Nikki Haley is telling you, she’s not going

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The Scene

GREENVILLE, S.C. – Nikki Haley wasn’t dropping out of the Republican primary. She wasn’t running for vice president. She had “no fear of Trump’s retribution,” was not going to “kiss the ring,” and would campaign “until the last person votes.”

What she didn’t say, in an emotional “state of the race” speech Tuesday at Clemson University, was that she could beat Donald Trump in her home state — where he leads public polling by a 2-1 margin, and where more than 100,000 votes have already been cast. The Trump campaign, already planning to take over the Republican National Committee and move toward the general election, treated Haley’s big announcement like a joke.

“Doesn’t change anything,” Trump campaign senior advisor Chris LaCivita told Semafor. “We don’t hold up a damn thing because Nikki Haley is afflicted with delusion.”

David’s view

Days ahead of the Saturday primary, and after a month of frenzied in-person campaigning, Haley has made no alterations to a message that leaves most Republicans cold. Her campaign is selling “Make America Normal Again” T-shirts to a primary electorate that associates “normalcy” with pre-Trump decline.

“This is the least policy-focused race we’ve had in a while,” said Katon Dawson, a former state GOP chair and a day-one Haley endorser, as the candidate and her bus arrived at a Monday stop in Camden. “Trump refusing to debate Nikki Haley has made this cycle all about personalities, not policies that could better peoples’ lives.”

Haley has run here as the anti-chaos candidate, spending up to 10 minutes at a time on the stump to deal with Trump’s latest insults or legal problems. “Everything he touches,” she says, “we lose.” To crowds of a few hundred people, in parks and country clubs, she pitches herself as the sure-thing general election winner with the popular position on Ukraine (fund its defenses), the best numbers in national polls (“I beat Biden by up to 17 points!”), and a way to avoid a rematch between the oldest presidential candidates ever.

This is the contrast that Haley wanted from day one — a 52-year-old military spouse with a winning record versus a 77-year-old ex-president who has spent more days in court this month than in South Carolina. Even breaking news, out of the candidate’s control, was syncing up with Haley’s message. On Saturday, after Russian dissident Alexei Navalny died suspiciously, Haley walked to the side of her campaign bus in the Columbia suburbs to talk to reporters about Trump, NATO, and how he would “always side with” dictators.

“I think you need to ask Trump what he thinks about what happened to Navalny,” Haley said. “Does he think Navalny was a good guy? I’ll tell you: I think Navalny was a hero.”

It was one of the Haley critiques that thrill the never-Trump and anti-Trump voters that are cheering her on and donating enough to keep her campaign in gear. But she needs Republican votes to win, and appealing to them and to Trump skeptics can lead to impossible gymnastics.

At the press gaggle, one reporter asked her to respond to Republicans who compared Navalny’s imprisonment, then death, to Trump’s legal problems — which they blamed on a deep state effort to destroy him. Haley’s clarity began to melt.

“I mean, I think that you look at anything that’s happening right now — we see it in D.C., we’re seeing it in these courtrooms — we’ve got to take the politics out of everything,” Haley said. “There’s some that have come up against Trump that have not been fair. I think there’s some that he’s going to have to defend himself and prove his case.”

Two days later, Trump himself compared Navalny’s fate to “what is happening in our country” — specifically, to Trump. It was his first and only comment on the news. At her campaign stops that day, Haley attacked Trump over his threats to weaken NATO and cozy up to Putin, but no longer mentioned Navalny.

Polling can be wrong, but Haley’s refusal to predict a win here is notable. After winning 43% of the vote in New Hampshire, she told NBC News that her South Carolina showing “has to be better,” a formulation she never used again. A Tuesday poll from Suffolk University, conducted after Trump mocked Haley’s husband for vanishing when he was on a well-publicized National Guard deployment, found that it had no effect on primary voters.

So, how would she win? The point of Tuesday’s speech was that she didn’t need to, even in her own neighborhood. Nothing was moving the dial against Trump, but he was not winning 100% of the vote and that was enough rationale to continue. In one of her boldest spin attempts, Haley recast Trump’s Iowa landslide as rejection by 49% of Republican voters, and his New Hampshire win as rejection by 46% of them. Her path to the nomination was vanishing, but her megaphone wasn’t. It wouldn’t, unless she stopped running. So she wouldn’t stop.

The View From Voters

Some primary voters — a minority — can’t get enough. Over the weekend, nearly everywhere that Haley went, James “Bubba” Cromer followed. Wearing his South Carolina legislature windbreaker — he’d served four terms there — he walked around the candidate’s bus tour stops with a picnic cooler, pulling out the gel bracelets and stickers (“Nikki Haley: Our Girl”) that he’d made to support her.

“She was an amazing governor,” Cromer explained after a Haley stop in Kiawah Island, outside of Charleston, where Haley lives and has polled the best. “I’m baffled, and insulted, by the lack of support.”

Haley’s supporters, crowding into amphitheaters, gazebos, and parking lots to catch her ongoing bus tour, include long-time fans, some frustrated Trump voters, and Democrats voting strategically to help her slow down Trump. Susan Lozier, who voted for Biden in 2020, said that she’d vote for him again if the alternative was Trump. In the primary, she wanted to help Haley.

“Fix the chaos. I’m going to repeat what Biden says — bring the country back together,” Lozier said. The president, she worried, simply faced too much Republican opposition to do that.

The crowds don’t look quite like Trump’s. On cold days, they were more likely to wear Columbia fleece vests than Carhartt jackets, often wrapped around college sweatshirts. When Haley talks about Trump saying her donors would be “banned permanently” from MAGA, there are often laughs and sarcastic cries of “oh, no!”

At the same time, some of her voters were on the more MAGA political right, came to respect her as governor, and trusted that she’d deliver on conservative promises better than Trump.

Dwayne King, a retired police officer who saw Haley speak in Irmo on Saturday, said that he’d met Haley’s father at an interfaith group. He was frustrated to see Republicans block a compromise on border security funding, on Trump’s orders. He also wanted the party to go further.

“I think we should lay minefields,” King said. “You put up bilingual signs. And if you catch ‘em, you immediately spay and neuter them, then send them back.” He would vote for Haley in the primary, but Trump in November, if it came to that: “The Republicans would have to come up with a really flea- bitten rangy dog that wouldn’t be better than Biden.”

Steve Navarro, who saw Haley’s speech in Greenville, was impressed by what she said onstage. “I’ve stayed with her through thick and thin,” he added. It was important for voters outside the state to know that South Carolina was “very conservative,” though, and its GOP electorate did not match the ideal Haley electorate “from a demographic and a socio-economic standpoint.” So she did not have to win.

To come close, Haley would need to attract an unprecedented number of non-Republicans — people who don’t typically vote in these primaries, in a state with no party registration. Greg Dukes, a public employee who came to see Haley in Camden, was the sort of Democrat she needed.

“Nikki sort of represents the middle of the road, what Republicans used to look like,” Dukes said. “When we had two very sane parties, she would have been a wonderful choice.” Not for him, though. He had voted in the Democratic primary, and could not return to the polls this week to support Haley.

The View From The Trump Campaign

It had both polite and less polite responses to Haley’s speech. In a memo to reporters, the Trump campaign calculated how many delegates each candidate would win through mid-March, even if Haley performed as well as she had in New Hampshire. Their conclusion: “Before March Madness tips off next month, President Trump will be the Republican nominee for President.” On X, spokesman Steven Cheung doubted that Haley would make a clean break with Trump: “She’s going to drop down to kiss ass when she quits, like she always does.”


  • In the Bulwark, Marc Caputo investigates the Haley-world effort to win Black primary voters on Saturday: “Take us out the group chat. We don’t want to be in it,”
    one voter said after being deluged with automated text messages.

  • In the Washington Post, Ashley Parker and Dylan Wells talk to anti-Trump voters who see their values in Haley’s current campaign, “as a key voice in the anti-Trump resistance.”