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Nikki Haley is not fighting this primary – she’s fighting the next one

Haley has only won Washington DC so far
Haley has only won Washington DC so far - Reuters

As Republicans in 15 states go to the polls on Tuesday to vote for their preferred nominee to battle Joe Biden, there is little doubt about what the results will be.

Donald Trump has run a formidable campaign, winning all but one of this year’s primaries and losing to Nikki Haley only in Washington DC, where just 2,000 GOP members voted.

In all of the Super Tuesday states, Mr Trump has an unassailable lead. In California, which will allocate the largest chunk of delegates in this contest, he is ahead by more than 50 points, and he holds a lead of 40 points or more in North Carolina, Texas and Tennessee.

According to the latest estimates, Mr Trump is likely to have secured enough delegates to win the nomination outright by the end of this month. A Haley victory is mathematically possible but vanishingly unlikely.

But despite Mr Trump’s success, Ms Haley has baffled pundits by refusing to drop out of the race.

Nikki Haley at a rally in Fort Worth, Texas
Nikki Haley at a rally in Fort Worth, Texas - Shutterstock

After losing South Carolina, the former governor said she would remain on the ballot to provide a “real choice” to Republican voters on Super Tuesday and avoid a “Soviet-style” coronation.

In a recent interview, she added that she was not running for her “political career” but “my kids and all your kids and grandkids”, and that her campaign was about the “direction” of the party. Donations have continued to pour in.

Ms Haley’s statements in the face of almost certain defeat give some indication of her game plan.

By remaining in the race for so long, she has increased her name recognition among voters, proven she has the support of a significant minority of the party and spent time on the campaign trail explaining her vision for the GOP.

Thousands of voters – many hostile to Mr Trump – have turned out to listen to her at rallies around the country.

Although it will fail to win her the nomination, this campaign could allow Ms Haley to become the frontrunner to replace Mr Trump – who cannot serve a third time – if he wins office in November.

Ms Haley is unlikely to win a primary outright on Tuesday, but there are some states where she could pull off some interesting results.

In Colorado, for instance, there have been no polls for months and the population has a relatively small proportion of white evangelical voters, who typically support Mr Trump.

In Virginia, there is a high proportion of university-educated voters, who are generally more likely to back Ms Haley, while Utah has a large population of Mormons who are concerned about Mr Trump’s lifestyle choices.

Tiny Vermont and its neighbour Massachusetts, both of which have educated electorates and few evangelicals, also have open or partially open primaries that will allow Ms Haley to pick up votes from Democrats or non-affiliated voters.

A good performance of more than 35 per cent of the vote in six or seven states would allow her to continue making the argument that she is the best non-MAGA politician in the GOP.

She could then begin the post-Trump campaign on day one of the next administration, having become the face of the establishment wing of the party that has so far spent seven years out in the cold.

As it stands, Ms Haley’s underwhelming performance in potentially friendly states like New Hampshire and South Carolina has not made this strategy very plausible.

If she has any chance of becoming the next leader, Ms Haley must show she has the support of a serious chunk of the party in many states – and Super Tuesday might be her last chance to do that.

In short, the best time for Ms Haley to start building political momentum was six weeks ago. The second best time is now.