'Who is the real Nikki Haley?': South Carolina voters criticize mixed messages on racism

Melvin Graham remembers when Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley spoke at his sister’s funeral.

His sister, Cynthia Graham Hurd, was one of nine Black churchgoers killed by a white gunman in 2015 during Bible Study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Haley, then governor of the state, attended all nine funerals.

Graham said he appreciated her presence, saying she came across as a strong and principled person. He said he even thought if she ever ran for president, he would give her serious consideration.

But today, he asks, “Who is the real Nikki Haley?”

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In her time on the campaign trail, Haley has delivered mixed messages on race. The daughter of two Indian immigrants and the first prominent woman of color to seek the GOP presidential nomination, Haley has said that America “is not a racist country.”

She has also highlighted moments of her gubernatorial record for crowds at Iowa rallies and New Hampshire town halls, often including the removal of the Confederate flag from the state house in the wake of the deadly and racially motivated Charleston shooting.

But experts and South Carolina residents USA TODAY talked with say her attempt to portray herself as a unifying candidate on race risks falling flat with some voters back home, where Haley has returned to campaign ahead of South Carolina’s Republican primary on Saturday.

Nikki Haley's "Beast of the Southeast" bus tour stopped in several location in South Carolina on Feb. 10.
Nikki Haley's "Beast of the Southeast" bus tour stopped in several location in South Carolina on Feb. 10.

Haley goes back and forth on Confederate flag

There are those among Haley’s former constituents who see her as more of an opportunist, said Larry Watson, a history professor at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, South Carolina.

Though her move to take down the Confederate flag put Haley in the national spotlight, some say she would not have done it had it not been for the murders, Watson said.

“She gets credit for it because it was under her watch,” he said.

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Haley weighed in on disputes over the flag – a controversial symbol of the Civil War Confederacy associated with white supremacy – as governor running for reelection.

“Yes, perception of South Carolina matters,” Haley said during a 2014 gubernatorial debate. “But we really kind of fixed all that when you elected the first Indian American female governor ... That sent a huge message.”

Less than a year later, Haley signed a bill to remove the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signs a bill into law as former South Carolina governors and officials look on, at the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C., on July 9, 2015.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signs a bill into law as former South Carolina governors and officials look on, at the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C., on July 9, 2015.

Jill Collins, 58, has lived in South Carolina for almost her whole life, including Haley's terms as governor.

“She had the guts," Collins, a retired teacher and registered Republican, told USA TODAY at a Haley campaign event in North Charleston last month.

“People got upset because they were saying, 'Oh that’s tradition,' but it wasn’t," she added. “She saw that it was dividing us, our state. It was causing harm and hurt to people, and it wasn’t an emblem that symbolized our state. And she had the guts to say let’s take it down.”

Graham, a Democrat, gave the former governor some credit and said he thinks her response was sincere. His brother, Malcolm, a former North Carolina state senator and Charlotte City Council member, was at the bill signing.

“She was against it before she was for it,” Graham said, adding that Haley pushed back against those who opposed the flag’s removal. “I think she felt something because even after the massacre, it still wasn’t popular to take it down.”

South Carolinians split on flag, Haley

Today in South Carolina, there is still a lingering divide in opinion over Haley’s action “on the tailwinds” of the church shooting, said Todd Shaw, associate professor of political science and African American studies at the University of South Carolina.

“It's a bit of a tightrope,” he said.

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While Haley touts the removal as one of her gubernatorial accomplishments, Shaw said she also must be “mindful of a constituency like the South Carolina GOP rank and file, who ... although they didn't stand in strong opposition, folks didn't necessarily cheer the removal of the flag.”

South Carolina presents one of the most diverse state populations of any GOP primary so far. Yet the GOP base deciding between Haley and Trump is not necessarily any less homogenous than other early primary states, Shaw said.

“South Carolina itself is more diverse. But the parties are divided along racial and ethnic lines,” he said. “And so that voter in South Carolina is going to be at least as conservative if maybe not even a little more conservative than the voter in New Hampshire.”

Many of the state's most conservative voters did not see the flag as a symbol of hate and racism, Shaw said, and still may not.

Haley back home: Nikki Haley faces a lackluster reception from South Carolina GOP voters

Meagan Ingersoll, 31, grew up in North Carolina and has lived in South Carolina since college. She said she could not associate the Confederate flag with anything besides slavery.

"But I think a lot of people in the South really do grow up with this idea of the flag symbolically representing states rights," Ingersoll said.

Ingersoll, who is on the board for the Republican club Young Greenville, said she remembers Haley taking heat from both sides in 2015. On one hand, she said there were South Carolinians upset that their governor would consider taking the flag down, while others were upset the move was not made sooner.

'Either you are or you aren't'

Haley drew outrage years after in a 2019 radio interview during which she said the shooter “hijacked” the perception of the flag.

“People saw it as service, and sacrifice, and heritage, but once he did that there was no way to overcome it,” she said at the time.

Some saw it as Haley backtracking on the statement she made in 2015 in removing the Confederate flag, an image the Anti-Defamation League calls a hate symbol and the NAACP has condemned.

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks at her New Hampshire presidential primary watch party at the Grappone Conference Center in Concord, N.H., on Jan. 23.
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks at her New Hampshire presidential primary watch party at the Grappone Conference Center in Concord, N.H., on Jan. 23.

While stumping through central South Carolina Monday, the former governor referred to the 2015 decision by saying she "didn't judge either side."

“I didn't pick who was right or who was wrong because that's not what a leader does,” Haley told a crowd in Sumter, South Carolina.

And Haley stoked controversy most recently last December, after responding to a question about the cause of the Civil War during a New Hampshire town hall and failing to mention slavery.

“I don't know if she's being contradictory or strategic,” Shaw said, noting that Haley may be dodging strong stances to avoid angering the more conservative GOP primary base.

Haley later amended herself, saying in an interview the day after, "Yes, I know it was about slavery.”

Still, Democrats in the state used the moment to take aim at Haley.

“She’s had a decade, over a decade to get some awareness," said Christale Spain, chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party. “That’s who she is. She’s showing us what she believes. It was a very easy question to answer. She couldn’t answer and that should speak volumes.”

Republican voters are equally dissatisfied, Ingersoll said, with what she called Haley's "flip-flopping."

"Her response (about the Civil War) just seemed to be different from the narrative she was giving when she was removing the flag. And I think that bothers people more," Ingersoll said.

"It feels like she's trying to change the narrative of situations," she added. "And it's not been that long. People do remember."

Haley has doubled down on her attempt to distinguish between acknowledging racism in the U.S. and saying America has "never been a racist country."

“I don’t think that the basis of America was that we were a racist country. I think the goal was always to have freedom," Haley told Gayle King and Charles Barkley on CNN Wednesday. "Now, we stumbled along the way, and we’ve got some parts of our history that were not pretty. But we got past that.”

Graham, for one, said he was disappointed with Haley’s statements and said he thinks this could hurt her on the trail in South Carolina.

“Wait a minute. You did the right thing (with the flag), but now you’re sort of backtracking because you’re trying to appeal to a certain audience or not offend a certain audience,” Graham said. “You can’t appease racism or racists and then say, ‘Oh I’m on your side.’ Either you are or you aren’t.”

Nikki Haley questions Donald Trump's mental fitness on campaign trail
Nikki Haley questions Donald Trump's mental fitness on campaign trail

Haley faces uphill battle with Trump

Haley has spent the weeks leading up to South Carolina's primary contest traveling the southern state, holding rallies and shaking voters' hands. She returned to the Palmetto State late last month after coming in second in the New Hampshire primary to former President Donald Trump – who has had his own troubles when it comes to race.

The Republican front-runner came under fire from political opponents, including the White House, as well as members of his own party for his incendiary comments about immigrants, telling a New Hampshire crowd in December they were "poisoning the blood of our country."

Trump has also made repeated and false claims that Haley is ineligible to run for president since her parents were not U.S. citizens when she was born. In a Truth Social post in January, Trump referred to Haley, whose birth name is Nimarata Nikki Randhawa, as "Nimbra."

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Yet, Watson said he expects Trump to fare well against Haley in her home state.

“He’s just immensely popular here,” Watson said.

Trump leads Haley by almost 30 percentage points in a recent Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll.

“I would go as far as to say Scott might have done better,” Watson added, referring to South Carolina's Republican junior Sen. Tim Scott.

Haley appointed Scott, the state's first Black senator, in 2013. Yet after dropping his own 2024 White House bid in November, Scott moved to back the former president over his former governor.

Recent polls show Trump leading Haley by almost 40 percentage points in South Carolina.

And the state has what Shaw called a “bellwether GOP,” as South Carolina has reliably picked the Republican presidential nomination all but once since 1980.

"Yes, she knows South Carolina ... She would say she knows it best," Shaw said. "But she is running a bit of a long shot campaign given the popularity of Trump."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nikki Haley's mixed messages on racism gets pushback in South Carolina