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Why AP called South Carolina for Trump: Race call explained

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Associated Press declared Donald Trump the winner of the South Carolina primary as soon as polls closed.
A resident walks into their voting precinct after voting on the morning of the South Carolina Republican primary at New Bridge Academy in Cayce, S.C., Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Associated Press declared Donald Trump the winner of the South Carolina primary as soon as polls closed. The race call was based on a comprehensive survey of South Carolina Republican primary voters that showed him defeating Nikki Haley by wide margins in her home state.

Declaring a winner Saturday as polls close based on the results of the AP’s VoteCast survey — and before election officials publicly release tabulated votes — is not unusual in heavily lopsided contests like Saturday’s primary. The survey confirms the findings of pre-Election Day polls showing Trump far outpacing Haley statewide.

The AP called the race for Trump at 7 p.m., when polls closed statewide.

VoteCast results show Trump winning on a scale similar to his earlier victories in every contest so far where he appeared on the ballot. At the time he was declared the winner in South Carolina, the survey showed the former president was ahead by huge margins in every geographic region of the state, from Upcountry in the north to Low Country on the Atlantic coast.

At the same time, the survey also showed Trump with sizable leads across the state’s political geography, winning among Republican primary voters from areas that vote heavily Republican in general elections to those that vote heavily Democratic, as well as everywhere in between. Haley’s strongest support according to VoteCast was among voters with postgraduate degrees, but they make up a small share of the overall electorate.

Haley's likeliest path to victory relied on posting strong numbers in more Democratic-friendly areas, while staying competitive in traditionally Republican areas.

Before her stint in the Trump administration as ambassador to the United Nations, Haley previously served as South Carolina governor and as a state legislator. In her last competitive GOP primary for governor in 2010, some of the areas where she performed best were in counties that tend to support Democrats in general elections. But at the time the race was called, VoteCast showed Haley not performing anywhere near the level she needed to pull off an upset.

Another key metric was votes cast before Election Day, which tend to be among the first votes reported of the night.

Since the issue of early voting became highly politicized in the 2020 presidential election, pre-Election Day votes have skewed Democratic, while Election Day votes have skewed Republican. With much of Haley’s support coming from more moderate voters this campaign, she would have needed a strong showing among early voters in order to withstand the votes later in the night from more conservative voters who voted on Election Day. While VoteCast showed Haley performing slightly better among early voters than she did among Election Day voters, she trailed badly behind Trump in both groups.

Trump won 47 of the 50 delegates at stake Saturday — Haley won three — and that pushed him past the 100-delegate mark overall. State party rules grant the lion’s share of South Carolina's delegates to the statewide winner. A candidate must win 1,215 delegates at the Republican National Convention this summer to become the party's nominee. Trump could clinch the nomination by the middle of March as the election calendar accelerates.

When all the votes are counted, Trump may come close to doubling the 33% he received in his 2016 South Carolina victory against a far more competitive six-way field. That year he carried 44 of 46 counties, all but Richland and Charleston, the state’s second- and third-most populous.

VoteCast provides a detailed snapshot of the electorate and helps explain who voted, what issues they care about, how they feel about the candidates and why they voted the way they did.

Robert Yoon, The Associated Press