The South Carolina Republican presidential primary is shaping up as do-or-die for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
Haley has emerged from a crowded field of candidates as the lone remaining challenger to former President Donald Trump, who has won the Iowa caucuses as well as the New Hampshire primary.
The Feb. 24 South Carolina primary is next, and after Haley’s loss in New Hampshire, The New York Times wrote that she “has an incredibly rocky road ahead.” So, does Haley have a chance in her home state?
For the last year, the Social Media Insights Lab at the University of South Carolina has been tracking online conversations about the Palmetto State primary. The lab’s powerful Quid software used artificial intelligence to review more than 808,000 mentions of Trump and Haley made since Jan. 1, 2023, from accounts associated with South Carolina on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
Among the key South Carolina findings:
- Trump dominates the conversation. He is mentioned in more than 80 percent of posts.
- Not surprisingly given his share of voice, Trump receives the highest volume of positive mentions — as well as the most negative ones.
- Haley has seen a significant increase in both positive and negative comments as she became Trump’s main challenger.
“Nikki Haley is trending up,” said Insights Lab Coordinator St Cyr Luttmer. “Her net sentiment — the ratio of positive to negative comments — is going up, but so too is Trump’s net sentiment. Plus, Haley has a long way to go to overcome Trump’s massive share of voice.”
The Insights Lab found more than 100,000 positive comments about Trump. By comparison, Haley had around 10 percent of Trump’s total.
People support Trump for championing the MAGA (Make America Great Again) movement and for his reluctance to concede the 2020 election. Haley is praised for being an up-and-comer who is strong on foreign policy.
Taking a deeper dive into the data, the lab found that the number of comments about Haley saying they would vote for her has risen significantly, from 1,097 in the fourth quarter of 2023 to 4,142 so far in 2024.
By comparison, the number of comments about Trump saying they would vote for him, 10,923 so far this year, while significantly higher than Haley, is down 27 percent from the fourth quarter of 2024. Haley is trending up.
A concern for both Trump and Haley, especially looking toward the fall general election, is the percentage of negative sentiment. “A lot of people on social media are angry and frustrated,” said Luttmer. “Over the last year, we tracked eight different Republican presidential candidates, and more often than not, they had higher negative sentiment than positive.”
The lab identified more than 112,000 posts critical of Trump versus only 10,270 critical of Haley, again less than nine percent of Trump’s total. Commenters found fault with Trump’s character, performance as president, and reluctance to concede defeat in 2020.
Trump was indicted four times during the survey period, each time prompting a spike in negative comments. However, each indictment also brought a spike in positive mentions as the indictments seemingly increased his popularity with some.
For Haley, the number of critical comments increased significantly as other candidates dropped out and she became Trump’s principal adversary. More than 70 percent of her negative comments have come since the fourth quarter of 2023. Social media posts found fault with her reluctance to concede slavery led to the Civil War as well as for being a “globalist.”
The differences in the way people on social media view the strengths of the candidates can be seen graphically in network maps generated by the lab’s Quid software. These maps visualize the association of the candidates with different issues.
Donald Trump, for example, is closely associated with immigration as well as with his legal difficulties.
In contrast, Nikki Haley is more closely associated with her time as governor and Israel, which is not seen on Trump’s map.
It is worth noting that while the conventional wisdom in presidential politics is that the economy is a key issue, the lab found the subject was not a major factor in the conversations surrounding either Trump or Haley.
The conflicted nature of this election can be seen in word clouds that capture the most-frequent comments about each candidate. Positive words like “win” are common, but so too are negative words like “lose” and “indict.”
“Social media cannot predict who will win an election because not everyone on social media will vote, and many who vote are not on social media,” said Luttmer. “But social media posts can capture trends and provide insights into what people are thinking.”
Historically, the South Carolina primary has played a significant role in determining the eventual presidential nominees for both political parties. In 2020, Joe Biden’s win in South Carolina led to his eventual nomination. On the Republican side, every candidate who won the S.C. primary has gone on to win the party’s eventual nomination with one exception, Newt Gingrich in 2012.
“This is a complicated election, far different and more negative from what we saw in 2020,” said Randy Covington, a veteran South Carolina journalist and director of special projects for the College of Information and Communications. “Polls done by The Wall Street Journal and others show Nikki Haley as the Republican candidate most likely to defeat Joe Biden, but polls in South Carolina show Trump easily beating Haley in the state where she was a popular governor.”
Current S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster and other prominent South Carolina Republicans are actively campaigning for Trump. In the Jan. 18 New York Times, Trump advisor Chris LaCivita predicted South Carolina would be “where Nikki Haley’s dreams go to die.”
“A Haley win may seem improbable, but over the years, especially in South Carolina, she has exceeded expectations,” said Covington. “She unquestionably is a longshot, but the Insights Lab data suggests we should not entirely count her out.”
Voice of the Voter
These posts are representative of South Carolina social media conversations about Trump and Haley.
About the Social Media Insights Lab
The lab is part of the University of South Carolina College of Information and Communications. It is used for teaching, academic research and public reports intended to help people better understand issues of the day. View a full list of reports and follow the lab on X (formerly known as Twitter) at @UofSCInsights