OPINION - Nikki Haley is holding on because she may be able to beat Donald Trump by default


Nevertheless, as the saying goes, she persisted. Today, Nikki Haley will almost certainly be trounced by Donald Trump in the Michigan primary for the Republican party presidential nomination, where she trails him in opinion polls by more than 50 per cent.

On Saturday, she lost in her home state of South Carolina — where she was governor for six years — following earlier defeats in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada (where Trump didn’t even bother to compete and she was beaten by “none of these candidates”).

Yet Haley has promised that she will still be in the race on Super Tuesday — a week today — when 13 states will hold primaries and two others plus the American Samoa territory conduct caucuses. Why does she so stubbornly persevere, against the odds? Two things have already become clear on the campaign trail.

The first is that Trump is indisputably, extraordinarily, on course to be his party’s presidential candidate in November. The majority of Republicans want a populist, “America First” nationalist, not a contender like Haley whom they regard as an establishment figure: fiscally conservative, supportive of US aid to Ukraine, unimpressed by the showbusiness and chaos that are Trump’s trademark.

The second is that a significant minority of Republican voters are made anxious by the prospect of his candidacy. In Iowa, 49 per cent voted against him; 45 per cent in New Hampshire; 40 per cent in South Carolina.

The polls show that Trump’s electoral support would dip if he was found guilty of a felony in one of the cases

According to one Republican strategist, Haley’s refusal thus far to withdraw from the race resembles Muhammad Ali’s legendary “rope-a-dope” strategy against George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” 50 years ago. For seven rounds, Ali took every punch that Foreman could throw — and then, when his opponent was exhausted, knocked him out in the eighth.

In this entirely hypothetical situation, the equivalent to Foreman’s exhaustion would be Trump’s conviction on a felony charge (of which he faces no fewer than 91). To date, the former president has turned these indictments conspicuously to his advantage — misrepresenting them as systematic persecution by Joe Biden’s supposedly “weaponised” justice department, a symbol of the liberal elite’s alleged loathing of the Maga tribe. He has been quite open that his courtroom appearances are “part of the [presidential] campaign”.

But what if he is actually found guilty of a crime? The juries in the civil cases involving his defamation of the journalist E. Jean Carroll didn’t like Trump one bit — the second awarding her a whopping $83.3 million in damages. Who is to say how he will fare in a criminal courtroom? In the upside-down world of the new politics, it is not certain — perhaps not even probable — that a felony conviction would panic the Republican party. But it might.

The polls show clearly that Trump’s electoral support would dip if he was found guilty in one of the cases — the first to begin is likely to be the hush-money Stormy Daniels trial in New York on March 25. According to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll published on February 7, Joe Biden would open up a six-point lead over Trump if the latter was convicted on criminal charges. Perhaps more significantly, a Bloomberg News survey last month found that more than half of swing-state voters would not vote for him if he was found guilty.

What if, in such circumstances, the Republican oligarchy was suddenly seized by alarm and turned against Trump? His foot-soldiers would resist furiously and might well prevail in keeping their martyred idol on the ticket. But if they failed, Haley would be in a strong position to claim the candidacy, having stuck it out while Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott withdrew and dutifully “kissed the ring”.

Biden is 81, and Trump is 77. Haley is only 52. That matters in a race increasingly dominated by the question of age. So does the finding of most polls that Haley would beat Biden — by a margin of 16 points, according to one survey published last week. That rather important detail has not penetrated the Maga cult of personality that distorts reality to fit its devotion to Trump. But it might count for a great deal if he is driven out of the race.

True, it’s all a Hail Mary pass. But it could also, conceivably, be a path to the White House. What has she got to lose?

Matthew d’Ancona is an Evening Standard columnist