LOS ANGELES — Republican presidential long-shot Nikki Haley on Wednesday sought to move beyond a humbling setback in Nevada, where she was roundly rejected in an unusual primary that highlighted her daunting challenges against Donald Trump and reignited questions about her long-term prospects in the race.
The former U.N. ambassador trained her sights on the Super Tuesday contests in early March she hopes will turn her flagging bid around, including in California, where she planned to hold a rally late Wednesday. The event came a day after Republican primary voters in Nevada were on pace to choose the ballot option “none of these candidates” over Haley — the only major contestant — by a margin of more than 2-1, with the help of Trump’s well-organized army of supporters.
The Nevada contest had no delegates to the nominating convention at stake, and the “none” option served as a placeholder of sorts for the former president, who skipped it in favor of Thursday’s caucuses. But it was a stinging rebuke to his last remaining GOP rival that underscored her exceedingly narrow path to the Republican nomination.
“I don’t think there’s a path unless something materially changes in the electorate, which would require something to change with Trump — and that’s not a strategy,” Republican strategist Rob Stutzman said Wednesday. “If it is, we’ve been waiting for it to work for eight years.”
Stutzman said it would take “an extraordinary result in South Carolina,” Haley’s home state, in order for Haley to stay in the race through Super Tuesday. Polls show Haley trailing Trump by a wide margin ahead of the Feb. 24 Palmetto State primary.
Even as she vowed to continue her campaign, Nevada’s result revived questions about whether there is a long-term path for Haley’s campaign. After South Carolina, they turn their attention to Michigan later this month and the 15 states and one U.S. territory that vote on Super Tuesday on March 5, which includes the expensive advertising terrain and trove of delegates in larger states such as Texas and California.
Not only do polls in many of those contests show Trump as the overwhelming front-runner, but Trump-allied GOP party leaders long ago shaped the rules in many of them to benefit the former president as he and Haley compete for the 1,215 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.
Trump is expected to sweep the delegates in Thursday’s Nevada caucuses, and unlike Haley, who bypassed it, held a recent event in the state. His advisers are framing Haley’s effort as the “delusion tour” and arguing that she would have to reshape the Republican electorate in a historic fashion in upcoming states to win — largely by drawing independents or other voters who rarely participate in primaries.
Trump’s advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy, said that even when the campaign models the potential delegate tally for Trump and Haley in upcoming contests using what they view as a best-case scenario for Haley — replicating her strong performance in New Hampshire — Trump would still clinch the nomination by March 19.
“She has no path to the nomination no matter how many Democrats she attempts to win over,” said Trump spokesman Steven Cheung, speaking of Haley.
Haley’s allies on Wednesday sought to brush past Nevada as an outlier state where the party had engineered the process to benefit Trump — echoing Haley campaign manager Betsy Ankney’s assertion that the campaign had not spent “a dime” or an “ounce of energy” in that state. One of Haley’s earliest and most influential financial backers, Fred Zeidman, said the outcome in the Silver State shouldn’t have surprised anyone because Trump’s backers are determined to ensure that he becomes the nominee and Haley is the only opponent left.
“That’s the person they have to tarnish. They’ve got to try to force her out of the campaign or paint her in as poor a light as they possibly can,” he said, adding, “You’re still seeing a lot of money coming into Nikki’s coffers.”
Despite deep doubts within her own party about whether she has a path to the nomination and calls from congressional and party leaders for her to drop out, Haley and her allies have indicated that she intends to remain in the race through at least the Super Tuesday contests. The former South Carolina governor rallied voters Wednesday night in Los Angeles in the midst of a fundraising blitz in California.
“As we get ready for Super Tuesday … just know, I’m not going anywhere,” Haley said to applause before a crowd of about 300 people at an American Legion post in Hollywood Wednesday night. “I’m in this for the long haul and this is going to be messy. And this is going to hurt and it’s going to leave some bruises. But at the end of the day, I don’t mind taking them if you’ll go right along with me.”
“We will outsmart, we will outwork and we will outlast — that is how we are going to win at the end of the day,” she said.
The Haley campaign said she raised $1.7 million this week in California, and aides said Haley had her best fundraising month to date in January, with Ankney arguing it was driven in part by small donors who are excited by polling showing Haley as a stronger competitor than Trump in a head-to-head matchup with President Biden.
Even as the campaign has not placed any ad buys in Super Tuesday states yet, Ankney argued that Haley is “the last one standing between the American people and the rematch that no one wants in Trump versus Biden” and that the campaign would have the resources to “go the distance.”
Haley’s supporters say her path forward to Super Tuesday is predicated on overperforming in South Carolina and Michigan.
“These games are ultimately, largely momentum games. And if Nikki proves that she’ll have the momentum, a rising tide will lift boats, sort of across all of the states,” said Mark Harris, the chief strategist at the pro-Haley SFA Inc.
He added that the states that have “the most low-hanging fruit” are the primaries that are either open or semi-open — allowing the participation of independents and other voters — and those that “are going to be more suburban versus rural in nature.”
But Trump led Haley 58 percent to 32 percent in a recent Washington Post-Monmouth poll of potential GOP primary voters in South Carolina, where Haley served as governor. Many of the state’s top elected officials have lined up to endorse Trump, even those who owe much of their political success to Haley — including Sen. Tim Scott, whom she appointed to the Senate, and Rep. Nancy Mace, whom Haley stumped for and helped save from a Trump-backed challenger.
Her allies in the state have pointed to Haley’s popularity as governor and to her come-from-behind victory in her first run for governor as evidence she can shrink her margins against Trump.
“No one thought she could win. Everyone said she was foolish for staying in. Everybody said bail out. What does that sound like — right now, doesn’t it?,” said South Carolina state Sen. Tom Davis, a Haley supporter.
Asked if she would continue her campaign if she places second in South Carolina, Haley told reporters last Thursday, “We’re not going anywhere. This is about just closing that gap. I am not going anywhere. We have a country to save and I am determined to keep on going the entire way. As long as we can keep closing that gap.”
Michigan presents perhaps an even greater challenge for Haley. Jason Roe, a Michigan-based GOP strategist and former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, predicted Haley’s path in Michigan will be similar to what he called her “almost gratuitous” loss in Nevada. The state’s delegates will be awarded in a bifurcated process, similar to Nevada’s split primary and caucus, with 16 out of 55 delegates awarded based on primary results and the remaining 39 awarded based on a convention vote.
“In a convention kind of dynamic, Donald Trump’s just 20 steps ahead of everybody else in the field,” said Roe. “I think Michigan is as irrelevant as Nevada is. I mean, there’s more opportunity for embarrassment than there is for momentum.”
Haley’s advisers have frequently noted that 11 of the 16 contests on Super Tuesday have open or semi-open primaries in which the former South Carolina governor could expand the universe of voters beyond the Republican base, including key targets like Virginia, Texas, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Vermont.
They note that she has consistently performed well among college-educated voters and suburban voters whom Republicans have struggled to attract over the last couple of cycles. That could create opportunities for Haley to win delegates in the dense suburban areas of North Carolina and Texas. The Lone Star State awards both at-large delegates and delegates by congressional district.
Still, competing across such a broad array of states on Super Tuesday — some with very expensive media markets and complex rules for racking up delegates — will be expensive, particularly as Haley faces a barrage of attacks from Trump’s well-funded effort. In California, for example, Trump has consistently been polling above 50 percent.
Under new rules passed last year, the former president could clinch all of the state’s 169 delegates — more than any other state — if he gets more than 50 percent of the statewide vote on March 5.
Wells reported from Washington.