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CNN Live Event/Special

Voting Underway in South Carolina's Republican Primary; First Results of CNN Exit Polling in South Carolina; U.S. Coalition Launches Strikes on 18 Houthi Target in Yemen; Haley Hopes to Defy Trump Momentum in Home State Primary; More Results From CNN Exit Polling In SC GOP Primary; Will Hurd, Former GOP Presidential Candidate, Talks SC GOP Primary. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired February 24, 2024 - 17:00   ET





I'm Erin Burnett in New York along with Wolf Blitzer in Washington. And we are just two hours away now from polls closing in what could be Nikki Haley's last chance to prove herself and slow down the Trump campaign.

Despite the primary taking place on her own state, right, double term -- two-term governor, Donald Trump is expected to easily defeat the former South Carolina governor, Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're watching all of this so closely right now, Erin. South Carolina's primary, as you know, is open which means Democrats and Independents in South Carolina can cast ballots in the GOP race. Haley's team is hoping enough anti-Trump voters could help push her through to Super Tuesday, which is on March 5.

We have a team of reporters, tracking all of the action that as these candidates are moving forward, we're going to candidates' headquarters right now and polling stations all across the state.

First, I want to check in with CNN's Brian Todd. He's in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina for us. Brian, what are you hearing? What are you seeing from voters there?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, voters have been pumped up all day to come out here. And frankly, we're pumped up too, because this is just a lot of fun to cover.

A very dynamic situation here at this precinct. Actually, this is six precincts all in one. Jennie Moore Elementary School here in Mount Pleasant.

What I was told a few minutes ago by an official here was that as of just a few minutes ago, almost 1,900 voters had come through here today. The question is, are we going to see another push in the last two

hours before the polls close at 07:00 p.m. Eastern time. This line has kind of ebbed and flowed all day long. It's a little bit shorter now, but still coming out the door.

Now in two hours when the polls close, it's going to be kind of cool to watch here. You know, they do it in different ways in different places all over the country as far as tabulating the votes and then showing you who won.

The way they're going to do it here is they're not letting us inside to film the voting and they're going to tabulate the votes at 07:00 Eastern time shortly after that.

When they tabulate the votes we're not going to be able to show that as it's happening, the tabulation inside. But then what they are going to do is they're going to plaster those tabulations on that window.

You see those two thin white stripes. They're like giant CVS receipts, only even longer. Those are going to be the vote tabulation strips that they're going to plaster on that window once that happens we'll be able to show you kind of some of the vote totals if we can see them kind of tiny lettering and numbers there, but there you have it. That's the way they're going to do it here.

Now, we want to talk to a voter here who just came out of the polls. He is Rick Higgins.

Rick, you've been in this area for 40 years. You don't look old enough to have been here for 40 years, Rick. I got to tell you that.


TODD: But you voted for Nikki Haley?


TODD: Talk to me about maybe the issues that drove you to vote for the former governor.

HIGGINS: I sure will. You know, we are at such a critical juncture right here in our nation and we look at the open borders. We don't know who's coming in. There's been a mass influx of people coming in.

We need to get the right person in. I believe we need to get Joe Biden out of the White House. He's caused a lot of trouble.

And we also see what student loan debt we have people and I hear this all the time, people who decided to be responsible pay off their student debt, people who decided to work, they didn't want to take on student debt. Nobody forces you to go to college, but they have that student debt.

And I believe that Nikki Haley has the best chance of beating Joe Biden come this fall.

TODD: You said you were impressed with her record as governor. I wanted to ask you kind of this historical question. Since 1980 --


TODD: -- Only one time have the South Carolina Republican voters not pick the winner who eventually won the Republican nomination that year. That was in 2012. That's going back, obviously 44 years. They've had such a good record of a forecasting the winner among the Republicans here.

What makes it -- you've been here for 40 years.


Todd: What makes South Carolina so special in that regard. You're so, I guess kind of good at forecasting the winner on the Republican side.

HIGGINS: Well, you got a lot of great people here in South Carolina.

TODD: Of course.

HIGGINS: And we love the weather down here. We loved the people. But last year, South Carolina, well -- four years ago, they picked the winner, Joe Biden, because South Carolina is really that tipping point that enabled Joe Biden, I think, to get the momentum that he needed to go forward.

So I'm hoping think that we can do it with a Republican candidate this year.

TODD: Well, it's looking pretty good for Donald Trump right now, but we're going to see how it goes at the end of today in South Carolina, then at Super Tuesday.

Rick, a pleasure to meet you.

HIGGINS: God bless you.

TODD: Thank you so much. Thank you. Good luck to you.

All right, guys, less than two hours before the polls close, is there going to be a last-minute push? We're going to see about that.

One thing to also watch out for. As you know, Nikki Haley, we sample voters coming out off camera. They tell us, you know, who they voted for, what the issues were.


TODD: A pretty healthy dose of Nikki Haleys support. I'd say it's split pretty evenly between her and Donald Trump at this voting location. And it's worth noting that this county, Charleston County, was one of only two counties in 2016 that the Donald Trump did not win. We're going to see how he fares here in this county tonight.

Guys, back to you.

BLITZER: Very interesting. Brian Todd reporting. Thank you very much.

Erin, back to you.

BURNETT: All right. Wolf, and a reminder that we are just moments away from our first CNN exit polls. So as Brian was talking about talking to voters and they come out and ask them who they voted for. Obviously, we've got that now on a broad statewide basis. As that comes in, we're going to bring it to you in just a moment.

I want to go to a mall in South Carolina first though, where our Omar Jimenez has been talking to voters. And Omar, what are you hearing there? Obviously very different in many ways then where Brian Todd was just standing in the Charleston suburbs.

OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CPRD: We've heard a good mix of things up to this point, most of the voters have been Trump supporters. We did speak to one Democrat who withheld her vote in the Democratic primary early in this month to vote against Donald Trump here.

But we are inside one of those polling locations. I just want to give you a look at what we're seeing. This is a mall and we are outside Greenville, South Carolina.

So you can see it as a familiar sight for anyone who has voted recently. You come into a spot like this. Go to those familiar privacy booths. You cast your vote.

We've got -- we're closing in on five hundred votes total at this particular location. And they do expect more to come in in the final push before polls close.

But you mentioned we've been talking to voters. We've been keeping that going all day. We got some other folks here as well. I know you just voted, Simon and Misty, great to see you.

Misty, you just voted. Tell me who did you vote for and why?

MISTY, SOUTH CAROLINA VOTER: I voted for Nikki Haley today and I think briefly, I think it's an opportunity to shift the course of history. It feels like a rare chance to be able to do that.

JIMENEZ: And when you say shift the course of history, what exactly are you talking about? What propelled you really to say, you know what Nikki Haley's my person?

MISTY: When I think about this country and the leader of this country, my parents are immigrants. And so much of my family is sprinkled across the earth and I want to be able to look at our leader and be proud of who our leader is and not be ashamed, at least.

JIMENEZ: Fair enough. Misty, great to meet you. Simon get you in the next time. Good to meet you too.

Erin look, this is the range of opinions that we've heard over the course of today here in this particular area. This is a place that Trump is carried before in the past. But as you have heard, there are people that are still willing to support the former governor here in the state of South Carolina.

BURNETT: Yes. And interesting how she talked about that to you, Omar. Thank you.

And now we are getting those first exit poll results in the South Carolina GOP primary. David Chalian, of course, owns that. Going through all the data, had a minute to try to breathe and get some pieces to share with us. What are you learning, David?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Hey, good evening, Erin. Well, the first thing we're learning and remember these are early numbers. They will change as the night goes on. These are the initial results from our exit polling today.

But this electorate in South Carolina looks a lot more like the Republican electorate in the Iowa caucuses back at the beginning of January than it does the New Hampshire primary electorate.

Let me show you some examples of that.

We asked, do you consider yourself to be part of the MAGA movement? 45 percent say yes, 45 percent of those participating in the South Carolina Republican Party say yes. 49 percent say no. And that looks similar to what we saw in Iowa, whereas in New Hampshire, only a third of those voting in the Republican primary said they considered themselves part of the MAGA movement.

Do you think Biden legitimately won the 2020 election? Here in South Carolina in this primary today, only a third, 32 percent say that he did legitimately win. Only a third give the correct answer to this question.

Two-thirds, 65 percent wrongly say that Joe Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election, but that is what they believe, obviously after hearing so much of that from Donald Trump and others. Again, that looks more similar to Iowa than New Hampshire.

How about ideology? Here 43 percent of the electorate Erin considers themselves very conservative; 36 percent, somewhat conservative; 17 percent moderate; 3 percent liberal. Those bottom two categories only add up to 20 percent of the electorate. And that's where you would imagine Nikki Haley goes hunting for her most votes.

In New Hampshire, those two categories were a much bigger share of the overall electorate than they are here in South Carolina.

And we asked, are you a white born-again Evangelical Christian? 61 percent of the electorate says yes, they identify as born-again or Evangelical Christian. 39 percent say no. Radically different from New Hampshire where only 19 percent were white, born-again Evangelical Christians. This again, looks similar or to the Iowa caucus electorate.


CHALIAN: And remember, Donald Trump won the Iowa caucuses by 30 points. He won the New Hampshire primary by 11 points. And this electorate looks more like that Iowa electorate, Erin.

BURNETT: All right, David. And we're going to get back to David for more results later in the hour.

Doug -- all right, so this says -- this says what the polls said in a sense, we would expect, right? That this would be a very pro Trump group, but this, is very Trumpy.

DOUG HAYES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: It is and, you know, the 20 percent that David talks about, I think we can also extrapolate just on the interview --

BURNETT: And that's moderate plus liberal -- self-identified moderate and liberal combined gets you to 20 percent.

HAYES: And I think most of those people were probably standing behind Brian Todd in line, going to vote. That's where those voters are coming from. They're not coming from the more rural parts of the state. They're not coming even from by and large Columbia where you do have more highly educated voters as well.

And that's ultimately part of Nikki Haley's problem here. The math doesn't work on this. And so Haley's trying to make a completely different argument and what she is saying is America is not happy with this field.

America does not want Joe Biden. They don't want Donald Trump. It's the movable force versus the movable -- the irresistible force versus the movable objects -- sorry about that. And America is not happy with this. Thats why I'm an alternative.

The problem is that's not a great message in a Republican primary, even in her home-state.

BURNETT: What stands out to you about what David just went through?

ASHLEY ALLISON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Only 32 percent of the voters that showed up think Joe Biden is the actual president.



So that means if that's a similar scenario in Iowa, we are living in two alternate universes. We have voters who are accepting the election results and voters who are not.

And it also means if this is a Joe Biden and Donald Trump rematch and Donald Trump loses, what is -- I am not saying this hyperbolically, but what is the next version of January 6?

Particularly when you have people at CPAC this week who are literally saying behind closed doors --

BURNETT: Right. End democracy.

ALLISON: -- end democracy, we didn't do it on January 6, we'll get it done again. That is very troubling.

That is a sign that we need some form of intervention that folks understand that our elections are secure and safe and are accurate.

SINGLETON: I mean look, you got to combined 79 percent who are very conservative or somewhat conservative. After this, we go to Super Tuesday, March 5, 21 states.

Most of those states in terms of the outlook of likely GOP primary voters will be very similar in terms of where they align themselves on the ideological spectrum. That absolutely benefits Donald Trump.

So if you're Nikki Haley, the question is, you lose by 30 percent. You're saying you're going to continue on the Super Tuesday. You lose by 30, 40 percent potentially in some of those states, you don't walk away with a single win with a single delegate. What's the message to your supporters and certainly to your megadonors to continue to fund your campaign but at some point even those donors are going to face reality and say, is it time for us to just put our dollars behind Donald Trump as some of them already have.

BURNETT: Jamal (ph) also raises the question, if you're in a situation like this, it seems like one of the big bets for Nikki Haley and those backing her has been keep going and show that you're there so that if something happens, if he is convicted, if you know, if this asteroid comes in, that she's there.


BURNETT: But what the voters seemed to be saying is even in that case, it wouldn't be her.

SIMMONS: That is exactly what I believe. I believe that if that happens. Some of these other candidates who suspended their campaigns but not ended them might get pulled back off back off the bench into the field. They go to the convention.

That's how this might get rectified with one of these more --


BURNETT: (INAUDIBLE) -- MAGA numbers and election denying number.

SIMMMONS: I mean, this is a MAGA party, right. I mean all these elections have shown us that people believe in MAGA are there.

And, you know, before we go, I'm just struck by the woman Misty, who was talking to Omar who said her parents were immigrants. She's in the United States. She wants a president that she can be proud of, which talks to her other parents.

And I think about in 2019, Donald Trump gave a speech in front of the United Nations really talked about globalist versus patriots. And the people who were patriots, were people with long term ties to a country, right? He does not like immigrants. This is all like illegal immigration or conversation that he keeps having the Republican side. It's not just about on illegal immigration. They don't really like

migrants. And so I just think as we are going into this election, we've got a lot bigger issues on the -- on the horizon and we all want to have a country we can be proud of, a president we can be proud of.

I be proud of Nikki Haley. I may not agree with her for a lot of reasons, but I would think she would at least be a constitutionalist who could represent us on the world stage. I just don't think that Donald Trump is that person.

BURNETT: And do you have any surprise, Doug? I'm also taking a step back here when David was saying how closely these exit polls mirror those of Iowa where Trump won by 30 points as opposed to New Hampshire where he only he won by 11.

In the context of the fact that she has outspent him, she is a two- term governor. She -- obviously that means you have all sorts of baggage on both sides, but a lot of people there know and like her.


HAYES: Yes. Well, they do know and like her but they know and love Donald Trump. And you know, when you were interviewing the state party chair earlier, he talked about the term enthusiasm and Donald Trump has very intense enthusiasm.

The crowds at CPAC may be smaller for him, but the people who are there scream louder. They're yelling for free bird (ph) and their yelling for it as loud as they can.

And that's the reality of where the Republican Party is throughout the country. And let's remember, it was better for Nikki Haley in New Hampshire, but she didn't win it. And that's the challenge moving forward is this is Donald Trump's party.

The fact that he wants to put his daughter-in-law as the co-chair of the party, sort of codifies that because that's what's going to happen.

SINGLETON: And it doesn't get better for her. It does not get better for Nikki Haley. And Jamal, you raised a point about this is the MAGA party. It's true the idea of contextual small c conservatism really doesn't exist. This is a party now that is a nationalist, populist movement that now has control over the party.

Now you see the former president saying this is the guy who I want to lead the RNC, the current North Carolina chairman who is quite effective. Remember they censured Thom Tillis for example, because he --


HAYES: Senator Thom Tillis, also the former senator from North Carolina, my old boss Richard Burr. So think about what is more MAGA than censuring two of your senators who are both Republicans. That's about as MAGA as it gets. And I've known Michael Whatley for 20 years. I think he's done a pretty good job at North Carolina GOP that has struggled to do a good job and I've seen some of that up close.

But when you've censured two of your own people, that is the most MAGA argument.

SINGLETON: But if you're Nikki Haley and you're a moderate Republican or an establishment like Republican, Erin, we have to face the reality here that this is a very different party. And the hope is that if president Trump loses in November, the former president, some have argued that this perhaps may be the opportunity for the pendulum to swing back to the other side to regain control of the party. I'm not convinced of that though.


ALLISON: I will just -- I agree with you, Shermichael. I think that this is the Republican Party. It is a MAGA party.

What do you do from this point on. It is a real big gamble to say if Donald Trump loses in November. This is going to be a contested race. And so are we willing to risk our democracy at this moment if he becomes a nominee, which all sides from South Carolina indicate he is going to be, it is the truest question right now of party over politics. And I think you have to not let Donald Trump win.

BURNETT: All right, all stay with me and we are going to check in with the Trump and Haley campaigns right after this. What they are anticipating tonight from their internal polling of what's happening through the day. Our special coverage continues in just a moment.



BLITZER: All right. Right now, were following some major breaking news overseas. A U.S.-led coalition has just launched a fourth round of strikes against more than a dozen Iran-backed Houthi targets across Yemen.

Oren Liebermann is joining us once again from the Pentagon. What are you learning now, Oren?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the U.S. and the U.K. carried out strikes on 18 different targets across eight different locations according to a statement from the coalition, which includes the U.S. and the U.K. that carried out the strikes themselves and the countries that support and backed this operation, including Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Bahrain, and several others.

In this case, the fourth round of coalition strikes we have seen, there was one earlier this month and two last month. In this case, they targeted underground weapons storage facilities. The weapons themselves, one-way attack drones, missiles, and more, as well as radar sites and more. The goal here being to try to disrupt, degrade the ability of the

Houthis, the Iran-backed rebel group in Yemen to target international shipping and commercial vessels in one of the world's most critical waterways.

That coalition statement says there have been at least 45 attacks on commercial vessels and naval vessels operating in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. You can see them right there on that map.

And because of the threat to the region, the coalition says it necessitated a response. Part of the challenge here, according to U.S. officials, is that the strikes we have seen the U.S. carried out over the last several months do not appear to have had any deterrence effect on the Houthis.

These attacks have continued despite the U.S. going after their weaponry, their command and control, they're radar sites and more, and that's part of the challenge here.

That being said, Wolf, the warning is clear here if the Houthi attacks continue, so too will the U.S. strikes.

BLITZER: Yes, it looks like it's escalating over there.

Oren Liebermann at the Pentagon. Thank you very much.

Erin, back to you.

BURNETT: All right. Wolf and we're turning now to the special coverage of the South Carolina Republican presidential primary. Voters have about an hour and a half left now to cast their ballots. Polls close at 07:00 p.m. Eastern.

Kristen Holmes is following the latest with Trump campaign. So she is in Columbia, those headquarters tonight. So Kristen, obviously it looks like Trump will be victorious. We'll see how this goes. We'll see how it goes. Exit polls certainly also indicating that.

How badly does Trump want to beat Nikki Haley in her home state? I mean, what sort of a margin would make him feel that this was a victory?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What they're really looking at is the how badly can we beat Nikki Haley in this state. They are hoping that the polls are accurate. When you're talking about a 30-point lead in some of these polls, that is what they are hoping holds.

Now, one of the things that I have heard from Trump's advisors really since for Iowa was that they were hoping that he would win Iowa so that he gets those big holdout donors.

Then they were hoping he would win Iowa and New Hampshire so that he would get those big holdout donors. Now they are hoping with big margins in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina that they will get not only those big holdout donors, but also some Republicans who may still be on the fence. Remember, Donald Trump wants to put this too bed. He wants to pivot to a general election. He wants to focus as well on his legal cases.

The last thing he wants to be doing is still being in a primary race. But that is where we are right now. And that's why you're likely to hear him lash out at Nikki Haley again, when he speaks tonight if she does remain in the race. And if he does beat her by a large margin because this is something he has privately been expressing to many of his senior advisers that he doesn't understand why she wouldn't rally behind him as well.


HOLMES: Though it does appear at least somewhat that that ship might have sailed at this point. She keeps that -- continues to say that she is in it until the end, until every primary vote has been cast.

But again, what they're hoping for tonight is another resounding margin so they can move forward and really start to focus potentially on a general election giving the illusion that he is the presumptive nominee even though the delegate math wouldn't be there yet.

BURNETT: All right. Of course, right.

Even though he's won, he doesn't have enough delegates to say that it's his yet. And he won't after tonight either.

Kristen, thank you.


BLITZER: Erin, as you know, the former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley continues to resist Trumps efforts to push her out of the race.

CNN's Kylie Atwood is covering the Nikki Haley Campaign. She's joining us now from Charleston.

Kylie, Nikki Haley has said she hopes to come closer to Trump than she did back in New Hampshire. But how realistic is that?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf, there has not been a single poll in the last month or so that shows her coming closer to former president Trump here in her home state of South Carolina than 32, 35 points.

But of course, that doesn't mean that it's impossible, right? We don't know what's going to happen until we actually see those votes -- those votes tallied up. And Nikki Haley, for her part, appear to sort of manage expectations today, saying that she hopes that it's going to be competitive, but not talking about coming within a certain margin of the former president.

Now she was also asked about her strategy for Super Tuesday, and she said the strategy is to give voters an option and see, of course, which option they choose. She also went on to say this. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) NIKKI HALEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You might go to Russia and they'll anoint kings there. But here in America, we have elections and people's voices are heard and how blessed are we that we get to do that.

And so we want these states to be able to vote between now and ten days from now, another 21 states and territory would be voting.

And I think that's a great thing. They want their voices heard.


ATWOOD: Now, she also called it disgusting that former president Trump said last night that he believes that black people like him because he has been discriminated against like they have.

She has been very sharp in her critiques of the former president no matter what he does. You know, the actions he's taking, the things that he is saying over the last month and just to take a step back, Wolf, that's not what she did at the beginning of her campaign.

She was asked earlier today if she wished she went harder after Trump earlier on in her campaign. And she says she has no regrets, that that was part of the strategy to beat out all the other contenders and then really narrow in on the former president.

And now we're watching to see how that strategy here in South Carolina work where she has put tremendous resources into the state, more than 30 campaign events just over the last month alone, while the former president Trump has only had two or three events here in the state, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very interesting. Kylie Atwood in Charleston, South Carolina for us. Thank you very much.

Still ahead. New CNN exit polls are now coming in. Our David Chalian will join us after the break with what mattered most to voters in South Carolina when casting their ballots.



BURNETT: Welcome back to CNN special coverage of the South Carolina Republican primary. We're getting more results from CNN's exit polling.

David Chalian is back with me.

And, David, we've got some more information now about these voters. Tell us what you're finding out.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes. So one of the questions we ask is what candidate quality mattered most to your vote today. Erin? And in the South Carolina Republican primary, 37 percent said the candidate, the quality that mattered most fighting for people like me. And 33 percent shares my values.

And you can see, can defeat Biden, the electability quality and has the right temperament are each at 13 percent, much lower priority for this Republican electorate. And those, of course, have been the core of Nikki Haley's arguments.

Now, take a look here. among Trump supporters -- this is fascinating. Erin -- among Trump supporters, 91 percent of them say they are voting for their candidate. Only 8 percent of Trump supporters say their vote today is a vote in opposition to the opponent. That is totally different from what we see in Haley's coalition.

Still a majority say they're voting for their candidate, 59 percent of Haley's supporters say that, 40 percent though, 40 percent of Haley voters are casting their ballot in opposition to Donald Trump.

And then we asked, when did you decide on your candidate? And this is astounding, 78 percent -- that number way down there at the bottom -- before Iowa and New Hampshire voted, this was a locked in electorate even before they saw the results of what was happening in the other early states - Erin?

BURNETT: That is really stunning. That's 78 percent, that just screams off the screen. And that is unbelievable, David.

All right, thank you so much.


BLITZER: Let me bring back our panel, Erin.

And, Kristen, let me start with you.

What's your reaction hearing those exit poll numbers?

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST & POLLSTER: Two big number stick out to me. The 13 percent saying that they are voting on electability, the ability to beat Biden, that is the death knell for Nikki Haley. She has made that the centerpiece of her campaign.

And frankly, it's both Haley and the entire rest of the Republican field has run into the problem that Donald Trump has performed well against Joe Biden in a lot of general election polling over the last year.


So the argument that Haley keeps making, that there's no way Donald Trump can win simply isn't true. Donald Trump absolutely could be elected president in November. So that's -- that's number one that sticks out to me.

The other one is the fact that so many Haley voters are voting against Donald Trump. This is why it is so important for Trump to not alienate Haley's coalition as much as his instincts will be to try to do so. Say, oh, if you're not with MAGA, get out of my party. If all of those

people don't show up for Republicans in November, he will have a problem beating Biden.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: But 91 percent of those voters voting for Trump say they were voting for him and not against anyone else. And that shows you the level of enthusiasm for Donald Trump.

I mean, they're -- they're locked in, 78 percent were locked in for a long time. The previous primaries didn't matter. And they're not voting against anyone. They're just voting for Donald Trump.

For Nikki Haley, it seems she believes like if she could just skip over all these primaries and go to a general election, she might have a better shot at it because she does well in those polls.

But it just shows you that that they see Donald Trump as someone they want to become president and they see him as a fighter.


NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: That 37 percent, right? And he leans into that right? This idea that he is fighting for their cause, they identify with that.

And so I think that's actually going to be a strong point for him, too, in a general election. If he gets there. This strong identification that these voters I'll have with them.

And listen, that's across the board. I was in South Carolina a couple of weeks ago, and some voters are these are Democratic black voters who were saying that they thought that Donald Trump, too, was a fighter, talking about the economy being better under Donald Trump.

So those are things I think, in this poll, he clearly knows that that sort of image of him is sort of a strong guy who takes it to folks in and can improve focuses lives, it's clear that folks believed that he he's a fighter for them.

BLITZER: Lula, you want to weigh in?

LULA GARCIA-NAVARRO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes. I mean, one of the things that I find really astonishing by all these numbers is that, in many ways, this entire Republican primary season has been performative.

It was almost like it was for -- we're told that Donald Trump was actually going to be the nominee, and that is something that's certainly his campaign and he has been pushing.

But when you see those numbers that this was locked in, that they had made this decision not weeks ago, but months ago, then you really do see that how many Republicans are actually persuadable? How many Republicans are actually looking for a different candidate?

And so you know, when you look at Nikki Haley's candidacy, you see a candidacy that, you know, some people would try to say she leading the resistance and she leading some kind of future party in which Donald Trump is no longer there, or he gets taken out in some act of God?

And really what you're seeing is that, in fact, people have already made up their mind and they like him, they believe that he represents them and speaks for them, and they want him to be the nominee, and they don't care if they -- if he can beat Joe Biden or not.


HENDERSON: He's essentially running as an incumbent, right? I mean, literally, people actually go in some ways that he did win in 2020.

And listen, Donald Trump has been running for president since 2015. He never stopped. Once he lost in 2020, he began, in this whole theory about the election being rigged in 2020, people bought it hook, line and sinker.

You can see it in those polls. So they have an attachment to him that is so hard, I think, to break.

SOLTIS ANDERSON: This is going to be something that a lot of Republican strategists who worked for other campaigns are going to be debating in the coming weeks and months, was it ever possible to defeat Donald Trump in the first place?

Was there a moment? Was there a strategy? Did we just not do the right thing?

There's going to be a lot of finger-pointing. There was a lot of money spent. Haley's still has a lot of money.

Look, the polls have enclosed in South Carolina where were not foretelling any -- but it seems as this point there's going to be a lot of debate about, to Lula's point, was this ever winnable for somebody?


BORDER: -- was DeSantis, if we'll recall, which seems like a million years ago, who was doing well in the polls. And then Donald Trump's started getting indicted and his poll numbers started going up.

And then if you listened to the CPAC speech last night, he went -- it was very apocalyptic. I'm fighting for you because it'll be the apocalypse if Joe Biden gets re-elected.

But he portrayed himself as the victim, as he always does. And that's when DeSantis' numbers started going down.

And so the more he fights, the number of 33 percent shares, my values, you know, that that is important because people believe -- these voters are believed that Donald Trump is fighting for them.

[17:40:00] And no matter what he says -- at CPC, he called himself a dissident and many people can -- can look at that and say, well, what's been going on in this country, I don't agree with either. So I'm a dissident, too.

And he's played it --


SOLTIS ANDERSON: No Donald Trump. Buit there were members of CPAC there who were speaking, calling for the end of democracy.

And so, you know, these things go hand in hand. This is a very -- you know, when Donald Trump speaks and he calls himself a dissident and he uses that language, what he's talking about, of course, what he's trying to impart to his followers is that, hey, I am someone who is a victim of oppression.

This entire administrative state, this entire Democratic establishment, is coming after you. And look, I am the perfect symbol of that. And that resonates with them.

And so one step further is then saying actually we don't even like democracy. We don't believe that democracy has worked for us.

Look, it was taken away from Trump in 2020. And so we don't believe that this is actually a democracy.


HENDERSON: Also, I think it's also a replay of this idea that he's an outsider, right? That's what works well for him in 2016. He was this millionaire. He was on "The Apprentice." He could shake the system up, right?

Even though he has been a president the United States, served for four years, he can still play into this idea that he is an outsider. And it resonates with many people, you know, and a wide variety of people, right?

You have the Chamber of Commerce, a Republican there, saying he's worried about taxes. And you have working class folks as well. So this sort of books a swath of people that can look at him and say, he's a fighter for me, whether that that's working-class black men or white sort of man who never had to worry.

SOLTIS ANDERSON: And I think Democrats should be worried. I think this idea that --


BLITZER: Should be worried about what?

SOLTIS ANDERSON: Democratics should be worried that they will lose the next election.

BLITZER: To Trump?



SOLTIS ANDERSON: But -- but what I'm saying is, you know, that's why what Nikki Haley was saying, as you as you pointed out, that somehow she is more electable, the polls show. That may very well be true.

But the fact of the matter is, is that Trump has such a very stronghold on the electorate. And Biden does not have that strong hold over --


SOLTIS ANDERSON: -- over his it's base. And so, you know, it is going to very much depend on who, who will turn out and how this all plays out -


BORGER: I don't think the worry for the Democrats, and you see this here, is that their supporters will stay home, right? Because they're not enthusiastic about Joe Biden. They don't like the race, particularly.

Unless Joe Biden can make the case about the stakes of this selection, and you want to talk about democracy being an existential -- of existential importance to this country, unless Biden can show himself to be a fighter for people and show that he has said exceeded, you know, there's -- there's a problem.

They're looking at these polls. These people are locked in. They're locked in --


HENDERSON: And those are Republican. So again --


BLITZER: And you're from South Carolina.


BLITZER: Is that any of the surprise --


HENDERSON: No, it doesn't surprise me. You know, I mean, this is Trump country. It has been four years, since Donald Trump's sort of took over the party. So it's not a surprise .

In talking to folks in South Carolina -- and again, these were some Democratic folks who have a sort of a revisionist idea of Donald Trump that maybe it wasn't so bad when Donald and Trump was president. They felt like they had more money and that prices were better when Donald Trump was president. So Biden and Democrats have a long way to go.

I think, in turn, being those voters back out in November of 2020 --

BLITZER: OK, everybody standby.


BLITZER: We have a lot more to discuss.


Our special coverage will continue. We'll speak with former United States representative, Republican Will Hurd, about why he's backing Nikki Haley right now. We'll also speak to him about the future of the Republican Party.



BURNETT: All right. In a little over an hour, polls are set to close in South Carolina as Republican presidential candidate, Nikki Haley, tries to derail former President Trump's march toward the GOP nomination.

Joining me now to talk about it is the former Republican presidential candidate, Will Hurd. He is backing Nikki Haley in this race.

So, Congressman, thanks for being with me.

You're backing Nikki Haley. The polls have showed her behind by 30 points and her goal here has been to do much better than that.

You see the exit polls that were getting. Exit polls are still just polls, but these are actual voters. And 78 percent of them said they made their mind up before anyone even voted in the state of Iowa.

And you see only 20 percent of them combined identify as moderate or liberal. And half of them say they're MAGA, 65 percent think that Biden didn't legitimately win the election.

What do you take away from this so far?

WILL HURD (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, there's a couple of things I take away from that exit polling. That Donald Trump supporters are super-enthusiastic for him. We all know that, and that's true.

But there's also a lot of people that don't like Donald Trump. And those are the folks that -- that ultimately need to be activated.

There is this assumption that only Independents and moderate folks are coming out for Nikki Haley. Nikki Haley was a Tea Party governor in South Carolina. She gets a lot of those conservative votes.

And there's one trend that we saw in early, in early voting data. There's a lot of low propensity voters, people that don't generally vote in primaries coming out.

We'll see once all the votes are counted. That is one on my mind of my friends watching your wonderful show, the count is 63 to 17 right now. This is not over. This is not a fait accompli. We don't coronate kings in America. We actually go the election.


And prior to today, only 2.8 percent of eligible voters in the United States of America have had the opportunity vote.


HURD: There's a lot more votes that need to be counted.

BURNETT: Well, and that is a stunning reality of this.

I want to just home in on something you just mentioned, that you said you were looking at an early voting. And obviously, those are people who voted prior to election day. But that low-propensity voter, what does that say to you?

HURD: Well, look, it can go one of two ways. It can be people that first time they vote was in 2016, or it could be people that have never voted and they're ready to come out and they're tired of the chaos.

You know, these could potentially be other people that are like, wait a minute, Donald Trump has no money. Joe Biden has a lot more than him. And Donald Trump's going to use the money that's given to his campaign to go to pay for his legal fees?

The fact that his -- his lying for decades in New York has caught up to him, and he was $450 million to New Yorkers.

That's one of the reasons why Donald Trump wants Nikki Haley out of the race. Because he wants the RNC money to pay for the campaign, so he can use his money to pay for his legal bills -- legal bills, excuse me. So people are frustrated with that.

They recognize that you don't replace crazy Democratic drama with Republican drama. And that's what -- that's what some of those low- propensity voters can mean.

And guess what? That's why Ambassador Haley has done a seven-figure media buy in the Super -- in many of the Super Tuesday states. That's why she's announcing leadership teams in the Super Tuesday states. She going to keep going.

And those that think Nikki Haley should drop out, the only thing I would say is, well, let's think of but when my San Antonio Spurs go to half-time and they're down 20 points, people say, oh, pack your bags and go onto the next city?

No. You go back and play. And people should be applauding the heat for standing up.

BURNETT: All right, so just to make the point, I think it's clear where you stand on this.

But obviously, Congressman, you had to make a difficult decision. You chose to end your own campaign. Because you didn't think you had a viable path

If Nikki Haley loses tonight by a lot, it doesn't seem that she has a viable path. Why should it be different for her?

HURD: Well, so I had to get out because I didn't have any money. Nikki Haley continued to raise money in January. She raised more money in January than she had done any previous quarter. So if you have the resources, keep going.

This is now down to between two people, a man and a woman. And the reality is, if she has momentum, something to keep going, has the money to keep going, she should.

This isn't over until somebody gets 1,215 delegates. That's when -- that's what you need in order to become the Republican nominee.

And if you have the resources going -- because ultimately this is-- this what I got to say -- it's very clear and it has been clear that Nikki Haley is the best choice of the Republican Party to beat Donald Trump.

Her margins of -- excuse me -- of beating Joe Biden. Her margins of beating Joe Biden are two times larger than what it is for Donald Trump.

And guess what hasn't happened yet? The Democratic party has unleashed all the money that they have and that they're going to show that all the top hits of Donald Trump saying terrible things about Muslims.

He is there going to -- they're going to review all the crazy things he said about my brothers and sisters in the black and brown communities.

And that's when you're going to start seeing that delta between potential rematch from hell. And nobody wants to watch that.

BURNETT: The rematch from hell.

All right. Congressman Hurd, I appreciate your time. Thanks so much.

HURD: Always a pleasure.

BURNETT: All right. Good to see you.


And more of our special coverage continues after this.



BLITZER: Nikki Haley is hoping a home-field advantage will give her a much-needed boost tonight.

Joining us now, CNN senior data reporter, Harry Enten.

Harry, if Haley loses today, put that in some historic context for us.

HARRY ENTEN, CNN SENIOR DATA REPORTER: Yes, you know, Wolf, I would just say this, Nikki Haley probably needs to win tonight if she wants to be the GOP nominee.

Because nominees who have lost their home-state primary on either the Democratic or Republican side since 1972, there's a "do not enter." It could also be a stop sign because it's happened zero times. It has never happened.

We've never had a major party nominee who lost their home state in the primary. So for Nikki Haley, she's got a winning night.

Now, just to give you an idea of some South Carolina delicate math, there are 50 delegates at stake, and I'll note a big one or could sweep it. Why is that? Because 29 delegates are awarded to the statewide winner.

It doesn't matter if you win by one vote or 100,000 votes, you get 29 delegates. And then three delegates are awarded to the winner of each of the seven U.S. House districts.

So if you win all seven U.S. House districts, you get another 21 delegates.

So it could very well be that, if you win statewide by a lot, you sweep those congressional districts, Wolf, you could, in fact, go on and win all 50 delegates.

It's not proportional anymore, not like Iowa or New Hampshire -- Wolf?

BLITZER: And very quickly, Harry, how will tonight's result play into the overall delegate math needed to be the Republican nominee.

ENTEN: Yes, Wolf, so look, things have been kind of going at a snail's pace recently. But over the next month, they will be going very rapidly.


One candidate get 50 percent plus one of all the GOP delegates. Few of the states are truly proportional. And 56 percent of the delegates are allotted by March 12th. That's less than a month away.

And again, like South Carolina, most of the contests left will award most or all their delegates to the winner. it's not proportional. So the fact is we're going to have a very quick calendar going forward -- Wolf?