Haley's crushing defeat in South Carolina shows she has no real path to catch Trump: ANALYSIS

She has money to keep going, but not the delegate math to reach the White House.

February 24, 2024, 9:23 PM

For Republicans holding out hope of halting former President Donald Trump in his quest for a third straight GOP nomination, the stars seemed, for a short time, to have aligned in South Carolina.

Nikki Haley, a two-time governor, just had to win her home state -- in a one-on-one matchup that allowed independents and even Democrats to vote. World events and Trump himself seemed intent on making Haley's task easier, with the former U.N. ambassador able to tout herself as a rational voice of a new generation even as Trump highlighted his own political and legal liabilities.

But that dream scenario played out as a nightmare on Saturday for Haley and those who wanted her to win. She was crushed in the results of the South Carolina primary -- and the slim hopes of stopping Trump in his march to his party's nomination all but evaporated as a consequence of the loss and the brutal math that awaits Haley on Super Tuesday and beyond.

Haley's somber congratulations to Trump late on Saturday were greeted with boos at her election watch party. She hinted at disappointment in not having a stronger finish but said her campaign would continue, to give more voters a chance to weigh in.

"I know 40% is not 50%. But I also know 40% is not some tiny group," Haley said, drawing a line in the sand as the vote counting continued (which later showed her total dip into the 30s).

"We need to be beat Joe Biden in November," she said. "I don't believe Donald Trump can beat Joe Biden."

Unlike following his previous big victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump did not even mention Haley in his own remarks on Saturday night. He talked briefly about the upcoming Michigan primary and turned to general election issues he hopes to weaponize against President Biden this fall.

"It was an even bigger win than we anticipated," the former president said. "I have never seen the Republican Party so unified as it is right now."

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks on stage at her watch party during the South Carolina Republican presidential primary election in Charleston, South Carolina, Feb. 24, 2024.
Brian Snyder/Reuters

Trump's exaggerations aside, he had a right to brag about these results. He won New Hampshire by only about 11 points after capturing Iowa by more than 30, and as vote data rolled in from South Carolina, it looked like Haley would finish further back than she did in New Hampshire.

Trump is the first non-incumbent Republican to win all three big early prizes in the modern voting era.

Haley's campaign had repeatedly declined to specify what she needed to achieve in her home state, but 538's analysis of the delegate math had her needing a sweep of South Carolina's 50 delegates to have a chance of catching Trump in the race that determines the nomination.

Instead, it's Trump who might get a clean sweep, depending on final results across the state's congressional districts.

Haley herself had acknowledged she needed to "close the gap" against Trump.

"I need to show that I'm stronger in South Carolina than in New Hampshire," she said in an interview a few days after the New Hampshire primary last month. "I don't think that necessarily has to be a win. But it certainly has to be better than what I did in New Hampshire and it certainly has to be close."

It doesn't look all that close in the end, and the vote results and exit polls showed the extent to which Haley's arguments against Trump fell flat. She warned loudly that nominating him would hand the election to Biden, but 82% of South Carolina GOP voters said in exit polls that Trump was likely to beat Biden this fall, compared to 59% who said the same about Haley.

By wide margins in the exit poll, Republican voters espoused MAGA-friendly positions on deporting unauthorized immigrants and having the United States play a less active role in world affairs. Nearly two-thirds of voters said Trump would be fit to serve as president even if he is convicted of a crime (he denies wrongdoing); a similar amount said they believe the false notion -- long pushed without evidence by Trump -- that Biden was not legitimately elected president in 2020.

Trump carried Republicans -- who made up roughly seven in 10 of all voters on Saturday -- by a nearly 50-point margin, according to the exit polls. Haley carried independents by some 11 points, a margin not nearly strong enough to make a dent in Trump's lead among core Republicans. (While Democrats who didn't vote in the Democratic primary earlier this month could vote in the GOP primary, self-described Democrats made up only about 4% of all voters Saturday.)

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump walks on stage to speak during an election night watch party at the State Fairgrounds, Feb. 24, 2024, in Columbia, South Carolina.
Win Mcnamee/Getty Images

Haley has said she will campaign through Super Tuesday, when 15 states coast-to-coast vote for the GOP nod. By the end of that night on March 5, nearly half of the convention delegates selected by primaries and caucuses to determine the presidential nomination will have been awarded.

But that vast playing field overstates Haley's chances in practice. Because of primary rules and delegate plans -- many of them engineered by Trump loyalists -- the Haley campaign is only realistically targeting delegates in about half of the Super Tuesday states and does not have a true path to overtaking a lead that is growing and set to soon become far bigger.

Delegate-rich California, for example, changed its rules to give all of its delegates to a candidate who gains a statewide majority, virtually assuring Trump will win all 169 of its delegates. The Trump campaign was proudly behind that change and others like it that make it harder for a trailing candidate to catch up in the delegate race.

In South Carolina, Haley did carry first-time voters and won big among self-described "moderates," exit polling found. But eight in 10 voters described themselves as conservatives, and Trump won them by almost 50 points.

Her big play to change the makeup and inclinations of the electorate did not work, even as Trump criticized NATO allies, refused to condemn Russia's authoritarian President Vladimir Putin and mockingly questioned why Haley's husband -- who is deployed abroad -- was "missing" from the trail. Trump carried veterans over Haley 67-33% in exit polls.

Eight years ago, the Republicans' failure to unite behind a single Trump alternative helped him gain steam throughout the primaries. He won South Carolina in 2016 with less than a third of the total vote, with a half-dozen rivals slicing up the rest and Haley joining Sen. Tim Scott in lining up behind the doomed campaign of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

But now in 2024, Trump's dominance of the Republican Party is such that the field had winnowed to just three major candidates by the time of the Iowa caucuses -- and then to just two people in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

After Saturday night, though, there's only one candidate with a realistic path to the GOP nomination: Trump, with all his evident flaws, criminal cases and polarizing language.

Haley has the resources to continue to campaign for the foreseeable future. But she has neither a message nor a delegate path that appears likely to land her close to becoming the nominee for president.