At a critical moment, Nikki Haley stands to gain from Chris Christie’s exit

Chris Christie’s departure from the Republican presidential primary on Wednesday served as an undeniable gift to former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley at a crucial moment in the 2024 race, just five days before the Iowa caucuses and while she is attempting to persuade voters that the contest should be a head-to-head matchup between Donald Trump and herself.

Even though Christie, the former New Jersey governor, hadn’t stepped foot in Iowa, timing his announcement before the caucuses potentially boosts the former South Carolina governor as she criss-crosses the Hawkeye State and adds to her argument that her strong polling in New Hampshire and her background in South Carolina makes her the inevitable Trump alternative.

Haley’s potential momentum boost is another unwelcome turn in the race for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is banking his candidacy on landing at least a strong second-place showing in the caucuses, even as Haley nips at his heels. DeSantis has a tougher road beyond Iowa; he has sunk virtually all his resources into the state and not gained much of a foothold in either New Hampshire or South Carolina.

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Christie’s departure less than two weeks before New Hampshire also served as a sobering reality to Never-Trumpers in the 2024 presidential primary: The most fervent Trump antagonist in the field could not even reach the contest in the state where he devoted his candidacy. Trump has consistently led the field in every early state poll, including in Iowa.

Still, there’s plenty of reason to expect Christie’s exit to boost Haley in New Hampshire, spelled out in polls this week. The CNN/University of New Hampshire survey saw Haley gaining on Trump, trailing him by just 7 percentage points. Christie, who was decidedly in the Never-Trump lane, held at 12% in that same poll — enough to potentially bridge the gap between Haley and Trump in the Granite State should she benefit from Christie’s voters.

New Hampshire state Rep. Bill Boyd, a Republican, called Christie dropping out a “game changer.” He predicted it would defeat Trump’s ability to “run a campaign of attrition” and potentially force him to put “significant boots on the ground” in the state.

“There’s no question: Haley benefits,” Boyd said. “What was thought [of] as a President Trump slam dunk here in New Hampshire, is now a toss-up.”

Trump’s campaign has long anticipated the possibility Christie would exit the race before New Hampshire, a senior campaign official told NBC News.

“He brings no GOP votes if he were to endorse,” the senior Trump campaign official said. “His numbers in New Hampshire among Republicans are astronomically negative. It changes the race a tad because of what it does with unaffiliated voters who may be democrats but can vote in a Republican primary.”

The Trump campaign believes Christie’s own negative numbers with Republicans — juiced by his repeated and aggressive attacks on Trump — limit his utility as an endorser of Haley, Trump’s biggest rival in the state.

The Trump campaign has also moved recently to blunt Haley’s possible rise in the Granite State.

“Part of the reason we attacked her on the border was to impose a ceiling,” the official said. “There are two solid weeks for us to prosecute the case.”

“This was anticipated and we have been prepared for every possible way this, or other changes in the field, could impact the race,” another Trump adviser said.

Alex Stroman, a veteran Republican South Carolina operative, said that even if Christie had not gotten out of the race, there was a chance that those supporting him would end up casting ballots for Haley in New Hampshire because it’s so clear that Christie does not have a real path forward in the race.

“If just half of those currently supporting Christie leave him and move to Haley, she’s won New Hampshire and it sets up a hell of a battle for the nomination in South Carolina and beyond,” he said.

There’s still question of whether Christie’s support moving to Haley would be enough. A separate Boston Globe/USA Today/Suffolk poll of New Hampshire released this week showed a wider gap, with Trump leading Haley by 20 points. That same survey found that among the 12% of likely voters picking Christie as their first choice, nearly half of them — 48% — said Haley was their second choice, versus just 7% who said Trump was their second choice.

For weeks, Christie had fought off calls for him to drop out to allow a consolidation behind Haley, whose theory of the case was that she could narrow the field coming out of New Hampshire, then attempt to take on Trump one-on-one in South Carolina. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who has endorsed Haley, was among those calling for Christie to end his bid.

Stroman said that Christie’s exit from the race “absolutely” would help Haley — but he warned that an endorsement could actually hurt her.

He called Christie “one of the least popular figures” in the Republican Party right now, which is why his formal endorsement could actually weigh Haley down.

There doesn’t seem to be imminent danger of Christie backing Haley.

Before the Wednesday town hall where he dropped out, Christie was caught on a hot mic, when it appeared he was talking about Haley: “She’s going to get smoked — you and I both know it. She’s not up to this.”

He also said, “DeSantis called me — petrified.”

A source familiar told NBC News that the Florida governor called Christie earlier today — after hearing rumors that he would be dropping out — and said that regardless of his decision, he appreciated his role in the race. The source said Christie was also very critical of Haley in that call and made similar comments that she was not up to the task.

And in recent public forums in New Hampshire, Christie hasn’t exactly sung her praises.

He told an audience in Keene, New Hampshire, on Friday that if he decides to get out of the race it “has nothing to do with Nikki Haley.” He also said, “I wouldn’t support her at the moment, even if I did get out, because of what she’s failed to do.” Christie said, “she has to earn my support with what comes out of her mouth and within her heart.”

At a New Hampshire town hall on Wednesday hours before he dropped out, he seemed to telegraph the move.

“All the rest of the things can change. Character doesn’t change. What’s in here doesn’t change. And, frankly, doesn’t mean you have to vote for me. You might decide that there’s another person in this race of good character that you prefer,” Christie said. “Well, I’d be very unhappy with you if you do that. I’ll support your right to do that and then make that decision. But don’t support someone just because you think they’re inevitable.”

On Tuesday at a town hall, just a day before he announced his decision, he also addressed that possibility.

“I got into this to defeat him and become president, and if I believe I have a path to doing that then I’m gonna stay in this race no matter what Nikki Haley says,” Christie said. “And I’ll make that decision on my own, regardless of her and whatever the poll numbers of the moment are, because we’re two weeks to go in New Hampshire, anything could change in this race as people start to focus and make their decisions.”

Still, the polling numbers may have served as a catalyst to Christie’s decision. Christie had poured his resources into New Hampshire, camping out there while ignoring other early states, but couldn’t break beyond Trump or Haley. He had hoped to appeal to a segment of the Republican Party disillusioned with Trump and took on a no-holds-barred approach to the former president, calling him at various times a “dictator,” a “bully” and a “coward,” while warning Trump could be behind bars before long.

Even some Christie supporters in New Hampshire saw the writing on the wall for their candidate.

Greg Leach, 49, a Republican voter who attended a Christie town hall Tuesday night, told NBC News he plans to vote for Haley.

“My heart wants to vote for Gov. Christie, but my brain tells me to vote for Nikki Haley,” Leach said. He said his decision is based on current polling numbers. He views Haley as being “within close striking distance of Trump.”

“I want to vote for Christie,” said Leach. “But I feel like right now my vote would be wasted and, in a sense, a vote for Trump.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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