Nikki Haley’s latest drubbing by Donald Trump leaves her campaign in a hopeless place

Candidate’s vow to keep fighting after former US president secures South Carolina primary can be construed as southern valour or pointless delusion - or perhaps both

In what will become a footnote to an exceptional election year in US political history, Saturday night will be remembered as the evening when South Carolina seceded to the cult of Donald Trump with a haste that almost seemed indecent. Polling closed in the Palmetto state at 7pm local time on Saturday evening. At 7.02pm, Associated Press called the Republican primary in the former president’s favour, leaving Nikki Haley, the lone challenger to Trump’s march to the Republican nomination, valiantly promising to battle on even as she watched the electoral map of her home state turn the burning red colours which signal Trump’s domination.

It wasn’t quite a humiliation, but it leaves her campaign in a hopeless place. By the time she took to the stage at her watch party in Charleston, Haley was polling steadily at 40 per cent of the vote. But her grassroots were confined to the urban and collegiate centres of Charleston and Columbia, which will beg the question as to whether her vote contained Democratic protest votes. She was on track to lose 43 of the 46 counties in the state to Trump. The result came in so early that many of Charleston socialites heading for the Haley results party were still at home getting spruced up when she took to the stage.

“From the start of this campaign I have made clear I am running for president to save America,” she told those in the room.

“I’m running to remind us what it means to be an American. In the America I know and love we believe in each other and believed in America’s inherent goodness. Now is the time to renew that belief. Now is the time to remember who we are. And I am grateful that today is not the end of our story. We’re headed to Michigan tomorrow and we are headed to the Super Tuesday states throughout all of next week. We will keep fighting for America and we won’t rest until America wins.”


This can be construed as southern valour or pointless delusion and it probably contains elements of both. At the Trump watch party, the South Carolina power brokers – governor Henry McMaster and Tim Scott, the senator appointed by Haley during her term as governor and now in contention as Trump’s running mate – were obediently lined up on stage when Trump appeared to make his latest victory speech. He had spent much of the day at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Baltimore and seemed pleased to have South Carolina wrapped up without the usual hanging around and midnight speeches.

“I just wish we could do it quicker,” he said, turning his thoughts to the election.

“Nine months is a long time. In certain countries you’re allowed to call your election date. If I had the right to do it, I’d do it tomorrow. I’d say: we’re having an election.”

Over 30 minutes of remarks during which he praised the unprecedented spirit within the Republican Party and dwelt upon “the horror” being visited on the US by illegal immigrants, Trump did not once refer to Haley by name. The visible annoyance he had displayed after she trumped him by taking the stage first on the night of the New Hampshire primary was now replaced by a more regal assumption that the nomination has been secured. Haley’s vow about keeping up the fight, meanwhile, contained a more sombre note and a tacit admission that she is sticking around to fulfil a promise to Republican voters.

“In the next 10 days, 21 states and territories will speak. They have the right to a real choice. Not a Soviet-style election with only one candidate.”

We don’t get out of our downward spiral if we keep on obsessing about the past. Does anyone seriously think that Joe Biden or Donald Trump will unite our country?

—  Nikki Haley, speaking in South Carolina

The argument can be made that drawing 40 per cent of the vote in the South’s first primary does not reflect a Republican electorate completely aligned with Trump’s vision for the US. But after a tumultuous month for the former Republican president during which he was ordered to pay $83 million (€76.6 million) in a defamation case to journalist and author E Jean Carroll – for which his lawyers lodged a suspension-of-payment request on Friday, arguing that there is a “strong probability” the verdict won’t stick – he continues to exercise his appeal and popularity among a huge sway of Republican voters.

In retrospect, Haley’s mistake may well be identified as her reluctance to deliver trenchant attacks on Donald Trump until the 11th hour. If many Americans are dreading an election choice between incumbent Joe Biden and Donald Trump, she presented herself as the last alternative to that inevitability with her parting message from South Carolina.

“We can’t afford four more years of Biden’s failures or Trump’s lack of focus. Families can’t afford groceries. Nine million illegals have come to our borders with enough fentanyl to kill every single American. We don’t get out of our downward spiral if we keep on obsessing about the past. Does anyone seriously think that Joe Biden or Donald Trump will unite our country?”

That’s a freighted question. So, the Republican primary roadshow will press on, but all pretence of a genuine competition is fading. Haley travelled straight to Michigan to prepare for a rally at Troy on Sunday evening. But her campaign is looking more daunting and lonelier than ever, cut adrift now from the power base of her party and not considered worth a namecheck by the rival who has made it clear he regards her decision to run – and to continue to run – against him as a breach of friendship.

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