Nikki Haley isn’t going anywhere.
At least, that’s the message her campaign is trying to get across this week as February begins and the battle for her home state of South Carolina ramps up.
Still trailing Donald Trump by a hefty margin in all national polling and most surveys of upcoming primary states, the former governor and UN ambassador is battling a perception that was born months before Iowa and New Hampshire voted: the idea that the race is over.
That idea became reality for many Republicans, particularly in Washington, after Mr Trump’s twin victories in the first two states of 2024. But Ms Haley is holding on like a barnacle, clinging to an 11-point margin of defeat in New Hampshire and her belief that she can close that gap even further in a state where she was governor for eight years.
As New Hampshire’s results came in last month, the Haley campaign insisted that their candidate would remain in the race through March. South Carolina, her advisers argued, presented a good opportunity for a resurgence against Mr Trump. Super Tuesday, they went on to insist, also represented favourable territory thanks to the ability of independent voters to participate in some state contests. Those independents broke heavily for Ms Haley in New Hampshire, and may represent her best shot at building a support base to rival Mr Trump’s.
It remains to be seen whether any of that will come to pass. But this week, the Haley campaign has begun showing some signs which indicate that her promise to remain in the race through the next month or two may be more than bluster.
On Sunday, a Haley campaign press advisory announced her first campaign stop in one of the Super Tuesday states — California. She’ll host a rally in Los Angeles this Tuesday as Ms Haley presses Donald Trump on attending a debate, and sharpens her attacks around the issue of his skyrocketing legal fees (which he is paying with campaign donations). A Monday morning memo from campaign manager Betsy Ankey noted those plans, while reminding reporters that “11 of the 16 Super Tuesday states have open or semi-open primaries.”
Ms Ankey also noted in her memo that the Haley campaign had just notched its best fundraising month yet — hardly surprising, given that she is now the last Trump-alternative standing — but still a sign that donors are not being scared away by the former president winning more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first contest.
The memo also signalled a clear shift in messaging around the issue of Mr Trump’s legal fees. While Republicans (including Ms Haley) have shied away from making the case that the frontrunner is unfit for office or unelectable due to the alleged actions leading to his four criminal prosecutions, Ms Haley has in recent days deployed a stronger tone of criticism around the massive financial drain her ex-boss’s legal issues represent.
In a Saturday Night Live appearance over the weekend, Ms Haley had a chance to show her comedic timing (and willingness to take a joke) as she starred in the show’s cold open and mocked her opponent for spending $50m to fund his various legal defences. Snidely, she asked Trump-impersonator James Austin Johnson if he’d like to borrow some cash.
Her campaign manager on Monday drove that point home: Mr Trump, argued Ms Ankey, represents not just a dampening effect for Republicans down the ballot but also an inescapable money pit where donations pour in but never seem to make their way to GOP causes.
“Anyone who has seen a shred of credible data, who has been paying attention for the last eight years, or frankly has two eyes in their head knows that Nikki is the stronger general election candidate,” she wrote. “[W]hile Trump is spending $50 million on personal legal fees, [President Joe] Biden just booked five times that amount – $250 million – on air…The only way Republicans will get back to winning is if Nikki Haley is the nominee.”
Two and a half weeks away, South Carolina’s primary represents not only Nikki Haley’s best opportunity but also her greatest potential pitfall. An open primary state, it will be the second arena where she will theoretically be able to bolster her support within the GOP base by adding independent voters to the coalition. At the same time, however, the state does not have the same kind of tradition of independence from the two parties as New Hampshire does; just around 10.4 per cent of South Carolina’s electorate is unaffiliated with a major party, compared to closer to 40 per cent in New Hampshire.
If Ms Haley wants to remain a competitive candidate on Super Tuesday, she needs a convincing showing of some kind in South Carolina. And it’s clear that doing so will require Ms Haley to gain greater traction among Republican voters than she has so far.
The one time governor believes that making the case to voters that Mr Trump is a loser, legally and politically speaking, will bridge that gap. But she has only two weeks to do it, and will first have to overcome one, very difficult counterpoint: he may have already won.