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Nikki Haley is staying in against the odds. It may hurt her in the long-run.

In World
February 25, 2024

It’s becoming a familiar scene. Nikki Haley loses a primary state to former President Donald Trump, appears on stage the night of the loss, and, in a fist-pumping speech, vows she will fight on.

But after a stumble in her home state of South Carolina on Saturday — making her now without a win in early state primaries — campaign analysts and voters say the longer she stays in the race, the more she may be running the risk of damaging her political future — and brand.

She’s increasingly linked to Democrats. Her Republican support is waning. And her attacks on Trump have drawn rebukes from GOP voters in a party that the former president now owns.

Republican strategist Matthew Bartlett said that to political observers, Haley’s end game is increasingly unclear.

“She wants to go out the way she wants, which I guess is in flames,” Bartlett said.

Haley’s appeal with moderates, independents and Democrats “has absolutely damned her in South Carolina,” he added. “It will damn her with Super Tuesday states, and there’s no way at a convention, Republicans will pick a Republican loved by Democrats as the alternative.”

South Carolina Republican Party Chair Drew McKissick said he saw only diminishing returns for Haley if she lost to Trump in South Carolina by double digits because she would wear the jacket for delaying the party’s general election efforts.

“I think at this point, you got to do a lot of soul searching, no doubt about it,” McKissick said. “You reach a certain point where if you go too far, you begin to do yourself politically more harm than good.”

One South Carolina voter, Carol Cooper, said she was a Haley fan when she was governor but her negative campaigning against Trump has turned her off.

“I supported her then. But I do not support her now, because she attacked President Donald Trump,” Cooper said. “I don’t like the fact that she kind of backstabbed Trump.”

As the fight drags on, Haley’s confronted with more and more unpleasant theories, including that she’s primarily drawing support from Democrats who are crossing over in their state’s primaries.

This week, she faced questions about whether she would join a so-called unity ticket with Democratic primary contender Rep. Dean Phillips, something she told Fox News on Friday she’d decline. In an interview with NBC News’ “Meet the Press” on Saturday, California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom hailed Haley as a strong surrogate for the Democratic Party.

“I don’t know why Democrats would want her out of the race,” Newsom said. “She’s one of our better surrogates. I mean, she’s defining the opposition to Trump credibly effectively.”

Rob Godfrey, a Republican strategist and former deputy chief of staff to Haley when she was South Carolina governor, said the longer she prolongs the fight, the less time Republicans have to turn their attention to the general election fight. Staying in, he said, “doesn’t come without the risk to potentially tarnish her own political brand among people she may want to court should she want to run in the future.”

At the same time, he added that it may also be all forgotten by 2028.

“Voters, activists and donors, to say nothing of reporters, have shorter attention spans and memories than ever,” he said. “Even if there is a measure of risk in alienating one or all of those groups by prolonging the contest, the impact long term would probably be little to none.”

On Saturday evening, after the South Carolina results were in, Haley addressed her political prospects beyond the 2024 race.

“This has never been about me or my political future,” Haley said. “We need to beat Joe Biden in November. I don’t believe Donald Trump can beat Joe Biden. Nearly every day, Trump drives people away.”

Haley said she was wide-eyed about the results on Saturday, in which Trump led her nearly 60% to 40%.

“I’m an accountant: I know 40% is not 50% but I also know 40% is not some tiny group,” Haley said. “There are huge numbers in our Republican primaries who are saying they want an alternative. I said earlier this week that no matter what happened in South Carolina I would continue to run for president. I’m a woman of my word.”

But as she heads to Michigan on Sunday — as she’s said she will do —she’s combating a steep decline in support among Republican voters. On Saturday, in the state where she once served as governor, 72% Republicans supported Trump and 28% supported Haley, according to an NBC News exit poll. Haley won independents 59%, and Trump claimed 40% of independents — but they made up just 21% of the electorate.

In November, 43% of GOP primary voters held Haley in a positive light, and 17% had a negative opinion of her, according to an NBC News poll. But in January’s national NBC News poll, 34% of Republican primary voters saw Haley in a positive light, versus 36% who had a negative opinion of her.

Yet, the cash keeps pouring in. The campaign has 15 to 20 fundraising events scheduled “all over the country,” in the next month, said Bill Strong, a donor and member of Haley’s campaign executive committee. Strong said just earlier in the week, Haley appeared virtually at a fundraiser in Florida and raised “a meaningful six figures.”

“I don’t understand why there’s this rush by the media when there’s 90 percent of the delegates in play,” Strong said. He dismissed the idea that Haley risked damaging her brand by staying in the race, saying the longer she’s in, the more people get behind her.

“Trump is the only person that Biden can beat. The Democrats are scared to death that she can win,” he said.

While campaigning for his father in South Carolina this week, Donald Trump Jr. charged that Haley was staying in only for her own benefit, in hopes of cashing in after she’s out of the race.

“She’s trying to hurt Trump because there will be benefits to her financially to do that. She will become the CNN spokesperson, the conservative view on CNN, she’ll get a board seat at some of these companies as the lone Republican,” he charged. “That’s what she’s gunning for. It’s purely about the future pay day and there’s literally no other excuse for it. And we all know that if we’re being intellectually honest.”

But at a Georgetown rally on Thursday, Haley insisted it was the Republican Party’s future she had in mind.

“I’m not doing this for me. First they wanted to say that I wanted to be vice president. I think I pretty much proven that is not what I’m trying to do,” she said. “Then they were talking about my political future. I don’t care about a political future. If I did, I would have been out by now.”

One voter, Michael Santos, a Democrat, said he cast his ballot for Haley and embraced her tenacity for staying in the race against the odds.

“It’s pissing Donald Trump off,” he said. “So that’s kind of like the most fun thing.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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