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What Nikki Haley needs in the New Hampshire primary

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley shakes hands with guests at a V.F.W. hall during a campaign stop, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, in Franklin, N.H. (AP)
Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley shakes hands with guests at a V.F.W. hall during a campaign stop, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, in Franklin, N.H. (AP)

The odds are stacked against Nikki Haley. To have the slimmest of chances of beating Donald Trump, she needs to overcome the polls, the former president’s momentum, and his now almost decade-long iron grip on the Republican base.

But if she’s to achieve one of the most stunning upsets in GOP primary history, that journey has to begin in New Hampshire on Tuesday.

The former president garnered 52 per cent to his former UN ambassador’s 34 per cent, according to polling of likely New Hampshire GOP primary voters by The Washington Post and Monmouth University conducted between 16 and 20 January.

While the numbers are moving in her favour – she has gained 16 points since November to Mr Trump’s six – it’s unlikely to be enough.

The problem for the former South Carolina governor is that while she can claim to have momentum on her side, she eventually needs to get more votes than the other guy.

Waiting for Trump to fall in 2016 and 2024

In 2016, candidates like Florida Senator Marco Rubio and former Ohio Governor John Kasich stayed in the race beyond their time in the hope that Mr Trump would suddenly drop like a rock under the weight of his many scandals.

In 2024, all but one of Mr Trump’s challengers didn’t make it nearly as far, but part of their thinking appeared to be similar to those taking on Mr Trump eight years previously – this time it was the former president’s litany of legal problems that was going to take him out.

Even if Mr Trump is convicted on any of the 91 counts against him before he wins the nomination – which at the moment appears unlikely – the Republican base doesn’t seem to want to leave him behind. In fact, the indictments against him have boosted his support among likely GOP primary voters.

In short, what Ms Haley needs to do in New Hampshire is both simple and bordering on impossible – she either needs diehard Trump fans to vote for her instead of the former president or mount a stunning upset by cobbling together an unlikely coalition of Democrats, independents, and moderate Republicans with college degrees.

Setting the goalposts wide

The candidate herself has set the goalposts miles wide, essentially ensuring that she’ll score.

During a CNN town hall on Thursday, Ms Haley said that her aim for New Hampshire is to outperform her own result in Iowa, where she finished third, two points behind Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who in turn was 30 points behind Mr Trump.

Mr DeSantis ended his campaign on Sunday, allowing Ms Haley to claim that Iowa created a two-person race. While there are technically two people in the race, only Mr Trump appears to have any chance of winning the nomination. With Mr DeSantis out of the race and with a more moderate GOP primary electorate in the Granite State, Ms Haley will probably do better than she did in Iowa by simply remaining in the race.

Ms Haley is doing what all presidential candidates do – avoid setting any actual goals and claim victory regardless of the result such as when Bill Clinton declared himself “the comeback kid” in 1992 after a surprising second-place finish in New Hampshire.

While the ambassador may gain some momentum by outperforming expectations on Tuesday, such non-material things as momentum will soon hold no value as Mr Trump begins to rack up delegates.

‘We won’t know what strong looks like until those numbers come in’

The reality-check moment for Ms Haley could be New Hampshire, one of few states where the GOP primary electorate appears to be at least somewhat interested in a Trump alternative.

“What I want to do is be strong,” Ms Haley said on CNN on Thursday. “We won’t know what strong looks like until those numbers come in.”

The ex-governor is giving herself ample space to argue that her performance in New Hampshire is exactly what she needed, regardless of the number of votes she actually gets.

As of 22 January, Mr Trump stood at 66.2 per cent support among the national GOP electorate while Ms Haley was at 12.3 per cent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average. Ms Haley likely needs to vastly overperform expectations in New Hampshire, if not outright beat Mr Trump, to even begin to turn this ship around.

Like many of the now-departed candidates, Ms Haley has largely avoided going for the jugular in her guarded attacks on Mr Trump. But in the last few days before the New Hampshire primary, she has argued that he may not be “mentally fit” to lead the country, criticised him for attempting to “buddy up with dictators that want to kill us”, and slammed him for his many falsehoods.

‘See you at the finish line’

Ms Haley needs a boost in New Hampshire if she wants to avoid losing the state she led as governor until she joined the Trump administration in 2017. Mr Trump has won the backing of South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, whom Ms Haley appointed to the senate and who dropped out of the presidential race before voting had begun. During a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire on Saturday, Mr Trump invited several top officials from the state up on stage, including current South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster.

“New Hampshire is for Trump. South Carolina is too. We’ll see you at the finish line,” the governor told the crowd.

To add insult to injury, Rep Nancy Mace, who represents the South Carolina district where Ms Haley lives, has also endorsed Mr Trump.

To win on Tuesday, Ms Haley would need massive support from independents and unaffiliated voters, who can vote in the GOP primary under New Hampshire rules. This includes people who may see themselves as Democrats but who choose to cross the aisle to vote against Mr Trump.

She would also need to see a large turnout from her base of moderates and the shrinking group of college-graduate Republicans, in combination with a limited loss in her support among conservatives, and an increase in support from those who backed former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and supporters of the state’s popular Republican Governor Chris Sununu, who has endorsed and campaigned for her.

Similarly, women who don’t want to vote for Mr Trump, who has a history of misogynic behaviour, could help bring Ms Haley across the finish line in New Hampshire.

Overcoming Trump’s ‘show of force’

But it would be an incredibly heavy lift, something former New Hampshire Republican Chair Jennifer Horn thinks won’t happen.

“I think it is all over,” she told Bloomberg.

On Monday night, Mr Trump will be joined at a rally by three of his former challengers – Mr Scott, anti-woke author and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, in a “show of force” for a GOP “united” behind Mr Trump, according to Fox News.

To overcome it, everything needs to go right for Ms Haley on Tuesday. And even if it does, it probably won’t be enough to win the nomination.