Nikki Haley has gained ground — but GOP rules mean it may result in few delegates

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CHARLESTON, S.C. — Nikki Haley is framing her path to the GOP presidential nomination as a long, state-by-state war of attrition. But while Haley battles for public opinion, the GOP is doling out delegates — and those rules are designed to create blowouts.

Haley spent much of the week in her home state, South Carolina, and she’s closing the week with a trip to Texas, one of the many states holding contests on Super Tuesday in early March. But both states and many others on Haley’s path forward handsomely reward candidates who can win majorities of the vote in states or congressional districts — a likely outcome in what’s now a one-on-one race, with Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, trailing significantly in public polling.

Even if Haley makes things relatively close against Donald Trump — say, by pushing into the 40s in primary vote share, like she did in New Hampshire — she could quickly get buried by a big delegate advantage for the former president as states start to dole out delegates at a breakneck pace. Unlike in a Democratic presidential primary, in which winning 40% of the vote translates to winning about 40% of the delegates, the GOP’s rules make it easier for a front-runner to collect all or the vast majority of the delegates available.

The only way Haley can prevent that from happening is to yank Republican public opinion into a fundamentally different place, after a race in which even four indictments haven’t pushed Trump off course.

“A number of people say the rules are Trump’s firewall. I guess that’s true, but it’s a conditional firewall: It only exists if Trump is super popular,” Josh Putnam, a political scientist specializing in presidential nominating procedures and a nonpartisan consultant at FHQ Strategies, told NBC News. “And he’s popular enough that he will trigger most of these winner-take-all thresholds in the states” and win a large share of the party’s delegates.

February is shaping up to be a tough month for Haley.

She wasn’t on Nevada’s caucus ballot and didn’t win delegates there. Haley’s campaign criticized the caucus process as “rigged for Trump,” and she lost the nonbinding primary to “none of these candidates.” Meanwhile, South Carolina, where she served as governor, is unlikely to be a firewall: Polls have her down big there, and the delegate rules greatly benefit a candidate who wins the majority. Neither Haley nor her top campaign brass have set expectations for a win there.

The Haley campaign does, though, have the cash to get through dark times. Her campaign has diligently built up money instead of blowing it early, and endurance has long been the name of the game for the Haley team, who regularly forecast more “fertile” ground and opportunities in states deeper into the 2024 calendar.

In a memo released after the New Hampshire primary, the Haley campaign pointed to the majority of coming states that allow some proportion of independents or Democrats to participate in GOP primaries, creating “significant fertile ground for Nikki,” who has drawn support from anti-Trump voters.

But one-third of the 874 delegates awarded on Super Tuesday are from states where a candidate who wins a majority of the vote will receive every delegate.

They include Massachusetts, where Haley just announced a leadership team but where former Gov. Charlie Baker, a high-profile Trump critic, chose not to run again, dodging the possibility of slogging through a tough primary against a Trump supporter.

They also include California, where Haley raised money and rallied this week. Republicans there changed the primary rules at their 2023 convention to award every delegate to a candidate who wins a majority of the vote, instead of allowing candidates to go district by district to hunt for votes.

Another 252 Super Tuesday delegates will come in states where a candidate who finishes over 50% in a congressional district wins every delegate on offer there, in addition to winning every statewide “at-large delegate” with a majority of the statewide vote.

And from mid-March on, the majority of delegates are awarded in winner-take-all states. So without another candidate to cut into Trump’s share of the vote, Haley needs to start winning states outright, and fast.

Haley spoke about her narrow pathway to victory in an interview this week on NBC’s “TODAY” show. Pushed to say which states she believes she can win, she didn’t name one. Instead, she pivoted to her argument that the race is about the long haul and scrapping for delegates.

“You need 1,215 delegates. Coming out of New Hampshire, he had 32, I had 17,” she said. “We’ve got multiple states after South Carolina — within 10 days, we’re going to have hit 20 states. Let it happen.

“Don’t discount that I defeated a dozen fellas,” Haley continued. “Don’t discount that I ended up with 20% in Iowa when y’all said I wouldn’t make it. Don’t discount that I got 43% New Hampshire, and don’t discount me now.”

“Why would I get out as long as we keep it competitive?” she added.

But those winner-take-all thresholds could prove fatal to that strategy. GOP nominating contests have always featured a healthy number of states with those kinds of rules, but more have shifted that way since Trump first ran in 2016. Since then, party organizations in more than a quarter of the state and territorial contests have changed their rules to be more “front-runner friendly,” in the words of Putnam.

And Trump continues to hold major sway with the majority of GOP primary voters. An NBC News poll released last week found that 79% of GOP primary voters said they preferred Trump over Haley in a hypothetical presidential nominating contest. Fully 61% said Trump should remain the party’s leader. It’s among those voters that she needs to find a path to a majority.

Haley allies know it’s a tough road ahead, but they choose to see the ongoing delegate grab bag not as the polls show the race currently but as it could be. It’s one reason she has upped her rhetoric about Trump in recent weeks — blasting him as “unhinged” and “not qualified to be the president of the United States.”

“Sure, if you assume the numbers today, then yeah, it’s not much of a path,” a Haley ally, speaking on condition of anonymity, told NBC News. “But that’s why we run campaigns.

“We only have to look back four years to see someone who did this exact thing,” the ally added, referring to Joe Biden’s turning around his political fortunes with a dominant performance in South Carolina’s primary after poor performances in the first three Democratic nominating contests in 2020.

But the comparison misses at least one major difference between the GOP and Democratic contests: Democrats award all their delegates proportionally to candidates who hit at least 15% of the vote, which makes it harder for second-place candidates to quickly fall out of the mix in terms of delegates if they’re still winning significant shares of the popular vote state by state.

Here and now, it’s Haley and Trump alone, competing according to the GOP’s rules.

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