, on public safety, on a whole number of matters, and they view it as Democrats really betraying their stated values.
Audie Cornish
Meaning, we're going to be kinder at the border turns into actually, yeah, we want more money for security, we want to build more fencing. The public safety issue is we've we've got to figure out passing, whatever, the George Floyd Act. And all of a sudden you've got more Democratic leadership saying, actually, we need more money for police. Actually, we need this. Actually we need that. So you're saying that, like, young people are feeling those shifts, acutely?
Eva McKend
They are. I mean, the same policies that Democrats, President Biden, characterized as white supremacist immigration policies under Trump are now the very same policies that this administration has championed. So how do you go back to those voters and say, support us again, even though you have very directly, in their view, betrayed the position that you said that you. Hell, how how do you go to Georgia, to those immigrant communities there, many of whom have family members that are citizens who vote and say, vote for me again, even though these communities are being demonized, it's a hard sell.
Audie Cornish
'And people say the same thing about, say, a Michigan, right? Where there might be large Arab-American populations, people who are, like, deeply disappointed with the U.S. policy in Gaza, never mind the antiwar movement within the youth generation.
Eva McKend
It's a hard sell. It is a hard sell. And I think that there is sort of an overreliance on, well, they'll come home. They'll come home. We have time. It's 11 months until the election. They'll come home when the alternative is Trump. They will be loyal to Democrats once again. And I'm just, I'm not convinced. Because how many times can you give people that same argument that the alternative was worse? It's not necessarily an inspirational message.
Audie Cornish
Well, Eva, I'm excited to hear your reporting and hear what voters are saying. As you mentioned, you have the Democratic presidential primary in February 3rd, but then Republicans don't vote till the 24th in South Carolina. So we have many more weeks of people talking about South Carolina and the various people who vote there. So thanks so much for for your tip sheet.
Eva McKend
Thank you. It's a total honor, Audie.
Audie Cornish
And that's all for today. We're going to be back with an episode on Thursday. And the assignment is a production of CNN Audio. This episode was produced by Dan Bloom. Our senior producer is Matt Martinez. Dan Dzula is our technical director. And Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of CNN Audio. We got support from Haley Thomas, Alex Manasseri, Robert Mathers, Jon Dianora, Leni Steinhardt, Jamus Andrest, Nichole Pesaru, and Lisa Namerow. Thanks, as always to Katie Hinman. I'm Audie Cornish. Thank you for listening.