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Why Nikki Haley should not drop out of the primary after South Carolina

Now that she has finally made this primary about Donald Trump, I think Haley should stay in the race as long as possible, embarrassing losses be damned.

UPDATE (Feb. 24, 2024 7:13 p.m. E.T.): Donald Trump has won the South Carolina primary, NBC News projects, beating Nikki Haley and further cementing his status as the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.

When former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley lost the New Hampshire primary four weeks ago, she defiantly pledged to keep fighting. Just days before the South Carolina primary, with polls showing her down by double digits, Haley gave a speech billed as the “State of the Race,” where she vowed to stay in the race until at least Super Tuesday.

In politics, it’s all about timing.

The polls consistently showed Haley losing her home state, badly. That’s the worst-case scenario for any candidate. Yet Nikki Haley kept meeting with voters, donors and the media. And now that she has finally made this primary about Donald Trump, I think she should stay in the race as long as possible.

In politics, it’s all about timing. Just a day before Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis dropped out of the race in January, I said that it would make sense for him to get out before New Hampshire if he wants to look toward 2028. Knowing he lost Iowa, and was very likely to lose to Trump in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, it made sense for DeSantis to exit early and preserve his dignity ahead of a potential do-over in 2028.

For Haley, it makes absolute sense for her to stay in the race until Super Tuesday, and hopefully for the entire primary season. The chances of her winning the majority of delegates before the Republican National Convention in July are somewhere between slim and none, but her candidacy has value nonetheless. She is currently one of the only Republicans still willing to challenge Trump head-on.

Money troubles, almost always, doom losing candidates. But as of now, that does not seem to be an acute problem. Haley is running a very savvy, very sustainable campaign. Haley’s fundraising remains healthy; she raised $16.5 million in January, nearly the same amount she raised the previous three months combined. And according to her campaign, Haley also gained nearly 70,000 new donors last month. It seems like Haley’s increasing attacks on Trump are helping her with donors. (It come as no surprise that many of Haley’s new megadonors had supported Chris Christie in 2016 and 2020.)

On the other hand, long-shot candidates typically stay in races because they feel like they still have something to offer. What Haley has to offer is a direct, straightforward argument as to why Trump should not be the Republican nominee, and moreover, never again be allowed to sit behind the Resolute Desk.

Better late than never.

Haley has called Trump “totally unhinged” several times. After he disparaged her husband’s military service, Haley said he was “not qualified to be president.” And, because Trump has refused to debate his rivals throughout the primary, voters have been denied a chance to see him defend his policy positions — and his candidacy writ large — in a public forum. That hasn’t stopped Haley from hammering Trump on his foreign policies — her sweet spot — and calling him “weak in the knees when it comes to Russia.”

So yes, the odds are nearly nonexistent for Haley to become the nominee, but she does still appeal to one-third of Republican primary voters — and that ain’t nothing. Last year, nearly every candidate hedged their bets by becoming the the best alternative to Trump, hoping that his legal trouble would hurt his poll numbers and he wouldn’t be strong enough to run. Remember when DeSantis was viewed as Trump without the baggage? There is no reason Haley shouldn’t continue to collect delegates.

It is also possible, though unlikely, that something could happen to Trump, whether it be legal or even health-related. Haley has a platform and support, and if she continues her current strategy, I hope she stays in the race all the way to the convention, since she is certainly a better alternative to Trump.