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Should Nikki Haley drop out of the race? Staying in helps Trump and Biden, hurts her future, expert says

Nikki Haley standing in front of a row of US flags waving to a crowd off-camera.
Republican presidential candidate and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley vowed Tuesday to stay in the 2024 Republican presidential primary until March. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Nikki Haley says she’s staying in the campaign through Super Tuesday on March 5, despite her 11 percentage points loss to Donald Trump in the New Hampshire Republican primary. 

But Northeastern University associate professor of political science Nick Beauchamp says that doing so may be a mistake.

After all, polls have Haley trailing Trump by 37 points in her home state of South Carolina, a conservative state with far fewer moderate and independent voters than New Hampshire.

“Staying on until Super Tuesday might be kind of just foolish in terms of maintaining your long-term reputation,” Beauchamp says. “There’s so little chance of (former President Donald Trump) not being the nominee, that sort of ‘wait-and-see’ strategy just doesn’t work very much.”

Beauchamp says that continuing the Haley campaign may be more advantageous to primary rival Trump and potential general election rival President Joe Biden than to Haley herself. 

Headshot of Nick Beauchamp.
Nick Beauchamp, associate professor of political science at Northeastern, says continuing the Haley campaign may hurt her and help her political rivals. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“In some ways, if I was Trump, I would want this thing to last longer because the longer the primary lasts, the more the press is obligated to focus on horse race stuff and more of the headlines and more of the column inches are devoted to Haley and Trump and not to E. Jean Carroll and trials and whatever the Democrats want to change the topic to,” Beauchamp says. “Do (Democrats) want to focus on Trump themselves, or are they happy to have somebody else who’s doing the critiquing for them? I think that at the moment they kind of like Haley being in.”

Haley received 43% of the vote in New Hampshire, compared to Trump’s 54%. That after she finished third in last week’s Iowa caucuses with Trump receiving 51%, Ron DeSantis (who has since dropped out) 21% and Haley 19%.

But Haley said Tuesday morning — many hours before the New Hampshire results were announced — that she wouldn’t make a decision on the future of her campaign until after Super Tuesday. She also has the money to continue.

“The political class and the media want to give Donald Trump a coronation,” Haley campaign manager Betsy Ankney said in a statement. “That isn’t how this works.”

“While members of Congress, the press, and many of the weak-kneed fellas who ran for president are giving up and giving in — we aren’t going anywhere,” Ankney continued.

Beauchamp says the main consideration for Haley at this point is likely not 2024 but 2028. 

“I guess the scenario that the other Republican candidates are hoping for is that Trump loses the general election, and then there’s an open election in 2028, and Republicans are feeling the need to go with somebody a little bit more sensible rather than a radical the next time around,” Beauchamp says.

But if Haley is seen as unnecessarily prolonging the primary battle, she’s likely to receive bad press, Beauchamp says. The media narrative is also unlikely to be kind in the next few weeks, at least according to polls in South Carolina and Michigan

“If everybody’s just talking about how Trump trashed her in her own state, it’s going to be hard to stick it out,” Beauchamp says. 

Haley could be hit with a double whammy of negative press for staying in the primary race and losing, a combination that would be difficult for any candidate to overcome, particularly one who wants to stay in Republican voters’ good graces, Beauchamp says.

What’s the upside for Haley? Becoming Trump’s vice president? She’s already ruled that out. Plus, Trump won’t want anyone who could steal his spotlight, Beauchamp says. So, better to go with a relative unknown. And time is running out for the law or ill health to catch up with Trump, at least during the primary season, he says.

“It’s possible that something could happen that would remove Trump as a nominee,” Beauchamp says. “But at this point it seems more certain that he will be the nominee and, if anything happens, it will be at the level of the general election.”

Beauchamp sees benefits for Biden and Trump if Haley stays in.

Biden probably loves someone else attacking Trump on verbal gaffes and mental lapses, Beauchamp says, as it absolves Biden from having to do so and risk reminding voters of his own misstatements and stumbles.

However, that’s not to say that the Biden campaign can really do anything to prolong the Republican primary. 

“I don’t think that they can do much about it except sit on the sidelines and hope that things last a little bit longer as an actual race,” Beauchamp says. 

As for Trump, a focus on the horse race of the primary season normalizes him as a candidate and takes attention away from his court case. With an apparent majority of the Republican Party supporting Trump, Haley’s essentially pulling her punches, Beauchamp says. 

“Whatever attack she makes about him making a verbal gaffe is not nearly as bad as other stuff that could be done,” Beauchamp says. 

A prolonged primary season also puts off Trump’s transition from appealing to his base to the swing voter — a difficult transition for Trump in 2020. 

“For the time being, having a strategy where he can deliver the red meat to the base and not have that cause trouble for the swing voters … is a good strategy,” Beauchamp says. “As soon as that stops and he starts becoming the headliner again, he’s got a little bit more risk…”