Nikki Haley can still beat Trump. Just not by winning the nomination

(JULIA NIKHINSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Nikki Haley can still beat Trump. Just not by winning the nomination

Opinion piece, Elections 2024

Francis Wilkinson

February 25, 2024

Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley reached a decision point after her loss in the New Hampshire Republican primary in January. She could follow the path of Senator Bernie Sanders


, the Democratic presidential candidate who sympathetically conceded to the eventual party nominee in 2020. Or she could follow the path of Senator Bernie Sanders, the Democratic presidential candidate who dogged the party’s nominee for months in 2016, hurting her, draining her resources and damaging, fatefully, her standing with the party base. Which one would Haley choose?

She had run in New Hampshire, delivering a complicated message in a race centered on Donald Trump and Trumpism. Her recent sharp attacks on Trump and her pledge to stay in the race even after her 20-point defeat to Trump in the South Carolina primary on Saturday suggest she has achieved greater clarity. For now, she’s choosing to take the less hospitable route, more Bernie 16 than 20.

That could be very bad news for Trump.

In 2020, Joe Biden won about 87% of Sanders supporters in November, according to estimates by political scientist John Sides of Vanderbilt University and two colleagues. In contrast, in 2016, only about 79% of Sanders supporters voted for Hillary Clinton in the general election. Worse, Sanders received a much larger share of the vote in 2016, more than four in ten, than in 2020. So Clinton’s deficit in November was even larger.

We found in 2016 that Sanders supporters had a less positive view of Clinton as the campaign progressed, Sides told me.

Any race involving Trump is sui generis. (White nationalist demagogues under multiple federal and state charges are cracking down on standard political models.) But it’s not hard to imagine that a miniature version of Bernie-mentum could prevail in the 2024 Republican presidential race. Haley gives anti-Trump -Republicans, including many women, a place to go. The question is whether she will accommodate enough of them, even after Trump is the party’s official nominee.

She’s not going to win the nomination. But she will pull in well over 20% in most primaries she is involved in, said Mike Madrid, a former political director of the Republican Party of California and an anti-Trump activist. If a significant minority of those Republican voters refuse to support Trump in general


, his path to victory is virtually impossible. He has a very hard ceiling, Madrid said. If Haley can move that ceiling down three or four points, it will be devastating.

Is that Haley’s goal? It is difficult to estimate. Haley eschews the Never Trump label, casting herself only as a truth-teller who fears Trump’s retaliation and has no desire to kiss the ring. Caught between the mutually loathsome camps of MAGA and Never Trump, however, she has found her own path. She is joined there by a consistent minority of the primary electorate, a community of exiles that translates into a political influence that no Trump supplicant can muster. It’s still possible that Haley could support Trump. But she would gain nothing and lose much by capitulating.

She could be the first Republican politician of this era to realize that with Trump in this arena, she has no future, Madrid said. If Trump wins, the next nominee will be Trump himself, or his son or daughter. He put his daughter-in-law in charge of the Republican National Committee.

The longer Haley stays here, the more she becomes a rallying point for Republicans who don’t want to be ruled by a degenerate cult. And the more Republicans become accustomed to opposing Trump, the more precarious his situation becomes. It might take a wave of Democratic voters to swamp Trump. But only a trick by the Republicans, while maintaining their support, can achieve a similar result.

Trump has become more authoritarian and vindictive, but he has not crushed resistance, even within the Republican Party. Donors have ignored his threats and continued to fund Haley with no real hope of victory. Recently in Washington, as Haley was losing her primary in her home state, pro-democracy conservatives gathered for the Principles First Summit, featuring an array of Never Trump stars. Last year the conference attracted approximately 400 visitors. This year, more than 700 people have registered. Former Republican Rep. Liz Cheney has given pro-Democratic conservatives a backbone. Now Haley is giving them an electoral vote.

Confronted with Haley’s intransigence, a Trump campaign official told Semafor’s David Weigel that MAGA’s march to victory would not be distracted by Haley’s delusions. It would indeed be delusional for Haley to believe she could get her hands on the Republican nomination for president. However, if the goal is to destroy Donald Trump and ward off the political pathologies he embodies, Haley appears to be on the right track.

Francis Wilkinson is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.



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