How Nikki Haley Could Still Threaten Trump’s Grip on Power

Photograph Source: Gage Skidmore – CC BY-SA 2.0

Former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley will not be the Republican presidential Candidate. But she could still threaten Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

The indisputable numbers show why Trump will be the Republican nominee. 

Winning the GOP nomination requires at least 1,215 out of 2,429 delegates to win the convention vote to become the Republican nominee.  After winning the South Carolina and Michigan primaries, Trump has 138 delegates, and Haley has 24.

The six-to-one ratio of delegates between them will likely be the same after Super Tuesday on March 5. That’s when 15 states hold Republican primaries, which account for nearly half of all delegates to their convention.

Unfortunately for Haley, most state Republican primaries award most or all of their delegates to the winner. That’s why Haley received only 6% of her home state of South Carolina’s delegates but received 40% of the votes.

Nate Cole, the chief political analyst for The New York Times, is betting that Trump could easily win more than 90 percent of the total delegates at stake on Super Tuesday. Before the end of March, Trump could secure the nomination to be the Republican presidential nominee.

The Trump-run Republican Party is not a home for Haley.

Haley’s political future will be over if Trump controls the Republican party. Her prior half-hearted support of Trump as the Republican candidate will not spare her. Trump’s narcissistic modus operandi for revenge will likely lead him to hinder, if not block, Haley from winning any political office in the future.

Haley has gotten under his skin more than the other primary contenders. Her refusal to abandon the fight until late in the game has driven him to often attack her rather than President Joe Biden.

Does Haley attend the Republican convention? 

The Republican convention audience will be overwhelmingly pro-Trump, and Haley will face immense party pressure there to approve Trump as the party’s nominee. The media would hound her about when or whether she would endorse Trump.

If she offers a luck-warm endorsement speech, it could receive tepid applause from die-hard Trumpers. A demonstratable bearhug may get the crowd’s vocal approval, but Trump could hold back. Would it be worth going through this humiliation? Others have.

If she attends the convention, her strongest rationale for not endorsing Trump would be if he were convicted of a crime or tied down in a brutal trial during the convention.

In those instances, even the ultimate Teflon candidate might appear to be damaged goods to the big funders and conservative-leaning independent voters.

But holding off to the last moment to make an endorsement decision only delays acknowledging that she has no future in the Trump world.

A bolder course of action would be to avoid the convention and publicly declare that she remains a reasonable conservative alternative to Trump, noting that she has consistently received support from 20% to 40% of Republican voters.

She could time her announcement to coincide with the convention, turning the media spotlight from what should be the main event to one that offers an interesting counterpoint.

In the past, this has been Trump’s tactic of scheduling events while he should be attending an affair with his opposition, e.g., the primary campaign debates.

If Haley can’t be an apologist for Trump, she may be an independent rival for the presidency. Her campaign would shift from winning the Republican nomination to saving the real Republican party from Trump. It would be an arduous effort that would need money and volunteers. Could she get them?

Billionaire Funders made Haley’s primary campaigns possible. 

Haley has lasted this long in the Republican primary for one reason: she has big funders willing to throw money into her campaigns. Madison Fernandez, the author of Politico’s campaigns newsletter, says, “Haley and her allies outspent Trump in the lead-up to both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.”

Still, she remains a long shot for being the Republican nominee. Look at South Carolina’s race. Trump only spent $900,000 on a media campaign, while Haley and pro-Haley PACs poured in $15 million to garner 3 delegates to Trump’s 47.

But even big funders have a pain limit. Americans for Prosperity, the face of the massive conservative Charles Koch’s fundraising network, said the day following the South Carolina vote that it ceased financial support for the Haley campaign and its associated allied organizations. Before this announcement, the Koch network spent $32 million to boost Haley’s campaign against Trump.

The WMUR PAC, funded by billionaire Frank Laukien, may also drop Haley since his PAC was formed directly after Koch’s Americans for Prosperity endorsed Haley. The dominoes may start to fall. Other PACs may hold out for Super Tuesday results.

However, if Haley doesn’t win one state or collect a noticeable number of delegates, their goal of presenting Haley as a viable alternative to Trump would seem quixotic.

Haley is short on Republican party leaders supporting her.

Of the 12 other primary candidates who competed with Trump, only two have endorsed Haley, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

However, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the most outspoken primary candidate critic of Trump, hasn’t endorsed her. On January 10, he ended his nomination campaign and implied that Haley, like the other candidates, failed to say that Trump threatened the nation.

Two other high-profile elected Republicans, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, said they won’t vote for Trump in 2024. But they have not endorsed Haley, nor would they vote for Biden.

Several high-profile elected Republicans have endorsed Haley, including New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, Former House Speaker Paul Ryan, and U.S. S.C. Representative Ralph Norman.

Haley’s key politicians do not represent a unified Republican ideological perspective. Sununu and Hagan are moderates, Ryan and Hutchinson are conservatives but fought with the Freedom Caucus, and Norman is a leading member of the Freedom Caucus.

Haley relies on Republican politicians who lack a coherent, united base other than their opposition to Trump. She needs to go beyond them by attracting voters who would not vote for Trump or Biden. These voters are conservative independents and anti-Trump Republicans, but is there enough of them to make her a threat to Trump?

Who would be Haley’s voters? 

South Carolina’s race was an open race where voters did not have to be party members to vote. Haley won only a handful of counties in the state that were dominated by more significant numbers of moderate white college-educated independents.

They are the critical band of voters not profoundly tied to either party and could determine where swing states go in a two-way presidential race. A third national candidate appealing to a constituency of conservative non-Trumpers allows them to avoid voting for a Democrat. Voting for Haley would send a message to the Republican party that their membership goes beyond the MAGA crowd.

Trump’s voter support may not be as strong as it appears. 

If elected president, Haley would be the only Republican president to have lost her state in the primary. And at 60%, Trump received the second-highest percentage of votes since 1980 in South Carolina’s primary. Only George H.W. Bush, running as an incumbent president in 1992, received a higher percentage, at 67%.

However, the media has ignored another statistic. Bush lost the 1992 presidential election to Bill Clinton by over 200 electoral votes despite overwhelmingly winning South Carolina’s primary.

By competing in over half the state primary fights, Haley has given voice to many Never-Trump voters. While not united on issues, they are repulsed by Trump. They span the spectrum from liberal to traditional conservative Republicans who are not part of the MAGA movement. They are adrift and could dissipate long before November.

Nevertheless, Haley is a threat to Trump. Alyssa Farah Griffin, former White House communications director under President Trump, said that Haley  “is underscoring the fundamental weakness of Donald Trump, and it should be a five-alarm fire for the party.”

Griffin argues that Republicans must grapple, saying, “It’s unclear what a path could look like for Nikki Haley. I think we’re all very open-eyed about that.”

Will Haley be a Footnote or a Change Agent?

Once Trump secures the delegates to become the Republican nominee, Haley could take the easy way out. She could remain on the sidelines by formally withdrawing or just be present as a reminder that there is an option should Trump’s court cases drag him down. In either case, her influence on the party will be minor.

The other option is to announce that she will be an independent candidate for president. However, she would work with the Republican party to advance its agenda. This approach is the same that Bernie Sanders was taking when he toyed with running as an independent for the presidency.

She would be outside the Republican party’s apparatus but totally in support of the party’s values. And she could accuse Trump of representing the reorganized Republican Party while she was speaking for those Republicans who no longer feel the party represents them.

Realistically, she would not have a chance of becoming president. But she would be more than a spoiler for Trump, although she might also receive some independent voters who might vote for Biden. Her stated goal would be to resurrect the “real” Republican Party. She would support its long-held values of supporting family values, less government, and open-market legislation.

Above all, she would present a stable leadership that Trump’s temperament obstructs. She would run a government based on loyalty to the Constitution, not personal loyalty. How many conservative voters want to switch horses as the presidential race has begun is unknown.

By sticking to a solidly conservative Republican platform, she loses Democratic voters. Still, she allows conservatives to feel good about voting for someone other than Trump and not a Democrat or a liberal Republican. That approach will go down better in rural areas than in cities. As such, she cuts into the core of Trump’s base.

Haley doesn’t have to compete in all the states to significantly impact the distribution of electoral votes.

Haley could be on most State ballots.

Being a write-in candidate is the easiest path to being on a state’s ballot. Of the eight states that allow voters to write in any name as a write-in vote, three, including Iowa, provided Trump 18 electoral votes in 2020.

Another 33 states will only count votes for write-in candidates who officially registered with the state. A candidate can easily meet those requirements by submitting necessary registration documents by a specific deadline, paying a fee, or collecting signatures.

The other route is to be an independent candidate on the ballot. The deadline for 31 states is in August, a couple of weeks after the Republican Convention ends on July 18.

Some states bar candidates who sought and failed to secure the nomination of a political party from running as independents in the general election.

However, according to Ballotpedia, ballot access expert Richard Winger concluded that “sore loser laws have been construed not to apply to presidential primaries.” According to Winger, 45 states have sore loser laws on the books, but 43 of these states do not seem to apply to presidential candidates.

Haley’s possible narrow path forward.

There is a path forward for Haley to run as an independent conservative Republican in enough states to create a counterbalance to the MAGA wing of the party. She will not become president but could stir enough excitement to entice PACs to fund her effort.

Volunteers may step forward to work their state for her to demonstrate that they cannot tolerate a party dominated by a single personality. The new group Principles First could be attracted to her effort.  They are focused on advancing a more principled center-right politics in the United States.

A Haley presidential run could attract the media interested in something to spice up their coverage of two elderly white men slugging it out. The media would hype her campaign as a way of disparaging Trump. But the conservative media, particularly NewsNation and, to an extent, a few of Fox’s commentators, might enjoy poking Trump as they have done in the past.

It all comes down to Haley deciding if she wants to go down peacefully resigned to accepting the new Trumpian Republican Party or if she’s going to open a new page in the history of her party.

We’ll all know by the beginning of August, if not before.

Nick Licata is author of Becoming A Citizen Activist, and has served 5 terms on the Seattle City Council, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials.