Nikki Haley promises to persevere until at least March 5. Will this be enough time to overtake Donald Trump in the final sprint toward the Republican nomination?
In December, a little more than a month before the start of the presidential primaries, a rhetorical question arose: Does Haley have a real chance of catching up to Donald Trump in the race for the Republican presidential nomination? A rhetorical question, as it goes without saying the answer is no.
After the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, both of which Trump won, Haley is now the only candidate still in the race against the former president. She is promising to hang on until at least March 5, which is Super Tuesday, when 15 states will simultaneously hold their primaries.
If the fact that Haley was able to limit Trump’s win to “only” 11 points in New Hampshire Tuesday is a sign of weakness for the former president (polls gave him significantly more), the candidate’s odds for the rest of race are no greater than they were on Monday.
In fact, they are no doubt diminished.
Of all the states, few offered such fertile ground for the style and message of the Haley campaign than the Granite State. By presenting herself as fiscally conservative, socially moderate, and pugnacious on foreign policy issues, she embodied precisely the combination that once made Republican candidates successful in the small New England state, whether at the presidential level with John McCain in 2000 and 2008, or the state level with former Sen. Kelly Ayotte.
And, as a number of analysts and commentators noted, New Hampshire allowed independents, among whom Haley is more popular, to vote, which will not be the case in several states voting in the coming months.
The road from here appears all the more arduous for the former South Carolina governor. The question now is what motives might she have to hang on?
Consider some of the reasons why Haley might remain in the race.
The Chance To Catch Trump with a New Campaign Strategy
Haley delivered a new tag line in a speech the night before the New Hampshire primary, saying that “the first party to retire its 80-year-old candidate is going to be the party that wins this election.” Some will consider the remark biting, others will see it as ageist. Above all, it’s true. But it is wishful thinking to believe that even if Haley were to take a more aggressive tone, modify her rhetoric, or walk on water it would be enough to heat up her opponent.
The former president holds a 50-point lead over Haley among Republican voters, on top of securing nearly all public endorsements from major Republican elected officials, be they governors, senators or representatives. The Republican national leadership is considering declaring Trump the de facto party candidate even before the other primaries take place.
The idea that after a year of campaigning, Haley will reverse this dynamic in the space of a few weeks by tweaking her strategy here and there is completely absurd.
The Chance That Trump’s Legal Troubles Will Create an Opening In Extremis for Haley
If there is one illusion that is slow to fade, it is that Republican voters might realize what it means to have a candidate facing multiple investigations, indictments, trial, and possibly criminal conviction and finally turn their backs on him.
Clearly, even if Trump is convicted in any the pending trials set to begin during the primaries — whether for his attempts to block the peaceful transfer of power in 2020-2021, or the Stormy Daniels affair — the negative political effect within the party would be minimal.
It would even help him. As with every indictment filed against Trump since last year, trial hearings provide him with a mighty platform to advance his campaign message to the Republican base. As evidence if this, while Iowa and New Hampshire were preparing to vote, Trump spent the majority of his time not meeting voters, but defending himself in courtrooms in New York and Washington. And he chose to do it, and not for nothing.
The Chance That Something Like Divine Intervention or a Medical Issue Might Force Trump To Quit the Race
Of all the scenarios that might give Haley a chance to win the Republican nomination, this is no doubt the most plausible; or, rather, the least implausible.
At 77, Trump has reached the average life expectancy of an American male. It is not impossible that a health issue will prevent him from becoming the Republican candidate. In such a situation, Haley would theoretically be the only alternative and could win the remaining primaries and the party’s nomination. The same would be true if the Supreme Court opens the door to removing Trump’s name from the ballot for his role in the Capitol insurrection in January 2021.
But then again, nothing is less certain for Haley. It should be remembered that the other Republican candidates, like Ron DeSantis, have technically only suspended their presidential campaigns.
There’s a reason for this. If such an extraordinary event should occur, DeSantis could relaunch his campaign and, with a greater fund of trust and sympathy from the Republican base than Haley, he could emerge as the new favorite.
So Why Hang On?
Haley can try to demonstrate her appeal as a vice-presidential candidate by continuing to highlight her strength with voters — especially female voters, whom Trump needs to win the general election.
Haley can try to land a speaking engagement as the Republican who stood up to Trump.
Or Haley can believe in miracles. Otherwise, hanging on carries more political risk for her than dropping out.