Nikki Haley is fueling questions about her endgame as she barrels toward a South Carolina showdown with Donald Trump despite the odds seemingly stacked against her.
The former South Carolina governor has shown no signs of wanting to drop out, even as it seems increasingly likely Trump will win the nomination. She has recently launched a massive media blitz, even appearing on “Saturday Night Live.”
Nonetheless, many observers don’t expect her to win, leading to speculation about her actual motivation for staying in the race. Some suggest she could be setting herself up in case Trump can’t run, while others believe this is really about positioning herself for a potential White House run in 2028.
“I think it’s both,” said Dave Wilson, a South Carolina-based Republican strategist. “Anybody who is getting into the competition of running for president of the United States always has a runway of sorts.”
“Either way you look at it, if Nikki Haley could turn around and build the name ID that she needs to overcome Donald Trump. That’s tremendous,” he said, adding that even if she doesn’t beat the former president, she will likely be in a prime position going into 2028.
Haley, who is the last person standing between Trump and the Republican nomination, was pressed about her plans post-South Carolina during an interview with Fox News’ Neil Cavuto on Monday.
Asked by Cavuto what she will do if she loses the Palmetto State primary to Trump, Haley insisted she wasn’t “going anywhere.”
“We don’t do coronations in America,” she said, adding later: “Let’s let these votes happen.”
When the host asked her if she was positioning herself in case Trump got convicted in one of his several legal cases, she declined to answer directly. And she insisted that she was running to be president when asked repeatedly if she would consider being Trump’s vice president.
The speculation surrounding her plans comes as Trump appears to be on track to clinch the GOP nomination for the third straight time. The South Carolina primary, which is being held on Feb. 24, is seen as the last serious test for Haley, a former governor of the state, as she hopes to chip away at the former president’s lead.
But she faces a steep climb in the Palmetto State. The Decision Desk HQ/The Hill polling average there shows the former president leading her by 31 points. Nationally, Trump’s lead is at a mammoth 57 percent.
“…The writing is more or less on the wall for her at this point, just as it was seemingly for [Ron] DeSantis,” said Timothy Hagle, political science professor at University of Iowa.
Nonetheless, Haley’s allies argue she has a path forward. They point to moves like her decision to appear on SNL as part of a broader strategy to appeal to voters beyond the GOP base.
“I think that it’s important for folks to get outside the bubble of conservative media and talk directly to voters, and appearing on SNL is a way to do just that,” said Alex Stroman, a South Carolina Republican strategist.
Haley is not the first politician to take part in SNL. Various figures, including former President Obama, former President George H.W. Bush, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have made appearances on the show. Trump famously hosted the show in 2015 amid much criticism.
“It’s hilarious — and baffling — that MAGA voters are criticizing Nikki Haley for going on SNL but ignore that Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate in 2015, hosted the show,” Stroman said.
There is also some speculation that Haley could be viewed as a potential third-party contender. In an interview with The Hill earlier this month, No Labels’ national director did not rule out the possibility of Haley running if the group decided to run an independent candidate for president. But Haley’s campaign threw cold water on the notion, saying she “has no interest in No Labels, she’s happy with the Republican label.”
And Haley is continuing to generate interest from donors, a sign that she’s likely to stay in the race, at least for the short term. On Monday, the campaign announced that Haley raked in $16.5 million in January, alone. Haley’s team has also been quick to highlight its new campaign “Grumpy, Old Men,” which included an ad that was released Saturday hours ahead of her SNL appearance. And her campaign has honed in on the argument that she is the best candidate to take on President Biden in the fall.
“And on that measure, there really is no contest,” Haley’s campaign manager Betsy Ankney said on a media zoom call on Monday. “Anybody who has seen a shred of credible data has been paying attention for the last eight years, or frankly has two eyes and their head knows that Nikki is the stronger general election candidate. The Trump team seems obsessed with proving that he can beat Biden, but the reality is, regardless of what any of these polls say, we have seen this movie before,” Ankeny added.
Nonetheless, Haley faces tough questions about how to navigate the primary.
“What’s her long game here?” Hagle said, adding that her SNL appearance could be a “hail mary” of sorts heading into South Carolina.
“You know you’re down 30 points and you’ve got to do something to mix it up a little bit,” he said.
Haley’s allies point out that there are a lot of questions surrounding Trump’s future, too.
“Who knows what will happen with Donald Trump and this race,” Stroman said. “She’s sticking in to be the alternative. She’s raising massive amounts of money, including from new donors. I think her endgame is to be the Republican nominee.”
Regardless of what Haley’s future holds in 2024 and beyond, some say she is seeing a small public relations victory in a campaign news cycle often dominated by Trump and his legal troubles.
“We’re talking about Nikki Haley today,” Wilson said. “You know who we’re not talking about with this story today? Donald Trump.”
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Author: Julia Manchester