Can South Carolina save Nikki Haley’s bid for the White House?

Haley says she has a path forward, even after a second defeat to Donald Trump in New Hampshire

John Bowden
Washington DC
Wednesday 24 January 2024 13:21 GMT
Nikki Haley snaps back at Fox & Friends hosts suggesting she should drop out of race

New Hampshire has voted. Donald Trump has won, again.

Tuesday’s contest — the second of the 2024 Republican nominating contest, is over. Donald Trump was the clear winner, and remains firmly atop both polls of GOP voters nationally as well as the delegate count necessary for securing his party’s nomination.

And after throwing it all against the wall in the Granite State, Nikki Haley has lost her first head-to-head matchup versus Mr Trump. Despite endorsements from the state’s governor, largest newspaper and even the conservative opinion board at the Wall Street Journal, Ms Haley could not pull out ahead of the former president, who in many of his supporters’ minds should still be considered an incumbent.

So where do we go from here? Why isn’t Nikki Haley dropping out, as did Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy after their respective failures to “shock the media”, in Mr Ramaswamy’s words, in Iowa?

There are a few reasons:

1. South Carolina

The first southern state to test presidential nominees, South Carolina has played a recurring role as a reaper of presidential campaigns; it ended the bid of John Edwards in 2008 before a repeat appearance dealt a body blow to the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2020.

For Nikki Haley, however, it represents an opportunity. The state is where she served as governor for eight years, winning national acclaim for her work to address racial tensions in the wake of a racist massacre inside a historic Black church. She has deep local ties in the Palmetto State, and sees it as she does New Hampshire — another state where the conditions are near-perfect for a competitive showing against the frontrunner.

“The people of South Carolina KNOW Nikki’s strong conservative record because they lived it,” campaign manager Betsy Ankey said on Tuesday.

Don’t be fooled, though: Ms Haley is currently polling at just 25 per cent in the state to Mr Trump’s 62.2 per cent in FiveThirtyEight’s average of polls. To even be competitive, Ms Haley has a lot of work to do. And there’s also the question of optics; a major defeat here will present its own problems, as candidates who lose the states where they were elected typically elicit a unique and painful humiliation. Just ask Marco Rubio and John Kasich — two of the Republicans who made the mistake of finding that out at Mr Trump’s hands in 2016.

2. Money, money, money

Running a campaign for the presidency is expensive. Very expensive.

And Nikki Haley, unlike her fallen rivals, has the money to keep going. Her fundraising is surging heading into the new year after she took in $24 million last quarter; her cash on hand was around $14.5 million earlier this month.

Though it has been sparsely mentioned when describing the realities for her rivals, Mr DeSantis and Mr Ramaswamy, after Iowa, money (or the lack thereof) was likely one of the biggest factors that pushed them out of the race. Mr DeSantis entered the new year with only a few million in cash on hand; even a November jolt of $2 million from new wealthy backers couldn’t propel him far past Iowa, especially given the fact that he had come so far behind Mr Trump in a state where he and his allies had burned $30 million in ad dollars alone.

Mr Ramaswamy, himself independently wealthy, had been able to keep his campaign alive with his own cash infusions. But even he was faced with the reality of a long few months leading up to the convention in Milwaukee, and saw little reason for optimism after a distant fourth-place result in Iowa.

3. The rest of the primary map

Perhaps understanding the realities of both South Carolina and tonight’s contest in New Hampshire, the Haley campaign made it clear heading into Tuesday: Don’t expect us to fade away quickly.

A lengthy memo penned by campaign manager Ms Ankey and released to reporters on Tuesday spelled out a flat refusal to allow Donald Trump a “coronation” in the 2024 primary. Regardless of the result, the Haley campaign said it would push forward at least through Super Tuesday — the 5 March contest wherein more than a third of all Republican delegates will be up for grabs in a slew of state contests.

Ms Ankey explained in her memo that the former governor’s advisers believe the Super Tuesday map in particular to be favourable for their candidate, thanks in part to rules which allow independents to vote in some state primaries.

“[T]here is significant fertile ground for Nikki” on Super Tuesday, Ms Ankey argued. “Eleven of the 16 Super Tuesday states have open or semi-open primaries. Of the 874 delegates available on Super Tuesday, roughly two thirds are in states with open or semi-open primaries. Those include Virginia, Texas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Vermont, all with favorable demographics.”

It of course remains to be seen whether the Haley campaign will live up to these predictions of longevity. But if Ms Haley does remain in the race after Tuesday, her improbable path forward is pushing her towards an epic showdown in her home state — one that could end in the same humiliation Mr Trump’s opponents experienced last time.

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