In her speech after losing Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary to former President Donald Trump — her second straight loss, after Iowa — former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley vowed to keep running.
And the reason she gave sounded simple enough.
New Hampshire “is not the last [primary] in the nation,” said Haley, Trump’s only remaining challenger for the Republican presidential nomination. “This race is far from over. There are dozens of states left to go, and the next one is my sweet state of South Carolina."
Yet pundits, political strategists and even some party leaders have spent the last few days insisting that Haley is wrong.
“I'm looking at the map and the path going forward, and I don't see it for Nikki Haley," said Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel. “This isn’t the RNC speaking. This isn’t the establishment speaking. This is the voters speaking.”
"It's now past time for the Republican Party to unite around President Trump," House Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana added in a statement.
“At this point Haley can either drop out or help the Democrats,” Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio wrote on X.
Why are so many people saying the GOP primary is over before most states have even voted? And do they have a point? Here’s the state of play.
How primaries work
A presidential nominating contest is two things at once: a cold, hard math problem and a fuzzier, vibier political process.
Mathematically, it’s all about amassing delegates across a months-long, state-by-state calendar of elections called primaries and caucuses.
The rules vary by state; some allocate their delegates proportionally, some are winner-take-all, some are in-between.
But essentially, the more votes a candidate racks up in a particular state, the more delegates they earn. Whoever is first to collect a majority of the total available delegates — or whoever remains after everyone else has dropped out — becomes the party’s “presumptive nominee.” After the last states vote, those delegates attend a summer convention and make the nomination official.
Politically, however, the process often plays out a lot more quickly.
Someone wins the first state to vote (like Trump won Iowa). Losing candidates bail (like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the second-place Iowa finisher, who ended his campaign five days later). Someone wins the second state to vote (like Trump won New Hampshire). More candidates bail. By the time Super Tuesday rolls around — the day when the most states vote, traditionally in early March — it tends to be obvious which candidate voters prefer. The field clears and the rest of the contest is a technicality.
This isn’t always the case, of course.
In 2008, then-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton performed well enough with certain Democratic voters that she continued to campaign — and win delegates — until then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama finally claimed a mathematical majority of delegates in early June. In 1976, President Gerald Ford arrived at the convention in Kansas City with a plurality (but not a majority) of delegates, so he had to convince a certain number of uncommitted delegates to break for him (rather than second-place finisher Ronald Reagan) in the hall itself.
This year’s primary has the potential to be unusual, as well. Trump faces 91 felony charges across four separate criminal cases. Two states, Maine and Colorado, are attempting to remove him from their primary ballots, arguing that he is disqualified from the presidency under the 14th Amendment because he “engaged in an insurrection” on Jan. 6 — arguments the Supreme Court will soon review.
At the same time, Trump is also the only former president since Herbert Hoover in 1940 to seek another non-consecutive term — with all the advantages that confers in terms of political infrastructure and partisan loyalty.
Why Trump’s position is so strong
With 32 delegates to his name so far, Trump isn’t anywhere close to amassing a majority. To get there, he’ll need to win 1,200 more. So mathematically, Haley is right: This race is far from over. There are dozens of states left to go.
But politically, she’s in trouble for two reasons.
First, there’s precedent to consider. No Republican candidate in the modern primary era has lost Iowa and New Hampshire and gone on to win the nomination. Conversely, Trump is the first Republican presidential candidate to win open races in both states — i.e., races without an incumbent president — since they began leading the election calendar in 1976.
The polls, meanwhile, are even more daunting.
Haley performed well in New Hampshire, earning 43% of the vote against a former president. But the electorate that turned out Tuesday in the Granite State was unique. According to exit polls, it almost certainly included more college graduates (48%), moderate-to-liberal voters (33%) and independents (44%) than any other major GOP primary state. All three groups preferred Haley to Trump by wide margins.
The problem is that all three groups will be much smaller virtually everywhere else going forward — and the groups that prefer Trump will be much bigger. Among New Hampshire conservatives, the former president beat his former United Nations ambassador 71% to 27%. Among New Hampshire Republicans, he won 74% to 25%. And among non-college graduates, he prevailed 67% to 31%.
If Haley couldn’t win in New Hampshire, the thinking goes, what chance does she have in even more conservative, more Republican, less college-educated states?
The latest polling averages show Haley (25%) trailing Trump (63%) by 38 points in her home state of South Carolina, which votes on Feb. 24 — and the margins are even wider in subsequent, delegate-rich states such as Ohio (-48 points), Florida (-52 points) and Texas (-53 points).
Nationally, the most recent Yahoo News/YouGov survey, from mid-December, found Trump leading Haley 70 percent to 19 percent in a one-on-one matchup. Across all national polls, Trump is now ahead by an average of 55 points.
Haley’s reasons for continuing
Regardless of what the numbers say, Haley insists she’s soldiering on to South Carolina.
“South Carolina voters don't want a coronation; they want an election,” Haley told her supporters Tuesday night. “And we're gonna give them one."
Whether she can keep that promise remains to be seen. Pressure from Republican leaders to unite around Trump will grow; her own donors might turn off the taps; Haley could start to worry about hurting her future in Republican politics.
"Regardless of what anyone tells you, her money is going to dry up,” GOP megadonor Andy Sabin told Reuters. “Why would you fund someone who you know has no chance?"
Yet ultimately only the candidate herself can decide when her particular race is run. Officially, Haley’s campaign argued in a memo released Tuesday that both South Carolina and Michigan (Feb. 27) have open primaries, meaning that independents can participate — as do 11 of the 16 states and territories voting on Super Tuesday (March 5).
“After Super Tuesday, we will have a very good picture of where this race stands,” Haley’s campaign manager explained. “At that point, millions of Americans in 26 states and territories will have voted. Until then, everyone should take a deep breath.”
Right now, Haley has 17 delegates. After Super Tuesday, she will likely have more. Sometime this spring, two of Trump’s four upcoming criminal trials — one in New York for allegedly paying hush money to a porn star; one in Washington, D.C., for scheming to overturn his 2020 election loss — should get underway.
A lot could happen between then and July 15, when the Republican convention is scheduled to start in Milwaukee. In that light, it wouldn’t be completely irrational for Haley to keep her name on the ballot — just in case.