Before we start evaluating what Nikki Haley’s plans are for the Republican primaries, let’s get one thing out of the way: Barring catastrophe, Donald Trump is going to be the Republican presidential nominee. We will go into the reasons why below, but it is an important enough fact that we should lay it out up front.
So given this, why is Nikki Haley continuing her bid? I see five possibilities:
She thinks she might pull ahead in the delegate count. Pure intentions are always a good place to start, so we should mention (and eliminate) this possibility upfront. Haley finished third in Iowa, while Donald Trump received a majority of the vote. She placed second in New Hampshire (and almost certainly still would have, even if Ron DeSantis had not dropped out), while Trump received a majority of the vote.
So in a state dominated by evangelicals, and in a state where white evangelicals were just 19% of the electorate, Trump won handily. Almost every state to follow will fall somewhere between these two. Next up is South Carolina which looks like a catastrophe for Haley (although it hasn’t been polled in a while). The remaining states look more like South Carolina than they do New Hampshire.
In short, former Gov. Haley likely just had one of her best shots at Trump. She missed. It’s not clear where she connects. Surely she knows this. Surely her team knows this. It would be malpractice if they didn’t.
She wants to give establishment Republicans a chance to be heard. Maybe she is staying in so that anti-Trump voters can vent their frustration with the quasi-incumbent president. That would be an unusually benevolent move on the part of a politician (see also 4 and 5 below). Yet, if you’re insisting upon a charitable explanation, this is probably where you end up.
She thinks she might win at the convention and/or a catastrophe might befall Trump. The former president is 77 years old. He turns 78 in June. He is infamous for enjoying fast food and eschewing exercise. Health concerns aside, there are the criminal indictments that are following him around (although it seems increasingly unlikely that any trials will occur prior to the Republican National Convention).
I wouldn’t put the odds of any of these occurring and mattering at higher than 10%. But on the off chance that something does happen between now and July, it wouldn’t hurt Haley to have some actual delegates in her pocket at the convention.
She wants to be vice president. This is the conventional explanation for why candidates stay in. Maybe Haley wants to prove her toughness to Trump, and that she could take on the traditional “attack dog” role that veeps are often slotted to fill.
But there are ways to do this and then there are ways not to do this. Questioning the likely presidential contender’s mental fitness, for example, falls squarely within the “ways not to do this” basket. This is especially true with Trump, who is hardly known for having thick skin. Moreover, Trump has said that Haley – and her donors – are permanently “barred from MAGA.” It’s far more likely that this campaign ends Haley’s career in Republican politics than it is that it catapults her into the presidency.
That leaves us with:
She wants to hurt Donald Trump. Imagine that you previously served in President Trump’s cabinet and were so horrified by what you saw that you concluded he should never sit in the Oval Office again. Or, imagine that you simply despise the guy and think he’s categorically unfit to be president. What would you do?
YMMV (your mileage may vary, for readers below a certain age), but you could certainly do a whole lot worse than what Haley is doing. By staying in and needling the former president, she delays him from claiming the mantle of GOP nominee and from transitioning to the general election. She knocks him off message, as he feels compelled to punch down, hard (as opposed to giving, say, his gracious Iowa speech). Her criticisms echo those coming from President Biden’s camp, so they probably soften Biden up some for the general election.
What’s in it for her? If she fits the bill of someone in the first paragraph, it speaks for itself. If not? A job from wealthy donors? A network television show? The speaking circuit? Plenty of opportunities are available for failed presidential candidates, especially those who attack a candidate the establishment genuinely despises.
Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.