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Why Nikki Haley’s strategy still makes sense after Michigan and South Carolina

Nikki Haley speaks to supporters  (Getty Images)
Nikki Haley speaks to supporters (Getty Images)

The Republican primary now heads to Super Tuesday with one clear theme: Donald Trump is the party’s first choice for the 2024 general election, even if a majority of Americans look with dismay at the possibility of a rematch between him and Joe Biden.

So why is Nikki Haley, fresh off two latest defeats in Michigan and her home state of South Carolina, still in the race?

The answer can be found in this quote from her on Monday, when she appeared in Grand Rapids a day ahead of the state primary: “The Democrats, I fully believe, are going to have a younger candidate going into the general election.”

That’s probably the clearest view of the Haley campaign strategy going forward: the idea that the primaries matter only so long as the frontrunners themselves remain physically (or financially) capable of remaining candidates for the presidency. And Nikki Haley is leaning on the conspiratorial strain of American political thinking that says neither Donald Trump or Joe Biden will be their respective parties’ nominees this fall.

Why Haley still sees a path to victory

Ms Haley is clearly banking on something knocking Donald Trump out of the presidential race, and doing so within the next few months. After South Carolina, it appears increasingly obvious that it won’t be the persistent criticism she has leveled at him for weeks at events across the country. His legal issues are the next most obvious threat, especially if he loses appeal on the civil judgements against him in New York. Those two trials ended in a combined $438m in judgements against him.

It’s still a gamble, and it may end up being a bad one if the RNC ends up keeping Mr Trump afloat through the end of the primary. But there is a window here for money problems to force the former president out of the race through attrition if his donations truly begin drying up.

The former president’s already staggering legal fees will continue to mount over the spring and summer, sapping funds the campaign desperately needs to remain competitive by November. Last year, they ate up a quarter of his total funds raised over 12 months.

That problem is already becoming obvious. The Trump campaign trailed the incumbent president’s in cash-on-hand at the end of January, according to FEC filings, and a debate is already playing out over a draft resolution at the RNC that would block the party from being used to contribute to his legal fees. The resolution comes just as the former president is backing his daughter-in-law Lara Trump for the RNC’s top job. His fundraising numbers have also dropped,

The criminal charges themselves present a whole host of other issues for the former president as his campaign heads into the spring and summer. They will tie Mr Trump up in court for days if not weeks at a time, though he has angrily vowed to rally supporters at night. They will also contribute to his public perception, however, which is something that will be harder to overcome. Increasingly, polling shows that voters are souring on the idea of supporting an accused criminal for the White House, and many say that they will not vote for him in November if he is convicted of a crime.

Setting herself up for the convention

The former president’s departure from the race before the Republican convention remains a distinctly unlikely possibility, especially if the RNC relents and serves as the president’s piggybank through the spring. But assuming for the sake of argument that all of these simmering pressures do boil over before July, then a massive power vacuum left by Mr Trump’s departure would make Ms Haley the frontrunner for the nomination if she is able to amass enough delegates to control a considerable power base for the convention. It wouldn’t be a certainty: Mr Trump and his allies would likely amass support for a Maga-alternative to block Ms Haley from clinching the nomination. But she’d certainly be in a better position than any of her now-fallen rivals, most notably Ron DeSantis. Even if her bet doesn’t pay off, and Ms Haley loses the nomination to Mr Trump or another Republican, the national prominence she will gain from sticking it out to the convention will eclipse that won by her rivals whose campaigns didn’t make it past Iowa.

The real question for Ms Haley will be whether her campaign can continue chugging along until July and remain relevant enough to be that viable runner-up should something end Mr Trump’s campaign prematurely. There are signs of her coalition weakening already: the powerful Koch network, fronted by Americans for Prosperity, announced after South Carolina that it would no longer financially back Ms Haley for president. There haven’t been any other high-profile defections just yet, but that trend could continue were she to suffer a humilating sweep on Super Tuesday, for example.

To this note: she does need to start winning some states; donors will quickly sour on her campaign if it continues to suffer embarrassing defeats like her loss to “none of these candidates” in Nevada. If Ms Haley wants to make the argument for delegates to join her faction at the GOP convention, it will help immensely if she can point to a head-to-head contest with Donald Trump where she actually comes out the victor.