Former President Donald Trump is projected to win the South Carolina Republican primary, The Associated Press and other media outlets predicted shortly after polls closed Saturday evening.

News outlets declared Trump the projected winner before any votes had been counted, basing their predictions on exit surveys and polls.

The victory extends Trump’s lead for the Republican presidential nomination, on the heels of decisive victories in lowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. The next contests are the Michigan primary on Feb. 27 and then Super Tuesday on March 5, when 15 states and one territory will hold primaries or caucuses. Unless Nikki Haley manages to win in several of these states, the Republican presidential nomination will be all but decided.

Trump was ebullient during his speech. “This was a little sooner than we anticipated, and an even bigger win than we anticipated,” he told supporters, despite leading by only 18 percentage points at the time of his comments. 

Trump didn’t mention his Republican opponent, Haley, instead focusing his ire on President Joe Biden. 

“We’re going to be up here on Nov. 5, and we’re going to look at Joe Biden, and we’re going to look him right in the eye. He’s destroying our country, and we’re gonna say, ‘Joe, you’re fired. Get out. Get out, Joe,’” he said.

Several South Carolina elected officials were at Trump’s victory party, including South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, who had served as Haley’s lieutenant governor. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who has been floated as Trump’s vice president, also spoke. 

South Carolina’s other U.S. senator, Lindsey Graham, was booed by attendees, after Trump said when introducing him, “He happens to be a little bit further left than some of the people on the stage.”

Haley supporters express hope for a close race

Haley supporters gathered at the grand ballroom at The Charleston Place, an upscale hotel in Charleston, for an election night watch party. Large screens showing live Fox News and CNN feeds displayed election results as they came in. The energy in the room dissipated when CNN called the race for Trump moments after polls closed. But in subsequent minutes, early returns showed Trump’s lead lower than the 30-point margin predicted by polls. With each new update — showing Haley trailing by 21 points, then 15, then 19 — the crowd cheered and chanted, “Nikki! Nikki! Nikki!”

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaking at an election night event, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, in Charleston, S.C. | Chris Carlson, Associated Press

Attendees at Haley’s watch party were a mix of South Carolinians and out-of-state supporters, many of whom traveled just for the watch party. Several attendees expressed disappointment in the networks’ decisions to call the race so early. But they all followed up with an acknowledgement that they expected Haley to lose tonight — though they hope the margin will be closer than polls predict.

“That’s a game the networks play, to see who calls it first,” said Suzanne Doyle, a Haley voter from Georgetown. She added: “They won’t be wrong. It’s not a matter of who wins, but how close it is.”

“You’d think the networks would learn their lessons from 2016,” said Jamil Jaffer, who served as a lawyer in the George W. Bush administration. He added: “Look, the polls haven’t been close for a while. But she’s on the rise. She’s outraising Trump. She’ll stay in the race.”

When Fox News carried Trump’s victory speech, the screens at Haley’s watch party flipped to CNN. As exit poll data was shown on the screen — like the statistic that 78% of Haley voters say they would not vote for Trump in a general election — the crowd cheered loudly. They applauded as left-leaning CNN commentators, like Van Jones and David Axelrod —praised Haley.

Despite home-state loss, Haley vows to fight on

Haley took the podium shortly after 8:30 p.m., congratulating Trump on his victory and vowing to stay in the race. She took a defiant tone, suggesting that the 40% of voters who backed her want an option in November besides Trump or Biden.

“I said earlier this week that I would stay in the race until Super Tuesday,” Haley said. “I’m a woman of my word.”

She said Republicans deserve a choice between multiple candidates for the duration of the primary, not a “Soviet-style election with one candidate.” But Haley’s team has been coy about her plans after Super Tuesday; during a press gaggle earlier Saturday, Haley acknowledged that Super Tuesday is “as far as I’ve thought in terms of going forward.”

Several attendees at her Saturday watch party said they want her to stay in the race for as long as she has the money. Jaffer said she should stick around until summer, when her delegates could contest Trump’s nomination on the floor of July’s Republican convention in Milwaukee.

“There’s a long history in this country of candidates sticking around until convention,” Jaffer said.

Over the next ten days, 21 states and territories will hold Republican primaries or caucuses.

Haley plans to visit Michigan ahead of its primary Tuesday, before embarking on a multistate swing to Colorado; Utah; North Carolina; Virginia; Washington, D.C.; and Massachusetts in subsequent days.

South Carolina GOP leadership were quick to congratulate Trump on his victory. In a statement, South Carolina GOP chairman Drew McKissick declared South Carolina as “Trump country.”

“We need to unite our Party right now and put Donald Trump BACK in the White House this November,” he said.

A record turnout?

A record 208,000 voters cast early ballots, participating in South Carolina’s nearly two-week early voting period. The record for turnout in the South Carolina Republican primary is 750,000; by midday Saturday, after monitoring crowded polling locations across the state, McKissick predicted that the party would surpass the record on Saturday.

No Republican presidential nominee since 1980 has gone on to win the general election without winning the South Carolina primary. “We are the graveyard of presidential campaigns,” McKissick said. “I expect that that tradition will continue.”

“If you don’t do well here, then you know you’ve definitely got to do some soul searching and reevaluate things,” he said.

Haley, who served as the governor of South Carolina from 2011 to 2017, declared earlier this week that she would continue her campaign through Super Tuesday regardless of Saturday’s outcome. During a call with reporters on Thursday, Haley’s campaign manager Betsy Ankney reiterated that message. “We know the odds,” Ankney said. “But we also know the stakes.”