Should Nikki Haley stay in or drop out of GOP primary?

As of this writing, with almost 92 percent of the votes counted, Donald Trump has won a solid victory in the New Hampshire Republican primary, taking 54.5 percent of the vote to Nikki Haley’s 43.2 percent. If the GOP primary were an Olympic sport, the judges would have to give Haley points for high degree of difficulty in what she’s attempting. She’s trying to win the Republican nomination with a base of support of people who formally or informally left the party during the Trump years, and who may or may not be interested in coming back.

Today, we examine the arguments for Haley dropping out soon or before the South Carolina Republican primary, and the arguments for Haley staying in — perhaps all the way to the convention. 

Reasons Nikki Haley should withdraw from the race

She’s not going to win. The odds that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee in 2024 were always high, and Iowa and New Hampshire just confirmed it. There will be no early defeat of Trump that resets expectations for the race and sets off some preference cascade among Republican primary voters. You can’t win the nomination by stringing together a bunch of second-place finishes, no matter how much you beat expectations. Haley’s not running against expectations, she’s running against Trump.

Most of Trump’s trials won’t get formally started for a while, and they won’t be decided until much later this year, after most of the primaries have been held. I do not put much stock in the idea that a criminal conviction of Trump would prompt grassroots Republicans to abandon him and look around for other options. A conviction will probably just make the MAGA base love him even more, providing further evidence of how the sinister deep state is out to get him..

People can fairly ask, “If you’re running for president and you have no conceivable path to winning the nomination, what is the point?”

Either there is no state that’s likely to be better for Haley than New Hampshire, or only a few are comparable. Haley spent the most time in New Hampshire, and she spent the most money there. (Between her campaign and supportive outside groups, more than $31 million has been spent on pro-Haley advertising in New Hampshire, $12 million since the beginning of the year.) The state’s governor, Chris Sununu, campaigned with her so much you might think they were a presidential-ticket-in-waiting. And she fell short by about eleven percentage points.

She’s extremely likely to lose her home state. No one has polled South Carolina since Ron DeSantis dropped out, but the most recent Emerson poll had Trump at 54 percent to Haley’s 25 percent. That poll had DeSantis at 7 percent, Chris Christie at 5 percent, and Vivek Ramaswamy at 3 percent. There’s no law that says you must end your campaign when you lose your home state, but . . . it’s pretty embarrassing when it happens. These are the voters who know you best.

She’s doing particularly poorly among those who identify as Republicans. Winning votes among Republicans is sort of a big deal in a Republican presidential primary. Among those who self-identified as Republicans in the New Hampshire exit poll, Trump won, 74 percent to 25 percent. (As noted earlier this week, any New Hampshire registered Democrats who wanted to vote in the Republican presidential primary had to change their party registration before October 6, 2023. But the state has a lot of unaffiliated voters, and they were able to vote in yesterday’s primary. Only 6 percent of respondents to the exit poll said they self-identified as Democrats; Haley won 88 percent of them to Trump’s 6 percent. Forty-three percent of respondents identified as independents; Haley won those, 60 percent to 38 percent.)

Some of this may well reflect the fact that with the rise of Trump, people who don’t like him and his antics stopped identifying as Republicans and may have changed their party registration. But this amounts to Haley attempting to win the Republican nomination with a base of support of people who formally or informally left the party, and who may or may not be interested in coming back.

The front-runner is a vengeful rage-aholic who loathes her, carries grudges, and is explicitly running on a campaign theme of retribution. Last night, Trump effectively won the nomination. But instead of celebrating in his victory speech, Trump raged and fumed, made fun of Haley’s dress, suggested that Governor Sununu is on drugs, and insisted that he had won the state twice in both primaries and the general election (Hillary Clinton won the state in 2016, Biden won it in 2020). Trump is going to be hell-bent on making Haley’s life miserable every moment she remains in this race. Haley will have to ask herself whether the lasting enmity of a man who may well be in the Oval Office a year from now is worth it.

Reasons Nikki Haley should stay in the race

Because the rest of the country’s Republicans deserve a choice too. The Republicans who don’t want Donald Trump are a minority, but they are a large minority. In Iowa, they amounted to 49 percent of those who participated in the Republican caucus. As of this hour, they appear to amount to about 45 percent of those who participated in the New Hampshire Republican primary, where turnout appears to be a record. Turnout surpassed 300,000; the previous record on the Republican side was more than 287,000 voters in 2016; the Democrats’ 2020 primary attracted 296,000 voters.

There are a lot of Republicans who want to have an option to say, “No, Trump is not the right direction for this party,” and they deserve to have an opportunity to have their voices heard. If Haley drops out, very few Republicans will bother to participate in the remaining primaries and caucuses.

There are 48 states that have not yet voted in this presidential primary. There are 2,429 total delegates, and a candidate needs 1,215 to win the nomination. Right now, Trump has 32 delegates, Haley has 18 delegates, DeSantis has nine, and Ramaswamy has three. Last night, Trump finished with only two more delegates than Haley.

Yes, I wrote a few paragraphs ago, “You can’t win the nomination by stringing together a bunch of second-place finishes.” But Haley could accumulate 30 to 40 percent of the delegates to the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, which is a heck of a lot of leverage. She could conceivably force Trump to select her as his running mate, to unify the party. And she is proving to the party and the country that she can attract the support of voters that Trump cannot.

Her allies don’t sound like they want to quit, and they’ll make sure she has the resources. Last night, Americans for Prosperity Action senior adviser Emily Seidel declared in a statement:

Our teams will continue talking to South Carolina voters in support of Nikki Haley. We are laser focused on electing the candidates who can be the firewall preventing one party progressive rule of the federal government. We have three ways to win: the Senate, the House, and the presidential primary. Through our multi-pronged effort we are prepared to get this done.

(Then again, lately we’ve heard a lot of talk about candidates fighting on after a setback, followed by abrupt announcements that they are suspending their campaigns.)

Haley can appeal to crossover voters in South Carolina. Haley’s home state does not have registration by party, so the presidential primaries are open to all registered voters. A voter just shows up at the polling place and asks for a Republican ballot or a Democratic ballot. With no competitive race on the Democratic side, South Carolina independents and Democrats could vote for Haley in significant numbers.

(For those wondering about Nevada, it’s holding both a Republican primary and a Republican caucus. Haley’s registered for the primary but not the caucus, Trump is registered for the caucus, and the whole thing sounds like a mess. Jon Ralston likes to say of his home state, “We matter,” but as our Phil Klein observed, “Whatever happens in Nevada won’t matter — and all the focus will immediately shift to South Carolina.”)

There are only eight states that have fully closed primaries — that is, you have to be a registered member of the party to vote in the primary. There are nine states that are partially closed — you can’t vote if you’re a registered member of another party, but you can vote if you are unaffiliated. There are five states where voting in a party’s primary is considered an act of registering as a member of that party. And then there are 16 states that effectively have open primaries like South Carolina. That’s a lot of places where former Republicans, independents, and Democrats can cast a ballot for Haley in the coming months.

You know what was unique about last night’s New Hampshire primary? It was the first time we saw Donald Trump up against a lone challenger in a Republican contest. Trump probably would have beaten Ted Cruz in a one-on-one contest in 2016, but we never got to see that. For much of March and April 2016, it was a three-candidate race among Trump, Cruz, and the son of a mailman, John Kasich, even though Kasich hadn’t won a single primary until Ohio on March 15. Cruz publicly grumbled that Kasich was playing the role of spoiler and splitting the non-Trump or anti-Trump vote. “A vote for John Kasich is a vote for Donald Trump,” Cruz told reporters. “I don’t know if John Kasich is perhaps campaigning to be Donald Trump’s vice president, but he has been eliminated mathematically from having any chance of being the nominee.” Cruz fumed about the absurdity that Kasich was running around the country, insisting he was the most electable Republican candidate, without, you know, winning any primaries outside of his home state.

On May 3, after losing the Indiana primary, Cruz concluded there was no path to victory and withdrew from the race. The next day, John Kasich did the same — leaving everyone wondering just what the heck the point of the Kasich campaign had been.

The answer, so far, is that as expected, the GOP prefers Trump. But it’s not quite the blowout that headlines such as “the GOP wants pure, uncut Trumpism” would have you believe.

Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher (aka HP Pundit) is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a free thinking independent bringing you news and commentary with a dose of much needed common sense.

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