Monday, February 26, 2024

Nikki Haley is down but not out

 Donald Trump and MAGA are celebrating The Former Guy’s win over Nikki Haley in South Carolina on Saturday. The celebration is justified as Trump continues to steamroll his way to the Republican nomination with an unbroken string of victories in the early primary states, but there are signs that all is not well within the GOP.

In Haley’s home state of South Carolina, the former governor lost by 20 points. That’s the bad news. The good news is that many of the polls had her losing by more than 30 points. In the final tally (or nearly so with 99 percent reporting), Trump’s 59.8 percent represented another underperformance for the frontrunner while Haley’s 39.5 percent was an improvement over her polling.

Donald Trump with Haley at the United Nations General Assembly, 2018 (White House/Wikimedia/public domain)

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In a primary that lacks serious competition, the big story is that Donald Trump is softening his polls rather than consolidating his support. The Real Clear Politics average showed Trump with a 19-point lead in New Hampshire, but the final tally had him up by only 11 points.

Next up are Idaho, Michigan, and Missouri on March 2. There are no polls of Idaho and Michigan and Missouri polls are a month old. Trump will likely win all three races but not by the more than 60 points that the polls were showing.

Trump’s primary problems won’t be enough to stop him from winning the nomination, but they do indicate a deep discontent among a large share of Republican voters. Washington Post exit polling found that 61 percent of Republican primary voters thought Trump was fit to be president even if convicted of a crime, but a Fox News survey found that a shocking 59 percent of Haley voters would not vote for Trump if he wins the nomination. Back-of-the-envelope calculations would put that faction at about 20 percent of the Republican Party, which would undoubtedly be enough to sink Trump’s general election campaign.

That’s especially true considering Republican fundraising problems. Newsweek recently reported that the Republican Party is in its worst donation slump since 2013. The national party has only $8 million on hand and many state parties are in debt. [Insert joke here about how everything Trump touches goes bankrupt.] Even Fox News acknowledges that Democrats hold a significant financial advantage.

And that’s before the Republican National Committee starts paying Trump’s legal bills, which is a real possibility, especially given that likely RNC co-chair Lara Trump has expressed her belief that Republican voters would support paying the president’s legal fees. Lara Trump previously said that “every single penny” of RNC funds would go to Donald Trump’s campaign.

Taken together, these data points suggest that Donald Trump will have a serious advertising disadvantage in the latter stages of the campaign and that he cannot count on a unified party. Republican fundraising problems and the focus on Trump also mean that down-ballot Republican candidates may have to sink or swim on their own, putting the prospect of Republican congressional majorities into doubt.

Going further, Trump’s strongest points (from the Fox poll) were voters who identified as very conservative (81 percent), white evangelical (68 percent), voters without a college degree (68 percent), and rural voters (66 percent). Haley was buoyed by non-MAGA voters (75 percent), moderates (62 percent), voters with college degrees (54 percent), and suburban voters (47 percent). In particular, the loss of suburban voters has hurt Republicans in the Trump years.

I’m going to take a moment here to dispel the claims that Haley’s support is due to Democratic crossover voters. The WaPo exit poll shows that only 16 percent were first-time Republican primary voters and only five percent identified as Democrats (compared to 68 percent who were Republican and 22 percent independent). Interestingly, Haley did better among independents (60 percent) than Democrats, who Donald Trump won with 73 percent. Fox exit polls reported similar low numbers of Democrat crossovers.

But Trump isn’t the only one in trouble. Additional polling shows that Nikki Haley’s popularity is cratering as she maintains her holdout campaign against Donald Trump. FiveThirtyEight’s favorability tracker shows that Haley’s unfavorable rating has risen to 42.3 percent, giving her a ten-point deficit. A year ago, she did slightly better than break even at 32.7 percent favorable and 30.6 unfavorable. In the intervening time, her favorability has remained stable but her unfavorable status has increased, almost certainly due to Trump’s attacks and her challenge to The Former Guy.

After South Carolina, the Republican delegate count stands at 110 for Donald Trump and 20 for Nikki Haley. Trump has not yet come close to clinching the nomination with the 1,215 delegates required, but he is on track to do so unless there is a major shift in momentum.

So why is Haley still in the race? I can think of two good reasons. First, there is a chance that the Supreme Court will disqualify Trump or that he will face some other situation that forces him to drop out before the convention. This is an increasingly unlikely scenario (I think the constitutional case for disqualification is strong, but it is a tough decision to make politically), but it is possible. If Trump bows out, Haley, as the only remaining candidate would have a strong claim to the nomination. Well, strong except for the fact that Trump owns the RNC and Republicans are turning against her.

Second, Haley may really believe that Trump is a serious threat to the Republic. If she really means what she says, she may be staying in to erode Trump’s support and play the role of a spoiler.

As an old-school Republican, Haley may well really believe in the conservative principles that people like Rush Limbaugh used to talk about. When the majority of the GOP lines up behind Vladimir Putin with the fate and freedom of an entire nation at stake, not to mention our own Republic and Constitution, maybe Haley decided that it was time to put country over party. If that is her thinking, she will never bend the knee and endorse Donald Trump.

Other past speculations on Haley’s continuing campaign no longer hold water. She is almost certainly not in the running for the vice presidential slot after attacking both Trump’s character (albeit gently) and his mental competence (more directly).

In a speech last week that some assumed would be a concession speech, Haley said, “Some people used to say I was running because I really wanted to be Vice President. I think I’ve pretty well settled that question.”

Likewise, Haley does not seem to be angling for a 2028 nomination. If she was, she would be more concerned about her increasing unfavorability among Republican voters. Attacking Trump is not a way to endear herself to Republicans and if/when Trump goes down in flames, she may be blamed for his loss.

“Other people say I’m trying to set up a future presidential run,” Haley continued in her not-concession speech. “How does that even work? If I was running for a bogus reason, I would have dropped out a long time ago. The rest of the fellas already did that.”

The most logical conclusion is that Haley is either in it to win it by default or at least to make Trump lose. If you ask me, that’s pretty patriotic. As we’ve seen, not many politicians are willing to sacrifice their careers for the good of the country.

And Haley may be uniquely positioned to do so. She is independently wealthy with a net worth of about $8 million from speaking fees, book sales, and work on corporate boards. Now that she is the only non-Trump candidate in the primary race, she isn’t lacking in campaign contributions either. She outraised the Trump campaign by a million dollars in January (although as I was writing this, news broke that the Koch-backed Americans For Prosperity has stopped funding Haley).

It’s true that winning the primary is a long shot for Haley, but winning can be a subjective thing, depending on what your goals are. In Haley’s case, it may be that her eye is no longer on winning the nomination but on making America great again by denying Donald Trump a second term. That newer, less lofty goal is definitely attainable.

From the Racket News

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