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Why is Nikki Haley still running?

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You have to hand it to Nikki Haley, she is tenacious. After her fourth straight loss to Donald Trump, this time in her home state of South Carolina, Haley is still not quitting the Republican race. This ensures that for at least the next 10 days until Super Tuesday, when the most states vote, she will continue to snap at Trump’s heels. With each act of defiance against Trump and her inevitable defeat, Haley shames Trump’s former critics-turned-courtiers.

“I have never seen the Republican Party so unified as it is right now,” said Trump in his Saturday night victory speech. Trump’s verdict is irrefutable in terms of his delegate lead, especially because of winner-takes-all states. He will be the Republican nominee. But the dogged “Never Trump” spirit of roughly a quarter of Republican voters — including the 40 per cent or so who voted for Haley in South Carolina — shows a Republican party that is far from unified.

This is no ordinary party split. The cognitive gap between those who believe the 2020 election was stolen and the minority of Republicans who acknowledge that is a myth is extremely hard to reconcile. It is one thing to say your rival believes in voodoo economics, as George HW Bush did of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan selected Bush as his running mate. It is quite another to say “there is no way America is going to vote for a convicted criminal,” as Haley believes will be the case for Trump by November.

That still leaves the question of why Haley is sticking to a primary battle that can only end in her defeat. She has been far too pointed in her recent attacks on Trump’s character to make it to his shortlist for running mate. If a straw poll at this weekend’s populist Conservative Political Action Conference is any guide, the two most popular names are South Dakota governor Kristi Noem and Vivek Ramaswamy, the entrepreneur who dropped out as a candidate in January after the Iowa caucuses. Unless Haley eventually endorses Trump, which is becoming harder by the day, she would join former Wyoming representative Liz Cheney, outgoing Utah senator Mitt Romney and a handful of others as persona non grata in Trump’s world.

Haley’s goal looks more strategic: to become the long-term standard-bearer of the minority of Republicans who reject Trump. Call it the Reaganite rump of the party. That would put her in a good position either to run in 2028 if Trump loses to Biden this November, or to contest an open convention if Trump drops out before November owing to some black swan event. At this point, a criminal conviction probably would not qualify as one.

There is also a streak of psychological momentum to Haley battling it out. The longer she stands alone as the only Republican willing to take on Trump, the more feeble she renders those who have kissed Trump’s ring after warning that he was a danger. Most of Haley’s former rivals, including Mike Pence, Trump’s former vice-president, and even Ron DeSantis, the once virally popular governor of Florida, are deflating by the day. The boost to her brand profile of standing alone may be reason enough for her to stay in the race.

One final possibility is that Haley could become the candidate of No Labels, the third-party group that wants to break the mould of US politics. Many states have “sore loser” laws that stop a candidate from contesting the same election twice. That could block Haley from switching to the third-party banner. But the longer she stays in, the more pollsters will conduct three-way polls with Joe Biden, Trump and her. If Haley refuses to endorse Trump — a very big “if” given her past pledges to support him — she could yet be his nemesis in November. After a primary such as this one, were Haley eventually to bend the knee to Trump, she would be the loser twice over.

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