Trump has consistently defeated Haley, but she has every reason to persist

Her perseverance has become less about winning the nomination, and more about providing a political address for Republican voters uncomfortable with Trump

Nikki Haley says that the 40 per cent of votes she has received in South Carolina isn't "a tiny group", and that "huge numbers" of Republicans don't support Donald Trump. AP
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The Republican primaries appear to be already over. On Saturday, Donald Trump defeated Nikki Haley by about 20 points in South Carolina, where she had been a popular governor. Ms Haley has vowed to press on into Michigan and the primary bonanza on “Super Tuesday", on March 5. But her practical chances of winning the nomination seemed done, and the billionaire Koch network has suspended its support.

On paper, her performance is underwhelming. She came in third in Iowa, lost in New Hampshire and now South Carolina, and in a Nevada primary that lacked Mr Trump's participation "none of the above" beat her by more than 30 points.

Focus group research suggests that Mr Trump's voters are angry she's challenging him and, increasingly, questioning his conduct. Many appear to equate criticism of him with disloyalty to the party and even country. Yet it's precisely Ms Haley's rejection of this personality cult that gives her real significance for the country and party.

Trump has angrily vented his frustration with Haley, but she insists there's 'no need to kiss the ring' or fear his 'retribution'

Republicans, she insists, "have the right to a real choice, not a Soviet-style election with only one candidate". Except, they seem to want only one candidate, and are outraged when he's seriously interrogated. Her mere presence problematises and complicates the widespread impulse to fall into lockstep.

Her policies don't differ much from his, except on US international leadership and support for Ukraine. She agrees with President Joe Biden and most Democrats on the imperative of supporting Kyiv’s struggle against Russia's war. That puts her at odds with the effectively pro-Russia policies of Mr Trump and, following his lead, many Republicans in Congress. This extends to Nato, which she strongly supports but he treats like a gangland protection racket rather than one of the most successful military and strategic alliances in history.

Her more forthright criticism of him has been late in coming, and didn't begin in earnest until her chances of winning the nomination became scant. As long as she had plausible hope, she wasn't prepared to alienate his followers. Principles, as ever, waited upon ambition.

So, her perseverance has increasingly become less about policies or even winning the nomination, and more about providing a political address for Republican voters highly uncomfortable with Mr Trump. She correctly observed that the 40 per cent of votes she received in South Carolina last Saturday isn't "a tiny group", and that "huge numbers" of Republicans don't support the former president.

Her campaign is exposing and, to some extent even creating, serious divisions in a party that must be united and disciplined if Mr Trump is to dislodge Mr Biden in November. Mr Trump – who cannot abide being boldly challenged, particularly by a non-white woman – has been highly antagonistic to Ms Haley and vows to excommunicate her supporters. It's not exactly a welcoming "big tent" appeal.

Yet her campaign indeed demonstrates that, to prevail in November, he must win over traditional and moderate conservatives, even if they cannot stop or slow his march towards the Republican nomination.

She's clearly trying to position herself as the leader of a post-Trump Republican party if he goes down to defeat again in November. Apart from his victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016, as Ms Haley frequently notes, Mr Trump and his faction have had an unbroken losing streak at the polls, including in 2018, 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023. It just happened again, in a special election in a normally Republican-held seat in Long Island formerly occupied by disgraced Republican congressman and conman George Santos.

Ms Haley is asking Republicans if they are finally "sick of all this winning", as Mr Trump assured them they would become under his leadership. Without invoking Mr Trump's alleged criminality, or his legally established responsibility for huge fraud and the sexual abuse and repeated defamation of writer E Jean Carroll, both in New York, she's asking Republicans to recognise that no matter how much they may love the former president, he really isn't likely to be an appealing candidate for the suburban and swing voters in a handful of competitive states that decide presidential elections.

Mr Trump has angrily vented his frustration with her, but she insists there's "no need to kiss the ring" or fear his "retribution". Still, many prominent Republicans are increasingly pressuring her to drop out and endorse him so Mr Trump can lead an apparently united party into its convention. Her point, though, is that there is a significant subset of Republicans that truly do not like Mr Trump and may or may not reconcile themselves to voting for him in the fall.

She's positioning herself to take over should anything dramatic happen to Mr Trump before November or if he loses to Mr Biden, so it's wise to offer herself as an alternative as loudly and long as possible. Since her very presence and perseverance provoke Mr Trump to lash out at her and her supporters as irrelevant, undeserving and non-Republican, he is consistently making her points.

When the primary is technically over, to protect her chances of future party leadership, she'll likely offer him a pro forma endorsement. Her ambitions may not survive Mr Trump's re-election. But the case she's making now will echo resoundingly if he loses again in November.

Mr Trump's legal woes are rapidly intensifying. Regarding his 91 criminal charges, his strategy appears to be delaying trials and securing re-election more than securing acquittals. He's counting on the electorate as an ultimate de facto jury, and then claiming that everything has been adjudicated by his re-election which supersedes mere trials.

Yet he now owes New York over $454 million, plus $112,000 daily extra that's accumulating in interest. He must pay another $83.3 million to the writer he sexually abused and repeatedly defamed. Securing enough cash to cover a bond for these debts will badly stretch his liquid finances (most of his wealth being tied up in real estate).

Meanwhile, Mr Biden has $132 million already raised for the election, with Mr Trump at just $36.6 million. He recently installed his daughter-in-law, Lara, as co-chair of the Republican National Committee, and she's already insisting that voters want the party to divert campaign funds pay his legal bills. Ms Haley might want to comment on that, repeatedly, before she's through.

Ms Haley has every reason to persist despite her consistent defeats, since she's gambling that Mr Trump won't win in November. And Mr Biden must be delighted that he'll be facing Mr Trump rather than her.

Published: February 26, 2024, 2:30 PM
Updated: March 06, 2024, 11:27 AM