You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Origin Stories

Nikki Haley’s Hometown Is Not Nikki Haley Country

What the politics of Bamberg County reveal about the former South Carolina governor’s struggles against Trump

Nikki Haley greets supporters at Bamberg Veterans Park
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Nikki Haley greets supporters at a campaign event at Bamberg Veterans Park on February 13.

Elmer Miller pulls his old Ford F150 into the Sunoco on a barren stretch of Highway 70 outside the small town of Barnwell, South Carolina. There’s a Confederate flag in his front license plate frame, and a Sons of Confederate Veterans sticker on the window behind the driver’s seat. He emerges from the truck with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

“She done had her chance,” Miller told me of Nikki Haley, who grew up a dozen miles away in nearby Bamberg, a Black, Democratic stronghold in what’s largely Trump country. Not that Haley ever stood much of a chance in his mind. “She took down the flag and that was wrong.” 

So Miller flies the stars and bars himself, letting everyone know where he stands. And yes, he’s voting for Donald Trump.

Inside the Sunoco, Rob and Neiha Patel rang up customers and stocked shelves. The couple came here from India a few years ago and have found this poor, rural area of South Carolina to be polite and hospitable—with a few exceptions. “One guy came in and picked up a dog biscuit and asked my wife, ‘How much?’ Then he said he would buy it for her because Indians eat dogs. I said, ‘Where did you hear that? You have to give me proof. Show me the article.’ I think he was drunk.”

Tolerating racists—or, more commonly, merely rude customers—is a necessary part of the job for Indian immigrants here, just as it is for their peers throughout the rural South who run gas stations, convenience stores, and motels. It’s the burden of being a foreigner of color who’s pursuing the so-called American Dream, much as the parents of South Carolina’s most famous Indian American woman had done.

Entering the town of Bamberg itself (pop. 3,103), where signs welcome you with the motto “Simply Southern–Naturally,” you wouldn’t know that it was home to the state’s first female governor, the nation’s second governor of Indian descent, a former ambassador to the United Nations, and perhaps the most successful female presidential candidate in the history of the Republican Party. There are no signs marking Nikki Haley’s upbringing here, and I only saw a pair of Haley yard signs around town.

Haley’s incredible rise from a humble childhood in Bamberg has been a key part of her pitch to voters. And in a different time—or rather, an alternate universe in which Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan became the party’s standard-bearer rather than Trump—that story would have been a godsend to the GOP: a woman and daughter of working-class Indian immigrants whose upbringing drew her toward conservatism and whose success embodies the so-called American dream. Alas, that GOP no longer exists. Polling shows Trump leading Haley by around 30 points in the state, which holds its primary on February 24.

But to people like Nilaay and Manisa Patel, who run a 76 gas station in nearby Allendale, it’s “very exciting” that Haley is running—even though they can’t yet vote. Like Rob and Neiha in Barnwell, they’re grateful for the quiet, profitable life they’ve been able to build here.  “It’s good for now,” Manisa said of Allendale, “but it’s not very interesting here.” Unlike the Barnwell Patels, who are content to stay put, Manisa dreams of living in a bigger city. 

While Indian immigrants have found success here, many longtime residents have struggled. Bamberg’s last textile mill closed in 2020, after holding out longer than others in the area. In their place? Not much. One of Bamberg’s largest employers was Oak and Barrel, a whiskey barrel manufacturing facility that employed 40 people—and planned to hire another 80—before a tornado last month temporarily shuttered it. Schools and fast food restaurants employ many; many others commute an hour and a half to the capital of Columbia. “In Bamberg, people get educated, they get a job and they move somewhere else,” said Sharon Carter, the chair of the Bamberg County GOP. 

It’s those kinds of economic conditions—and, let’s be honest, the intolerant views of a fair number of people living in those conditions—that helped give rise to Trump nearly a decade ago. Rob Patel, despite Trump’s relentless attack on immigrants, can see his political appeal. “I understand why people support Trump,” he said. “If you had a plumbing business and your son was a good plumber but you hired someone else, the son would say, ‘Why not me?’ That’s how people feel about immigrants in this country, I think.”

It might not be obvious while driving around Bamberg County, but Haley has her supporters—like Carter, who also sits on the state GOP committee and is running for office herself (the state Senate). “She’s as regular American as you can get,” said Carter, who was two years ahead of Haley in grade school. “Without Trump, she would be the ideal candidate, no question.”

Much as Trump clings to the mantle of the outsider, he is the Republican establishment now. Not only has he twice won the party’s presidential nomination, but even out of office he’s been able to dictate what Republicans do on Capitol Hill—such as killing a bipartisan immigration deal. Haley, meanwhile, has been battling GOP elites since Trump was just a fledgling reality TV star.

In 2005, after her upset victory for a state House seat, she announced her arrival in the legislature by insisting on a basic level of transparency that most people would agree their elected officials should be held to: recording their votes. “She’s always been the antiestablishment person,” Carter said. “When she made sure that everyone had to say how they were voting, the first thing the establishment did was kick her off that committee.” 

Still, Haley continued to rise. She worked her way up to the governor’s mansion, in 2011, on her antiestablishment and free-market bona fides. She made yet more enemies in 2015, after nine Black people were murdered by a white supremacist at a church in Charleston. Haley banned the Confederate flag at public buildings, opening herself up to criticism from the very Republicans who would soon become Trump’s base. 

Now, Haley is up against Trump’s machine, which is humming along nicely even in her own state. Despite state party bylaws that say the state Republican committee should remain politically neutral on all Republican candidates, it has been clear for some time that the fix was in for Trump. Committee members attending meetings have been treated to the former president’s thoughts on state party matters and general campaigning tactics, as he has been known to call into the meetings and can go on for an hour or more as members wait to carry out their committee business. “The bullying practices are real,” Carter said.

Behind closed doors, Republicans may be bullied by Trump’s supporters—and in some cases, Trump himself—but if they truly wanted to speak out in favor of other candidates, they’d do it at the ballot box. And yet, Trump won Iowa by 30 points over DeSantis and 40 over Haley, then beat Haley in New Hampshire by 11 points.

If all politics is local, then securing your hometown is step one for any successful candidate, but Haley will likely struggle to do even that. First, most of Bamberg’s voters are African Americans who overwhelmingly vote Democratic. Second, Carter expects most Republicans to vote for Trump. “I think the people around here who knew her and knew her family will vote for her, because they know she really is just a truly authentic person who does the right thing,” she said.  

Everyone else, they’ll vote for Trump.

Twenty minutes down a winding and picturesque highway into the nearby town of Barnwell, drivers pass a steel-sided pole barn that serves as a monthly gathering place for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It was not far from there that I met Miller, smoking while he pumped his gas. I asked him about the economy. “Good people want to work, but it just seems like the jobs just skip over Barnwell,” he said.

That wasn’t the case for Rob and Neiha Patel. They came all the way from Gujarat, India, to run the Sunoco.

“Racism is a different thing than when people give us a hard time because they don’t have money to buy something in the store,” Rob said. “Some people get frustrated with our accents and say things like, ‘If you don’t know how to speak English, don’t come to the U.S.’ But I love it here. It’s a nice, quiet place.”

Miller said he’d heard that Indian immigrants receive grants from the federal government to operate gas stations and convenience stores. He wasn’t sure if that was true, but if so, he wondered why they got preferential treatment.

“Our American people, they won’t give them a grant,” he said. Then he walked inside to pay the Patels for his gas.