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As Super Tuesday looms, Nikki Haley’s challenge to Donald Trump looks threadbare

As Super Tuesday looms, Nikki Haley’s challenge to Donald Trump looks threadbare
Republican presidential candidate, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, speaks during her primary election night gathering at The Charleston Place on 24 February 2024 in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

With Donald Trump’s victory in the South Carolina primary, the wind is in his sails as the US heads towards the Super Tuesday primary elections. Meanwhile, the incumbent president has his own set of challenges.

By the normal, usual standards, a candidate for the presidential nomination from a major US political party routed in the first four primaries and caucus races (in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina) would now be conferring with their advisers and backers about what to do next. 

super tuesday trump

Republican presidential candidate and former US president Donald Trump speaks during an election night watch party at the State Fairgrounds on 24 February 2024 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo: Win McNamee / Getty Images)

They would be debating how to depart from the race gracefully, yet preserve options for the future — as in 2028. This would be how it has happened for all the other would-have-been challengers of the presumed Trump juggernaut — as the primary season heads toward Michigan next week and Super Tuesday on 5 March — save Nikki Haley, despite her defeats. 

Voters in 15 states will cast ballots on Super Tuesday: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont and Virginia. One territory, American Samoa, will also vote, even though residents there do not cast ballots in the general election for president in November. Before Super Tuesday, Michigan will also hold its primary on 28 February.

To be clear, even a major win across the Super Tuesday states would not — yet — yield sufficient pledged delegates to win the Republican nomination. For Republicans, there are 2,429 total delegates available throughout the primary season. Accordingly, a candidate must win at least 1,215 of them (from whichever states they come from) to secure the nomination. Nonetheless, 874 delegates are at stake on 5 March alone — in addition to the smaller delegate count from the 28 February vote in Michigan, plus the total of delegates pledged so far in the four states that have already concluded their primaries and caucuses. By 6 March, the tide for Trump should look almost unstoppable.

And so, on 24 February, Trump gained a significant victory in South Carolina over his remaining challenger, the state’s former governor, Haley. The results were just under 60% for Trump and just under 40% for Haley. (Haley’s strength came in the city of Columbia, the state capital, and in coastal cities like Charleston.)

This result was despite Haley’s campaign outspending Trump’s by nearly 15 to one, proving, if nothing else, that money does not automatically translate into a political victory. Moreover, being a favourite son or daughter from one’s home state may not beat the near-universal name recognition of Donald Trump. There is voter enthusiasm for the message that is relentlessly, albeit often confusingly and contradictorily, purveyed by the ex-president.

Nevertheless, it also showed there is a pool of voters unwilling to back a former president from their party. This is a potential harbinger of trouble for Trump in the November general election when everybody gets to vote, in addition to the Maga crowd. Importantly, like New Hampshire, South Carolina’s primary is open, meaning voters registered as independents or Democrats could vote on the Republican side of the primary. 

Thus, the results from this latest primary can be read as a victory as well as a potential red flag for Trump as the inevitable Republican candidate in November. That may be because his message is not being accepted beyond those already in his base.

Haley had persevered through those earlier primaries, picking up a few delegates, but already trailing her opponent. In recent days, now that she was the only candidate opposing Trump, she took to criticising Trump in increasingly harsh terms as a man unsuitable for leading the country, lacking the temperament and morals appropriate for a national leader. But none of that seems to have mattered. (Her message is in fact broader. She is saying both President Joe Biden and the ex-president must give way to a new generation capable of exercising moral authority.) 

Still, Haley continues to have a sizeable campaign chest available, even after the extensive spending in her home state. Political wisdom has it that candidates do not drop out of primary races simply because they are beaten in a primary or two, or even more of them. Rather, they drop out because they have run out of money to carry on. So far, Haley has not, and she has pledged she will continue with what may become a personal humiliation tour, as long as there is money.

In reality, Haley’s chances of gaining the nomination will not improve, unless something happens to Trump. This could be a major collapse in some of the next primaries as a result of new, astonishingly embarrassing revelations in the various pending prosecutions of him in state and federal courts. But at this juncture, that seems unlikely.

Stalingrad defence

Moreover, Trump’s lawyers will fight hard to prevent the actual commencement of any of those trials, and, as best they can, have the cases against him begin only after the election. Then, if he wins, the objective would be to have the cases tossed out of the courts in which they are scheduled to be heard so the country would not have a convicted felon sworn in as president (South Africans should be intimately familiar with this tactic, dubbed the “Stalingrad defence” as it has been used by a phalanx of South African politicians over two decades.) 

Even as pre-trial moves occur (beyond the now-concluded New York State case of business fraud and the resulting enormous fine levied against Trump), they are giving him ample opportunities — ones he loves to use — to deliver a campaign message that he is being persecuted by evil judicial-media-governmental-academic elites. In his telling of it, he is the average guy’s “retribution” against those elites. So far, his message has been embraced by his people, if not by the rest of the population.

Given Trump’s near-insurmountable lead in primary voting, speculation is beginning to shift to who he will pick as his vice-presidential running mate. Would he go for someone who shares his political and social values, or would he aim for someone who represents the non-Trump part (or what remains of it) of their party for the sake of unity, or perhaps a full-throated emissary to the Christian fundamentalist evangelicals — a key support base for Republicans? Names being floated include Governor Kristi Noem, Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, senators Tim Scott and JD Vance, and even businessman Vivek Ramaswamy. But the choice will be Trump’s, not the convention’s.

Meanwhile, he is already pushing to take over the mechanisms of the Republican Central Committee, including ousting its current chair, Ronna McDaniel, and installing his daughter-in-law in the incumbent’s place. One key objective seems to be to tap into the committee’s funds and fundraising to help him pay his rapidly ballooning legal bills.

Biden candidacy

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US President Joe Biden speaks on 23 February 2024 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Meanwhile, among Democrats, the incumbent president, Biden, seems almost certain to gain the Democratic nomination from his party, in the absence of any actual opposition within the party as a declared candidate. Still, Biden is facing a modest but troublesome rebellion in Michigan. That state is crucial to the Biden team’s strategy for winning the national election, and a loss there could be a fatal wound to Biden’s reelection chances in November. 

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate in 2016, lost that state by a relative handful of votes (with equally paper-thin losses in several other states), while Biden won the presidency in 2020 with a larger, but still modest majority in Michigan. This time around, a key for Biden will be to mobilise blue-collar voters who have benefited from the major economic stimulation packages passed by Congress at the urging of the president, along with minority and suburban, college-educated voters for whom Trump was anathema in the 2016 and 2020 races.

hillary clinton

Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton on 17 February 2024 in Munich, Germany. (Photo: Johannes Simon / Getty Images)

But the problem in Michigan for Biden, now, is that Michigan is also the state with the most Arab-American and Muslim-American voters (the two groups are not the same but there is significant overlap and they represent at least 300,000 people). They have historically voted for Democratic Party candidates.

At this point, we should remind readers a presidential election is won state by state with the electoral weight (roughly equivalent to population) of each state given to the candidate who wins the most popular votes in that state. The electoral weight is the sum of its two senators plus the number of its House of Representatives delegation. Only two small population states split their electoral votes proportionally. Thus, to win, one needs 270 out of a total of 538 electoral votes.

Many of those Arab-American/Muslim-Americans say they are angry over the Biden administration’s current policies towards the Israel/Gaza conflict and its support for Israel. Accordingly, those voters are being urged to show their displeasure through a combination of spoiled ballots or write-in candidates in the Michigan Democratic primary. That might be a harbinger of what could happen in November, especially if such voters sit out the election — or are persuaded to vote for one of the third or fourth-party candidates. That would set up a Trump win in Michigan. That, in turn, could mean Biden losing the entire election.

The age issue

Also for Biden, there is a persistent public drumbeat from various quarters — most especially from several influential commentators and columnists — that he shouldn’t even be in this race. At his age, he should be handing the nomination contest over to the Democratic Party national convention and let the party’s deep bench of solid performers fight it out in the backrooms and in the plenary like the good old days before primaries. 

There is little clarity on how delegates to such a convention would be selected or how someone would campaign, but a growing number of voices are worried the incumbent president will not be able to withstand the rigours of campaigning and governing through to 2028. Moreover, there is unease among many voters over Vice-President Kamala Harris’s skills and capabilities to step up instead, if Biden were elected but then falters. This could spell disaster for many Democrats running for office “down ballot”. 

There is also the fear Trump will be able to overwhelm a president whom many see as increasingly frail through the campaign. There is, of course, the alternative school of thought that Trump may be the only Republican Biden could beat, given Trump’s legal entanglements as well as his own gaffes and his wild, sometimes incomprehensible, incoherent ramblings in speeches.

All of this is taking place amid a noisy background of national concern over a range of issues. These include fears about unchecked immigration and poor border security, the inability of a divided Congress to pass a national government budget before funds run out in early March, the wrangling over military aid appropriations for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan (with baleful consequences for Ukraine’s resistance to Russian military advances), the fears of a much wider war in the Near East and the conflict in Gaza and in the Red Sea shipping lanes, as well as the public’s feeling that the economy is still in delicate or poor health.

There is also a national battle that continues over reproductive rights but with a new twist, the Alabama Supreme Court ruling that fertilised embryos awaiting an IVF procedure are children.

Taken together, this is generating concerns among allies and friends — and some smug satisfaction among antagonists — over the ability or will on the part of the US to lead. The likely outcome of the election, so far, at least, is offering little real reassurance. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Heres a wild idea…
    The only way to beat Donald Trump is for Biden to do the right thing and retire at Super Tuesday and nominate a successor . I don’t think Harris is up for the job although she is a very smart and likeable person ( and would be a stronger contender than Haley) perhaps a moderate Republican with Democratic intentions like Liz Chaney would be a good thing! Now wouldn’t that be something!!, it would unite the country almost immediately! Biden would leave a hero after doing a fantastic job over the last four years, The Donald would then have the time to work out how he is paying all his fines and America would be run by a capable strong woman who has America’s best interests at heart! Just an idea!

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