Unlikely coalition of Mormons, Democrats and Never-Trumpers fight to keep Nikki Haley in the race

Nikki Haley holds a campaign rally in Richmond ahead of Super Tuesday on March 5
Nikki Haley holds a campaign rally in Richmond ahead of Super Tuesday on March 5 - MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTOCK

Sheryl Crow’s “Woman In The White House” floats through the hotel ballroom as Nikki Haley’s supporters queue for selfies with the 52-year-old in Richmond, Virginia.

If the long-shot Republican presidential candidate is engaging in some subliminal messaging, it seems optimistic to say the least.

Donald Trump has racked up a string of consecutive wins over the former UN ambassador on his march toward securing the party’s nomination.

He shows no signs of stopping ahead of March 5 – so-called “Super Tuesday” – when more than a third of the delegates that make up the grand prize are up for grabs.

But the packed ballroom of Haley supporters here in Richmond on a Thursday afternoon don’t seem to care about this seemingly irrefutable political arithmetic.

Come what may, this unlikely coalition of Democrats, independents and Republican “Never-Trumpers” are determined to voice their opposition to a choice between two geriatric candidates.

At 74, Virginia resident Toni Ferguson believes that Mr Trump, 77, and Joe Biden, 81, are simply “too old” to lead the Free World.

Ms Ferguson is a Democrat, and voted for Mr Biden in 2020. But she is interested to hear what Ms Haley has to say. “I just want another option,” she said.

Meanwhile, Freda Rosso, a 62-year-old project manager and lifelong Republican, said she will not be voting for Mr Trump or Mr Biden under any circumstances.

She thinks Ms Haley should stay in the race to give the country a third option over an inevitable rerun between the two men – “neither of whom we have a lot of confidence in”.

Ms Rosso still hopes Ms Haley can carry Virginia, and perhaps swing “some other states”.

“At a minimum,” she says, it will “send a message”.

There are loud cheers from the crowd as Ms Haley takes to the stage, dressed in a teal coat, to argue her race is not yet done.

“Let the last couple of months be our judge,” she says, a grin spreading across her face. “It’s been a roller coaster ride. We had 14 men in the race... I just got one more. I gotta catch up.”

Super Tuesday offers a final opportunity to do so. Virginia is among 11 of the 15 states and territories casting ballots in the GOP primary on Tuesday which allow non-Republicans to vote.

The Haley campaign still believes this offers a tentative route – however complex and unlikely – to stay in the race.

To do so, they are relying on an unlikely coalition of independent and Democratic voters, as well as Republicans who oppose Mr Trump.

Virginia, a state which in many ways reflects the diversities of the general electorate, is a desirable target for Ms Haley.

Prof Larry Sabato, president of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said: “The Republicans there in large, populous suburban areas are mainstream, old Republican types.”

“They’re not part of the pro-Putin wing of the new Republican Party and they aren’t particularly pro-Trump.

“Most of them have not voted for him, or voted for him very reluctantly, in the past.”

Nikki Haley meets the voters after speaking at  a campaign event in Richmond, Virginia
Nikki Haley meets the voters after speaking at a campaign event in Richmond, Virginia - JAY PAUL/REUTERS

Virginia borders Washington DC, and its northern counties on the outskirts of the US capital are some of the wealthiest in the country.

They are also home to voters with high-education rates – Ms Haley’s only consistently strong support base – and equally high anti-Trump sentiment.

However, parts of the state, particularly the south west, remain staunchly pro-Trump and polls show he commands a decisive lead.

The former president was also due to head to Virginia’s capital, Richmond, on Saturday for a get-out-the-vote rally.

As well as targeting Virginia and its 48 delegates, Ms Haley is targeting other states with a large proportion of moderates.

Minnesota, Colorado, and North Carolina all feature on her last-dash tour.

Ms Haley has even travelled out to Utah, a deeply conservative state, but whose large Mormon population strongly opposed Mr Trump in 2016.

“There was tremendous resistance to Trump in Utah,” explains Prof Sabato, “because of the lifestyle that he had lived and the lack of truthfulness on his part, and so on”.

However, he noted Mr Trump did “considerably better” in the state in 2020, benefiting from the incumbency of the White House.

He suggests Ms Haley is banking on support from what he terms Utah’s “Romney Republicans”, in the vein of the state’s senator Mitt Romney, a leader of the anti-Trump wing of the GOP.

“To me it’s a long shot, but it’s possible,” Prof Sabato adds.

On Saturday and Sunday, Ms Haley will travel through Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts, more moderate-leaning states which all allow independents to vote on Super Tuesday.

To be competitive, Ms Haley will need a strong turnout among the voting blocs where Mr Trump is weakest: in large suburban counties, with a mix of educated and wealthy voters.

However, Prof Sabato was pessimistic about her chances. “What’s there to vote for?” he said, noting the race was “essentially over”.

Despite that undeniable logic, Ms Haley has continued to fight on. Speculation is rife over Ms Haley’s motivations for doing so.

Rob Godfrey, a senior aide to Ms Haley while she was South Carolina governor, said: “Conventional wisdom has been this is a campaign that one candidate was always going to end up winning.”

“Anyone who knows Nikki Haley knows that you should never view her within the prism of conventional wisdom.

“She is all about the fight. She’s all about the cause.”

He added: “I think that’s what has motivated her from the start, and that’s what’s kept her in the race.”

Remaining in the race will undoubtedly raise her profile ahead of a potential second run in 2028, but some theorise Ms Haley may even be considering a third-party run this year.

Others speculate that continuing to rack up GOP delegates would put her in a strong position as an alternative candidate should Mr Trump find himself convicted on one or more of his 91 criminal counts before November.

Jeff Shutterly, 38-year-old attorney, said: “I don’t think she’s a dumb woman. I think she knows the math is not there [for Tuesday].”

“So I feel that she’s gambling there’ll be a vacuum in November, and if she’s the only one that was willing to stand up that she’s going to be the natural one to step in.”

Despite her long odds, almost 2,000 supporters came to hear Ms Haley speak at her stops in Virginia, according to her campaign.

Money has continued to pour in too: she reported raising $1million (£790,000) the night of her humiliating defeat to Mr Trump in her home state of South Carolina, although one major donor has pulled the plug.

Her campaign advisers say her determination to stay in the race is motivated by a desire to demonstrate that the Republican Party has not been wholly subsumed by Mr Trump.

They argue her ability to continue to draw a significant minority of the party base, despite Mr Trump’s frontrunner status, highlights his deep vulnerabilities among the general electorate.

On stage in Richmond, Ms Haley continues to hammer that message.

“We all need to acknowledge that all we have done under Donald Trump is lose,” she told the crowd. “This is about where exactly is the Republican Party gonna go?”

“If you keep going in this fight, I promise you our best days are yet to come,” she concluded, before stepping off stage and into the crowd as Crow’s “Woman in the White House” starts up.