As the South Carolina primary approached, many in the media portrayed it as a final ideological showdown. The “last Reagan Republican,” former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, represented the traditional brand of Republican politics pitted against Donald Trump’s MAGA movement, which had seemed like an alien invader a decade ago but now had achieved absolute dominance. In reality, South Carolina was less a final duel between two opposing ideologies and more a demonstration of the persistent divisions within the Republican Party. 

Trump entered South Carolina as the presumptive nominee. Backed by an overwhelming number of Republicans in Washington, D.C., he had decisively won the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries. Other than a relatively unknown pastor, his was the only name on the ballot in the Nevada Republican caucuses, so he racked up 99 percent of the vote there. But Trump got just under 60 percent of the vote in the Palmetto State on Saturday. His 20-point win over Haley is significant, but it falls far short of the 41-point victory margin that George H. W. Bush enjoyed over Pat Buchanan in the 1992 South Carolina primary. While Haley did well with non-Republican voters, she got a large chunk of votes from mainstream Republicans, too. According to the exit poll, 84 percent of the South Carolina electorate had voted in a Republican primary before, and Haley still got 36 percent among this group.

Now that it is a two-person race—in the sense that it is a race at all—Haley has turned her fire directly on Trump by targeting him on policy, character, and electability. The battle has turned increasingly personal, with Trump at one point even attacking Haley’s husband for being absent from the campaign trail (when in fact he is deployed to Africa with the National Guard). In a campaign speech the night of the primary, Haley insisted that she would stay in the race at least until Super Tuesday next month and reiterated her message that Trump would not be able to win the general election because he “drives people away.” 

Haley has anchored her campaign in an appeal to the college-educated and suburban voters who used to provide a Republican stronghold but are repelled by Trump. The defection of those voters from the GOP coalition has cost the party in every election cycle since 2016. In Saturday’s primary, those voters delivered her decisive wins in Charleston and Beaufort Counties on the coast as well as Richland County, home of the state capital (Columbia). 

The exit poll only adds to the picture of a conflicted Republican Party. While both Joe Biden and Trump have tried to rechristen the GOP as the MAGA party, Republican voters themselves remain divided on the MAGA brand. Only 41 percent of primary voters considered themselves “part of the MAGA movement.” Conversely, 77 percent of Republican primary voters viewed themselves as “conservative,” which suggests that they remain much more attached to the tropes of “conservatism” than those of MAGA. Moreover, many of those voters might not see an essential tension between conservatism and MAGA. (Trump won majorities of voters identifying with either label.)

In a post-Roe world, the GOP has struggled with the abortion issue, and the exit poll indicates how evenly the party is divided on it: 51 percent supported a nationwide ban on all or most abortions, while 44 percent opposed such a ban. Even though Trump had criticized pro-life efforts earlier in the primary, he still won that anti-abortion bloc by a sweeping margin and more narrowly lost opponents of such an abortion ban. 

The South Carolina primary electorate complicates popular narratives that the Republican Party is supposedly veering toward isolationism under Trump. The exit poll showed that only 46 percent of primary voters believed that the United States should be “less active” in world affairs (and “less active” is not the equivalent of pure isolationism, anyway). Trump won this group handily. However, he also won by 15 points the 32 percent of primary voters who believed that the United States should be more active abroad. Nineteen percent of primary voters believed that the U.S. had the right amount of international engagement; this was the only group that Haley won—possibly because many in that group are Biden-sympathetic voters who view “same as now” as a way of endorsing the incumbent president’s foreign policy. 

One could draw a few tentative inferences from this. First: a narrow majority of Republicans oppose retrenchment abroad, so the party remains pulled between contrasting impulses in foreign affairs (as it long has been). Another is that, between the fallout from the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the growing chaos in the Middle East, some pro-Trump Republicans might believe that the United States needs to become more assertive abroad. 

The South Carolina exit poll may point to a decisive shift in Republican preferences on immigration policy. In the 2016 exit poll, South Carolina voters backed giving illegal immigrants working in the United States a path to citizenship (instead of being deported) 53 percent to 44 percent. While the wording of the 2024 exit poll question was slightly different (asking about “most undocumented immigrants”), the change in voter sentiment was nevertheless dramatic: 65 percent of primary voters supported deportation, while only 32 percent supported a “chance at legal status.” The Republican electorate seems to have grown more hawkish on illegal immigration—likely in response to the border crisis, among other factors. 

South Carolina’s results indicate that Nikki Haley faces the longest of odds in displacing Trump in the primary. In national polls, her approval ratings among Republican voters are much lower than his. Even in states that should be highly favorable to her—such as New Hampshire and South Carolina—she has been unable to get within single digits of Trump, let alone beat him. More and more of the national Republican apparatus is consolidating around him.  

Yet the divisions registered in the South Carolina primary may point to deeper structural challenges facing the GOP. Haley’s coalition may not be enough to beat Trump, but it seems as though some Haley voters would be an essential part of any victory coalition for the party. Even in a conservative state like South Carolina, only a minority of primary voters considered themselves “MAGA.” 

The past six months have shown the political peril facing a Republican Party consumed by internal warfare. The purging of Kevin McCarthy in October by a disruptive splinter group has paralyzed House Republicans and poisoned the conference’s political well. In recent weeks, a number of sitting committee chairs and rising political stars have declared that they will not run for reelection. Escalating dysfunction on Capitol Hill may threaten the institutional knowledge that the GOP would need to enact significant policy reforms if it won power. Trump’s continued personal attacks on fellow Republicans may not help him unite the party. Talk from Trump allies that he is “pivoting” away from such attacks suggests that many of those in his inner orbit view continued rancor as harmful to the party’s electoral chances.  

This brings us back to the “Reaganism v. MAGAism” conflict that has dominated headlines. In many respects, the conflict is overdrawn. Ronald Reagan as some absolutist “free market” ideologue is more a product of retrospective narrative than historical reality. Reagan, after all, negotiated import quotas on Japanese automobiles and rolled out tariffs to protect American manufacturing. Rather than privatizing entitlements, he raised taxes to make them more sustainable. While Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” many conservatives in the 1980s criticized him for his persistence in trying to negotiate arms-control treaties with Soviet leaders. As president, he often chose restraint rather than intervention in many security theaters.  

While Reagan did try to harness the energy of the market and advance a muscular foreign policy, his record is more subtle than his image commonly suggests. Likewise, many of the policies Trump enacted as president are not as sharp a break with the Reagan legacy as some of his critics and allies argue today. After all, perhaps the signature pre-coronavirus piece of legislation from Trump’s presidency was a tax-cut bill shepherded by Paul Ryan, one of the leading spokesmen for Reaganite Republicanism. Defense spending rose significantly under Trump. 

In a country as diverse and sprawling as the United States, successful presidential coalitions rely on a fusion of competing interests, impulses, and identities. Yes, Reagan was a champion for movement conservatives—but he also carried with him business groups, small-town traditionalists, blue-collar families, and suburban professionals. The Reaganite coalition was heterogeneous, and, in terms of legislative wins, it often depended on support from moderate Democrats in Congress. Some Republicans may believe that Joe Biden’s unpopularity will be enough for the GOP to win in November regardless of the party’s infighting, but a similar gamble did not pan out in 2022. Republicans’ current frustration in the House illustrates the legislative paralysis of a narrow majority torn by internal acrimony.

Perhaps the most famous Republican in American history, Abraham Lincoln, once said that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln was talking, of course, about the implications of slavery for the Union, but his words might also apply to his GOP heirs in the twenty-first century. A party unable to bridge its divisions could face both political adversity and policy stalemate.

Photos: Win McNamee/Getty Images (left)/Justin Sullivan/Getty Images (right)


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next