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What Does Nikki Haley Have to Lose?
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What Does Nikki Haley Have to Lose?

Her odds are slim, but Donald Trump’s lone GOP rival is sticking it out and having fun.

Nikki Haley hosts a rally in North Charleston to kick off her swing in the South Carolina on January 24, 2024. (Photo by Peter Zay/Anadolu via Getty Images)

NORTH CHARLESTON, South Carolina—Twenty-four hours after losing the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary to Donald Trump, Nikki Haley seemed energized when she took the stage at a rally in her home state of South Carolina.

“When we started this race, there were 14 people in the race, we were at 2 percent in the polls, and we worked our way up,” she said. “So we ended up in Iowa with 20 points; we came to New Hampshire—we had 40-something points. And so we were very excited last night, because we thought: We’ve gone up 25 points in a month, and we were thrilled.”

Then Haley turned her attention to Trump. “We said what we had to say, and then Donald Trump got out there and just threw a temper tantrum,” she said to laughter among the crowd gathered in an Embassy Suites ballroom. “I know that’s what he does when he’s insecure. I know that’s what he does when he’s threatened, and he should feel threatened.” 

She jabbed Trump over recently mistaking her for Nancy Pelosi—“I think he was a bit confused”—and observed that his primary night “rant” he “didn’t talk about the American people once. He talked about revenge.” Not the economy, or immigration, or inflation, or crime, or the threat from China, Haley noted, but revenge.

Haley reminded everyone of her call for “mental competency tests for anyone over the age of 75,” which Trump has said he would ace. “Okay, well if that’s the case, then get on the debate stage,” she said. “Bring it, Donald. Show me what you’ve got.” 

Haley is running as though she has nothing to lose, even as she faces increasingly vicious attacks from Trump and all data suggest he is almost certain to win the nomination. There are at least two logical reasons to stay in the race. The first is that however small a chance she has of winning the nomination, it’s still greater than zero. The second reason is dismissed by Haley and her team but remains plausible: staying and fighting actually makes it more likely she ends up as Trump’s running mate—a role that Haley has said is “off the table,” a dismissal that falls far short of a Shermanesque refusal.

Just how slim are the odds of winning the nomination? In national polling of the GOP race, Trump leads Haley 66 percent to 11 percent. There have been no recent public polls of South Carolina, but in early January—before Chris Christie, Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy dropped out—an Emerson poll found Trump leading Haley 54 percent to 25 percent there.

Still, Haley’s campaign notes that a month is a long time in politics and that the South Carolina primary is truly open—anyone can vote in the February 24 GOP contest so long as they haven’t already voted in the February 3 Democratic primary, which is uncompetitive and expected to draw a low turnout. Two registered Democrats, Chelsea Mylett and Jacob Craig of Park Circle, South Carolina, told The Dispatch they came to Haley’s event Wednesday because they’re interested in voting for her in the general election but thought they weren’t allowed to vote in the February Republican primary.

Even with an outsized turnout among independents and Democrats on February 24, Haley will likely face an even more challenging electorate in South Carolina than she did in New Hampshire, where she relied heavily on moderates and liberals who, according to exit polls, made up about one-third of the electorate. By comparison, moderates comprised just one-sixth of the electorate in South Carolina in the 2016 GOP primary.

In addition to her somewhat sharper contrast with Trump in her stump speech on Wednesday, Haley released a video on Thursday highlighting her record as a “Tea Party governor” praised by Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich and who took on illegal immigration and signed a bill making “most abortions after 20 weeks” illegal.

On the campaign trail, though, Haley is mostly sticking to the script that helped her improve dramatically in New Hampshire but still left her 11 points shy of victory. While Haley’s happy-warrior demeanor is well-suited for a general election—it’s part of why she does so well with independents and beats Biden by wide margins in most general election polling—it seems ill-suited for the GOP 2024 race. Asked in an exit poll to identify their feelings about the way things are going in the United States, 17 percent of New Hampshire GOP primary voters said they were satisfied, 43 percent said dissatisfied, and 36 percent said they were angry. Haley won the “satisfied” bloc 76 percent to 21 percent and carried the “dissatisfied” bloc 52-46, but she lost voters who said they were “angry” by a whopping 19 percent to 80 percent. Haley has shown no indication of reinventing her message or her campaign in South Carolina, and any attempt to do so could backfire by making her seem inauthentic. At the same time, it’s difficult to imagine Republican voting patterns changing dramatically absent a dramatic change in the campaign.

Haley seems to be staying in the race for the same reason a football team doesn’t walk off the field when it’s trailing by five touchdowns. Despite the very slim odds, they are no worse than they were for most of the past 12 months. The field officially winnowed to two candidates just two days before New Hampshire, so why not give it a shot for another five or six weeks?

Some have suggested that losing South Carolina would be exceptionally embarrassing, but such a loss could have much more to do with Republican voters’ loyalty to Trump than dislike of Haley. Sen. Marco Rubio lost his home state of Florida in 2016 to Trump, but easily won a GOP Senate primary later that year, and ran far ahead of Trump that November. Florida Republicans went from supporting Ron DeSantis over Trump by a 25-point margin in March 2023 to backing Trump over DeSantis by a 39-point margin in October, but the governor maintains a strong approval rating among Florida Republicans.

There is, of course, another reason for Haley to stay in the race: a chance to be vice president. Haley—as well as her top campaign officials and surrogates—dismisses the notion that she has any  interest in being Trump’s running mate.  “She does not want VP, she’s not running for VP, nor do I think she would take it,” South Carolina Rep. Ralph Norman, Haley’s lone endorsement from Congress, told The Dispatch this week. Another Haley surrogate, South Carolina state Sen. Tom Davis, told The Dispatch: “I’ve never heard her talk in terms of ‘let’s just make a good enough showing and maybe we can be a VP’ or ‘let’s make a good enough shell and maybe get a Cabinet position.’ I’ve been with her for the last year campaigning, and I’ve never heard her even intimate anything remotely like that.” Davis acknowledged that while he could judge Haley based only on her words and actions, “ultimately, only she knows” what she would do if asked to run with Trump. 

But Haley has not absolutely ruled out running with Trump, and there’s a case to be made that staying in the race helps rather than hurts her chances in the veepstakes. If Trump wants an attack dog who will defend everything he has done or ever will do, he could choose someone like New York Rep. Elise Stefanik. But Haley has something much different to offer: votes in a general election.

“I would probably write in Nikki Haley,” Mary Franz of Santee, South Carolina, told The Dispatch on Wednesday when asked about a Trump-Biden rematch. But what if it were a Trump-Haley ticket? “I probably would vote for that, but I wouldn’t be happy.”

Sherry from Kiawah (who declined to share her last name) said of a Trump-Biden rematch: “I’d vote Biden.” But if it were a Trump-Haley ticket? “That would make me sick to my stomach,” she replied. “I’d have a hard time. I really would. I don’t know. It depends on how the health of Trump was.” 

Not everyone could be swayed by a Trump-Haley ticket. “I’d quit my job and take up smoking pot,” and nothing could get her to vote for Trump, one woman said as she exited Haley’s Wednesday rally. Others similarly said they would stick with their choice of Biden, Trump, or a third-party candidate regardless of Trump’s running-mate. But the fact that Haley could move some votes toward Trump is reason not to count her out of the veepstakes.

Despite saying that being Trump’s VP is “off the table,” Haley has also made it clear she won’t take the same path as Chris Christie, who has said the most important thing in 2024 is defeating Trump. In her stump speech in North Charleston on Wednesday, Haley warned that Joe Biden “sends us down this rollercoaster of socialism that’s dangerous that we have to stop.”

Haley has not yet gone so far to say Trump is unfit to be president. In an interview with CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell this week, Haley said Trump is “mentally fit, but I think he’s declining.” She also frequently says “chaos follows” Trump and that he could easily lose to Biden. But on both charges, Haley is leaving room for her steady hand to right the ship.

Staying in the race and demonstrating continued strength among independent and moderate voters would likely make Haley a more appealing running mate than dropping out and falling in line right now. In 1980, George H.W. Bush won only 24 percent of the popular vote and six states in his race against Ronald Reagan, but that showing helped persuade Reagan to tap Bush as VP. Recall that in 2016, Trump first wanted his primary rival, moderate Gov. John Kasich who only carried his home state of Ohio, to be his running mate but Kasich rebuffed the overtures. Trump eventually settled on evangelical Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who had endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz, to shore up his weakness that year with churchgoing evangelicals.

It’s impossible to know whether  Trump would ask Haley to run and whether she would accept it. And it’s entirely possible that in a month the campaign will be so acrimonious that neither decision remains plausible. “It’s going to be a fight to the death,” a senior Haley campaign official told The Dispatch. That was before Trump shared a video in which a black man ridiculed the idea that Haley could have been teased as a child in South Carolina for being brown, and before Trump vowed that anyone donating to “Birdbrain” (aka Haley) would be “permanently barred from the MAGA camp.” Haley responded by selling T-shirts that read “BARRED. PERMANENTLY.” Haley’s campaign announced Thursday night it had raised $2.6 million in 48 hours since the New Hampshire primary.

But even if it’s unlikely, don’t think a Trump-Haley ticket is unthinkable. It’s still far more likely than Haley’s chances of actually being the GOP presidential nominee.

John McCormack is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was Washington correspondent at National Review and a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. When John is not reporting on politics and policy, he is probably enjoying life with his wife in northern Virginia or having fun visiting family in Wisconsin.