Nikki Haley's Campaign Is A Vacation From Reality. It's Almost Time To Pack Up.

The former South Carolina governor campaigned in her home state at events that felt detached from the reality of the GOP. Both Haley and her supporters appear to be putting off the inevitable.
Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley greets supporters at an event at Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, in Mt. Pleasant, S.C.
Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley greets supporters at an event at Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, in Mt. Pleasant, S.C.
(AP Photo/Mic Smith)

LOWCOUNTRY, S.C. — To be at a Nikki Haley rally at this moment in the GOP presidential primary is an exercise in suspending reality.

For an hour you have to imagine that Haley’s candidacy has proven to be desirable for Republican voters outside of these very niche events — filled mostly with committed Haley supporters who tend to visibly recoil at the mention of Donald Trump and Joe Biden. And you have to pretend that her supporters, corralled into blandly interchangeable event spaces, represent anything but a small, exhausted faction of the Republican Party. And you have to believe, as Haley seems to, that a competitive primary is still underway for the nomination, and that a path to that nomination exists for her with Trump still in the race.

But Haley makes it easy to take a vacation from reality, if only for an afternoon in South Carolina.

On Thursday, just two days from South Carolina’s primary election day, Haley drew a crowd of mostly older and almost exclusively white retirees to the dockside patio of a new boutique hotel in the quaint downtown of Georgetown, South Carolina, about an hour’s drive up the coast from Charleston, along a highway dotted with tiny ramshackle structures belonging to the region’s celebrated basket-weaving artisans.

Haley supporters — several of whom said they had already cast early ballots her in Saturday’s primary — wandered in and saddled up to the cash bar, sampled passed hors d’oeuvres (gratis), and took in the crisp ocean breeze under an overcast sky. Many wore Haley’s nautical-navy campaign tees under their windbreakers and sipped plastic cups of chardonnay. A border collie named Ralphie (also in a tee) roamed the premises off-leash.

The chill vibes, however, belied the very serious concerns of the people who believe that no less than the fate of democracy is on the ballot in November. This was Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” for a politically engaged group of Never Trumpers and Never Bideners representing a significant segment of voters nationally who dread the idea of having to vote for either candidate again in November, and who see Haley as their last hope.

“They’re both too old, in my opinion, and I’m their age so I can say that,” declared a retired 76-year-old named Mikki Huss, who joked about having a name nearly identical to Haley’s. “It would be horrible,” Huss said, to have both Trump and Biden on the ballot again. “I just — I can’t. I can’t vote for Biden. His vice president is not fit for the job. Trump’s crazy. Let’s be honest, it really isn’t much of a choice, is it?”

Because, to many of these voters, Haley represents the only way out of this binary, her weak head-to-head polling with Trump in a state where she was twice elected governor is discussed in hush tones, or with anger toward the media for all but declaring Trump the presumptive nominee.

But unlike the MAGA loyalists who reside permanently in Trump’s deluded reality, the Haley supporters who spoke with HuffPost over the course of two days this week understood there would be a time when they’d be forced to choose — Trump, Biden, or no one.

Huss said she’d probably end up writing-in Haley. “You can do that,” she said. “I still just think she’s the right person for the job.”

The race isn’t over, though, and won’t be until Saturday or later if Haley stays in at least through Super Tuesday on March 5, when 15 states and one U.S. territory vote in winner-takes-all primaries. Trump’s advisors are taunting Haley with their predictions that Trump may effectively lock up the requisite number of delegates to clinch the nomination within a month, giving Haley no plausible path unless Trump is sidelined by his legal troubles or a health emergency.

“She’s going to have a very bad day tomorrow because she’s not a nice person,” the former president predicted at a rally Friday in Rock Hill, where he was introduced by South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, the former lieutenant governor under Haley — one of the many South Carolina officials who are behind Trump.

Haley doesn’t dwell much on the mechanics of the race in her stump speech, although a candidate who once bragged about never losing an election has a way of spinning her most recent defeats into successes. “They said we wouldn’t make it to Iowa, and we came within 1% of second place,” Haley said of her third place finish last month to Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who dropped out before the next contest in New Hampshire, where Haley came in second. “We don’t anoint kings in America, we have elections,” Haley declared, employing a line that’s now become a staple of her stump speech. “And after two states, there’s no way we’re gonna name him the nominee.”

Many of Haley’s supporters are doing their own version of election math. Margaret Carroll, a 73-year-old retired teacher who voted for Biden in 2020, said his age and lack of energy now make another vote for him hard to justify. “If it’s between Haley and Biden, I would vote for Haley,” she said. “If it’s between Biden and Trump, I would vote for Biden.” Carroll thought Haley was a good governor and likes that as a presidential candidate she’s “practical, global and sees the big picture.”

Carroll also likes that Haley was “never full of it as governor” and seems to have a backbone. But what about if Haley ends up dropping out and endorsing Trump, after dedicating the closing days of her campaign here to painting Trump as a menace to the GOP and a danger to global security? “Well, my thought of her would go down,” Carroll said. “That would be a big upset for the people who say she has more integrity. If she did that, it would show that she didn’t.”

At her South Carolina events, Haley has been introduced by a series of local county prosecutors — not party leaders who are more likely to be in lockstep with Trump and MAGA — who praise her as a level-headed leader who championed laws and other practical reform measures that aimed to address domestic violence as South Carolina’s first female governor.

Charleston County Solicitor Scarlett Wilson introduced Haley in Georgetown. Wilson, a Republican, was the DA who prosecuted the cop convicted of killing Walter Scott, the unarmed Black man who died in 2015 after being shot in the back five times. “I was waiting on the verdict for trying that cop, and I was on the phone with Nikki Haley, her explaining to me what was going on, her asking me what we needed,” recalled Wilson, who also lauded Haley for presiding over the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse two years later — an issue that Haley has virtually erased from her bio as governor.

Scarlett’s mention of that period and the tepid applause sent the reality of the South Carolina primary crashing back down to earth.

I asked Wilson after the event why it’s been hard for Republicans in Haley’s own home state to vote for her over Trump, and like many of Haley’s supporters, she shrugged and sighed.

“The revisionist history for Haley as governor is just stunning to me. Maybe they’ll do a study on it sometime because I just don’t get it,” Wilson said after the event, shouting over Bon Jovi’s “Who Says You Can’t Go Home.”

Wilson called a Trump-Biden rematch a “disaster for both sides,” and said she’s “very concerned about that. It’s not a good situation, but we have an alternative. We can grow the party and we can grow the conservative movement.”

But what will she do when she’s likely forced to vote for either Trump or Biden in November?

“I’ve already gotten my ballot!” she said — referring, however, to the primary.

What about the general?

Wilson caught the gaze of someone just over my shoulder.

“Oh, it’ll be great,” she mumbled, scooting away.

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