How Nikki Haley Can Win Super Tuesday Without Winning Anything

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

Nikki Haley might not win a single one of the 16 primary contests unfolding on Super Tuesday.

But at this stage of the 2024 primary campaign, Haley may not need to win a contest in order to make point she is increasingly content arguing as Donald Trump moves closer to winning the GOP nomination.

As long as Haley is competing and demonstrating the support of GOP voters, she is proving that her party is not entirely in Trump’s control and that there is a future for it after him—one, perhaps, that is led by Haley herself.

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Publicly, Haley doesn’t talk much about 2028, or about the possibility that her delegates could prove valuable if Trump’s legal entanglements render him a non-viable candidate in the general election. In fact, she has pushed back against the notion she is looking toward her political future by remaining in the race.

Instead, Haley has insisted on a simple justification for her decision to keep campaigning. “The reason I’m running is because I think that Americans deserve a choice,” Haley said last Wednesday in Utah.

But the candidate has been far more ambiguous when it comes to assessing her own performance.

“Our goal has always been to stay competitive,” Haley said on Fox News during a Monday interview. “And as long as we’re competitive, we’re gonna keep on running through the tape.”

Still, there are clear benchmarks for Haley on Super Tuesday, Republican strategists told The Daily Beast.

Earning around 30 to 40 percent of the vote—roughly in line with her best performances so far—should be Haley’s target in most states, the strategists said.

Alex Conant, who served as a top staffer to Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign, said it’s “unlikely” Haley wins any contests. “If she continues to get 30 to 40 percent of the vote, she’s not gonna be the nominee, but she’s making a point,” he said.

“The only reason for her to stay in right now is to demonstrate that a lot of Republicans don’t want Trump to be the nominee,” Conant continued. “As long as that argument holds through the results, I’ll expect she’ll stay in.”

Given how Haley has raised healthy sums of campaign cash even as her prospects for the nomination dim, GOP sources expect she’ll continue to tap into a network of Trump-skeptical donors so long as she keeps making her point on Super Tuesday and beyond. Haley’s campaign said they received $12 million in donations over the month of February.

A source close to the Haley campaign in the fundraising world said the sentiment among Haley donors remains high. “I think she’s gonna keep the lights on,” the Haley supporter said, referencing private conversations with members of Haley’s team.

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Under conventional circumstances, Haley might be desperate for a win to sustain her campaign going—or would have already dropped out by now. But with Republicans on the cusp of nominating a man charged with 91 felonies and grappling with a $464 million civil fraud judgment, the circumstances are hardly conventional.

While Haley’s Super Tuesday outlook might look bleak—and chances of a Trump criminal verdict before the November election fading—this stretch of the campaign could end up a key part of her long-term efforts to spin a victory.

Lee Carter, a former Republican messaging adviser, likened Haley’s challenge to “putting lipstick on a pig,” but noted that her campaign could come across far differently in the future.

“Today, anything she says is gonna sound meaningless,” Carter told The Daily Beast. “But I think it’s more about how the tape is gonna be played in 2028 if Trump loses. And if Trump loses, or is convicted for something, she can say she was a fighter for the American people.”

Republicans in some of the most delegate-rich states on the primary calendar—like Texas, California, North Carolina, and Virginia— will be casting their votes on Tuesday, which should significantly boost Haley’s currently meager total of 43 delegates. (She won the District of Columbia and its 19 delegates, her only outright victory so far, over the weekend.)

Trump, who has 244 of the 1,215 delegates he needs to win the nomination, will not make up the difference on Super Tuesday, but he could come close. By March 19, when Florida, Arizona, and Ohio vote, he will have easily mathematically clinched the nomination.

With the clock ticking, some observers are wondering what exactly Haley’s endgame is.

“What is the goal?” said Steve Schmidt, the ex-Republican strategist who most recently advised Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) in his longshot primary challenge to President Joe Biden.

“Is she trying to build a blocking force of 40 percent in the GOP?” Schmidt asked. “Is she trying to build a coalition between conservatives and fascists? Or conservatives who believe in democracy and liberals who believe in democracy?”

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Schmidt, who served as a top adviser to the late Sen. John McCain’s 2008 campaign, said it’s not surprising Haley’s supporters have held out hope that Trump might somehow disappear from the 2024 fray.

“In every political campaign that I’ve ever been involved in where you’re in an underdog position, the more difficult the circumstance, the greater the faith is in the magic bullet—the event—the thing that everyone talks about that is lurking out there about to be discovered,” Schmidt said. “Every race has one.”

Haley’s continued strength among GOP donors, Schmidt said, is more a sign of deep-pocketed conservatives being out of touch with how campaigns work in the modern era. “I just think that there’s a tendency among the donors to believe this is a football game,” Schmidt said, “and the game started when New Hampshire began as opposed to when it ended.”

Instead, Schmidt explained, those early contests are “climactic events,” and the year before voting starts is the true beginning where candidates can make a quality first impression to set themselves up for success.

For those who’ve lost to Trump before, like Conant, Haley’s final push may come across as futile.

Still, there are significant general election implications when it comes to where Haley does well on Tuesday, Conant argued. Suburban counties with higher levels of college educated and high-earning voters, such as Michigan’s Oakland County or her home state’s Charleston County, are where Haley can do the most damage to Trump.

Conant also pointed out those were the same areas his candidate, Rubio, performed well in 2016. Both the Haley and Trump campaigns—and likely Biden’s, too—will be closely watching how Haley performs on Tuesday in places like suburban North Carolina and Texas.

But Haley’s persistence may not matter as much as political operatives would like to think come November.

“I don’t think this hurts Trump any more than Hillary Clinton staying in through all 50 states hurt Obama in 2008,” Conant said. “I think headlines about Trump winning is good for Trump, and in real life, the election is far away.”

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