Narrator: It was over.
Nikki Haley ended up eleven points behind Donald Trump in a two-candidate race, in a state that gave the former governor and UN ambassador her best shot at a win. Trump became the first Republican candidate to win both Iowa and New Hampshire in a competitive primary in decades, and won both by solid majorities.
Nevertheless, Haley vowed, she will persist:
Nikki Haley vowed to fight on, saying the race is ‘far from over,’ after losing the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary election to GOP frontrunner Donald Trump https://t.co/CyLOiMhwze pic.twitter.com/uFePtNvOkj
— Reuters (@Reuters) January 24, 2024
In rousing remarks, Ms. Haley painted a picture of a country and a world in disarray, casting herself as the choice for voters dissatisfied with both President Biden and Mr. Trump. She set up an epic showdown with Mr. Trump in South Carolina, where she is lagging far behind Mr. Trump in polls despite a home-state advantage.
“New Hampshire is first in the nation — it is not the last in the nation,” she said as a loud wave of cheers and applause broke out across the room. She added that the race was “far from over.”
She added, “We’re going home to South Carolina.”
Home? Geographically, yes. Ideologically … not exactly. Haley did manage to outperform the polling in New Hampshire, where the RCP aggregate average yesterday had her behind Trump 55.8/36.5. In the actual result (54.7/43.2 as of this morning), Trump came just a point short, while Haley added a little over six points. The polling held up pretty well in New Hampshire, as it did in Iowa, and that allows us to assume that the polls in future states are broadly predictive.
The easy conclusion here is that Haley consolidated most of the non-Trump vote after everyone else bailed out after Iowa. Haley got closer than expected, but Trump still got a clear and convincing majority, as well as a double-digit win. But how did Haley manage to even get this close? Exit polling from CNN shows that Haley benefited from New Hampshire’s open-primary system, and likely from the unsanctioned and unofficial Democrat primary:
Voters who were registered as Republicans broke heavily for Trump, the exit poll finds, with roughly three-quarters favoring him. Voters registered as undeclared – the state’s term for independent voters – favored Haley by a wide, if less overwhelming, margin, with about two-thirds backing her.
In a closed primary, Trump would have won 75/25. That would have been a stronger showing than Trump got in the Iowa caucuses, largely because Ron DeSantis was competing along with Haley and others against Trump. Haley clearly benefited from the lack of seriousness in the Democrat primary, which would have motivated more voters to cross over to the GOP ballot instead. (Nearly three times as many voters participated in the Republican primary than in the Democrat counterpart.)
And this brings us back to South Carolina. Their primary is also open, but Joe Biden will be participating much more heavily in the Democrat contest. He needs to shore up his standing with black voters, and he also wants to highlight their crucial support for him in the 2020 primary that saved his campaign. There still may be more interest in the GOP primary, but Democrats plan to push hard for a big show of confidence in their incumbent, so crossovers will be more limited.
Plus, the GOP voter base in South Carolina is more aligned with Trump than New Hampshire’s electorate has been. Polling in South Carolina has been more sparse, but Emerson’s recent poll at the start of January put Trump 29 points ahead of Haley, 54/25. The departure of DeSantis will move eleven percent of his voters to choose between the two, but DeSantis’ voting bloc was more aligned to MAGA than Haley’s brand of moderate GOP establishmentarianism.
Besides, all Trump has to do is hold his current majority to deliver a humiliating loss to Haley in her home state. A 54/46 end result would make it impossible for Haley to argue that she has any real path to win a single state in the primaries, let alone top Trump in delegates.
Is it possible that he could lose a big chunk of his MAGA voters to Haley in the next four weeks? Anything’s possible, but … what would it take to lose them? Trump has been repeatedly indicted and sued, has shot his mouth off about everything and everyone, and appears to be building momentum through it all rather than losing it. Ron DeSantis had hoped for a MAGA exodus too, and found out the hard way that Trump’s base isn’t going anywhere.
Haley insists that she will continue to fight for the nomination over the next four weeks, and … why not? Primaries don’t hurt parties, nor do they damage strong frontrunners, as Trump has proven to be. If Haley has the cash on hand and donors still want to place long-shot bets, have at it. But at this point, Miracle Max couldn’t fashion a pill that would reveal a path to victory in Haley’s home state, let alone the raft of closed primaries that will come up shortly afterward. And donors will likely start looking for ways to join the winning team and extend their influence on it rather than tilt at windmills in South Carolina.
One final point: Charles C.W. Cooke makes a good argument today that the GOP needs a backup just in case something happens to Trump:
In the last few weeks, I’ve heard a few people ask me rhetorically, “So what’s Haley’s plan? To just stay in and rack up delegates in case something happens to Trump?” To which my instinctive response has been, “er . . . actually, yeah?” Trump is an overweight, lazy, deranged 77-year-old who is under indictment from all corners. It really is not beyond the pale to observe that a lot of bad things could happen to him before November. He could die. He could have a heart attack or a stroke. He could fall off a stage. He could be convicted. He could be jailed. In the NFL, teams often carry two backup quarterbacks. Wouldn’t it be a good idea for the Republican Party to carry at least one? “Strange things” do, indeed, “happen.” Providing that she has the money, Haley ought to stay in for as long as she can.
That’s a convincing argument … but not for Haley. DeSantis offered voters a MAGA agenda minus Trump. Haley’s pitching a policy agenda that differs substantially from what a majority of the party wants. If something happens to Trump, the party can draft a potential nominee that’s better aligned to the mood of the party, not someone who’s arguing against that mood, and DeSantis would answer that call well. That’s what conventions are for, in fact — as a final backstop to the primary process.