Why Nikki Haley Hasn’t Dropped Out—Despite What’s Coming in South Carolina

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For Republicans, election results have become fungible. Losing a race but refusing to admit that you’ve done so has become a signal to core voters that you have a winner’s alpha mindset, while suggesting that the party should try to win races instead of repeatedly losing them is the mark of a coward and a loser.

Nikki Haley is trying a slightly different approach to Saturday’s South Carolina presidential primary, which polls suggest she will lose to Donald Trump by something like a 30-point margin. Haley used to be the governor of South Carolina, and in ancient times, losing one’s home state was the kind of signal of nonviability that would prompt a presidential candidate to drop out of a race.

In a speech on Tuesday, Haley did (implicitly) acknowledge that she will lose, and she didn’t blame this impending result on fraud. But she did basically say it doesn’t matter and that she doesn’t care. “South Carolina will vote on Saturday, but on Sunday, I’ll still be running for president. I’m not going anywhere,” Haley said, elaborating:

We’ve all heard the calls for me to drop out, we all know where they’re coming from. The political elite, the party bosses, the cheerleaders in the commentator world. The argument is familiar. They say I haven’t won a state, that my path to victory is slim. They point to the primary pulse and say I’m only delaying the inevitable. Why keep fighting when the battle was apparently over after Iowa?

The party bosses make some fair points about her chances! The natural next question is why Haley’s staying in, and on Tuesday she said it was out of a sense of obligation to the usual kinds of humble folk that politicians say they have been inspired by: “A retired army medic” who “told me to give ’em hell,” a “mom who promised to email me every day” for “the sake of her 4-year-old son,” and “a high school student who just last week came to hear me speak” and “finally has hope that America will make it.”

While this may or may not be true, Haley also observed correctly that not dropping out has eliminated her chance of being selected as Trump’s running mate and annoyed his supporters to the point that it’s hard to picture her being a front-runner in a future primary. A mid-February Economist/YouGov poll found that only 49 percent of Republicans view her favorably; Trump’s number in the same poll was 85. Whatever she’s doing, it’s not a calculated play for influence within her party.

On the other hand, she’s still fundraising well. Republicans who support candidates other than Trump tend to be both wealthy and not particularly realistic about his competitors’ chances of success, and the list of major donors to the super PAC that supports Haley is rife with super-duper rich guys from Wall Street and tech. Her continued presence in the race is elevating her media profile and cementing her connections to the captains of American industry; a year from now, Haley could be balancing a CNN contributor contract, one or more Wall Street or venture capital jobs, and an influence-building role disbursing money from a leadership PAC to candidates who occupy her relatively-young-and-sort-of-moderate GOP niche.

Also, it kind of sounds like she’s just going to drop out two weeks from now. Despite claiming Tuesday that she will “keep fighting until the American people close the door” and will be “campaigning every day until the last person votes,” she also told NPR on Wednesday that “the furthest we’ve thought is we certainly are going to go past South Carolina, go into Michigan and go into Super Tuesday states,” which vote on March 5. Said Haley to the radio people: “I haven’t actually sat down and thought about what comes after that. But our goal was between South Carolina and Super Tuesday, another 20 states have voted, and that’s more of the representation we want; let people’s voices be heard.”

South Carolina’s polls will be open until 7 p.m. Eastern time.