What does the end of Nikki Haley’s campaign mean for the Republican Party?

While Haley criticised former President Trump, she embraced many of his policies while failing to peel away supporters.

Haley reads from a podium.
Former Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks at a primary watch party in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 24 [Brian Snyder/Reuters]

She raised concerns about his age. His mental state. His capacity for leadership when faced with 91 criminal charges.

And yet, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley could not overcome former President Donald Trump in the race for the United States presidency. On Wednesday, she announced she was suspending her campaign, clearing the way for Trump to receive the Republican Party nomination.

Analysts, however, say her long-shot bid reflects how ironclad Trump’s hold over the party has become. Nevertheless, her campaign gave voice to the anxieties some Republicans harbour.

“There is some angst in elite Republican circles that Trump comes with a lot of baggage and that they could do better with someone else,” Osita Nwanevu, a writer on US politics, told Al Jazeera. “Haley was the candidate who embodied that concern, that sticking with Trump could hurt the party.”

But that message failed to resonate beyond pockets of moderate voters. Haley announced her campaign’s suspension in the aftermath of the Super Tuesday primary votes. With 15 states up for grabs, she only managed to secure one: left-leaning Vermont.

Haley ultimately finished the race on Wednesday with just 89 party delegates to Trump’s 995. Delegates ultimately decide who receives the party nomination.

“In all likelihood, Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee when our party convention meets in July. I congratulate him and wish him well,” Haley said in her announcement on Wednesday.

However, Haley stopped short of endorsing Trump, instead calling on him to win over voters who may have doubts about his candidacy.

“It is now up to Donald Trump to earn the votes of those in our party and beyond who did not support him,” she said.

Last woman standing

A former governor of South Carolina, Haley outlasted all other major Republican opponents, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, to face Trump one-on-one in the primaries.

But even her exit speech reflected the difficult balancing act she was forced to walk. Experts say she tried to appeal to moderates without alienating party voters for whom loyalty to Trump has become an article of faith.

Throughout the race, Trump pilloried Haley — a former member of his administration — as a “birdbrain” and a “Republican in name only”, or RINO. He celebrated her Super Tuesday losses with a post on social media, revisiting a frequent accusation that she represented Democratic interests.

“Nikki Haley got TROUNCED last night, in record setting fashion, despite the fact that Democrats, for reasons unknown, are allowed to vote in Vermont, and various other Republican Primaries,” Trump wrote. “Much of her money came from Radical Left Democrats.”

Experts have observed that Trump’s rhetoric towards Haley has been echoed among his base of supporters, who have questioned her political credentials — and even her citizenship as an American of Indian heritage.

Trump, for example, raised doubts about whether she was even born in the United States, a conspiracy theory he also pushed during the presidency of Democrat Barack Obama.

“The level of negativity towards her from Trump and his supporters is usually reserved for members of opposing political parties,” Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego, told Al Jazeera. “Her challenge to Trump was met with real vitriol.”

Conservative bona fides

But while Haley has been able to project herself as a moderate alternative to Trump, she has consistently staked out right-wing positions on issues such as immigration, abortion and foreign policy.

During a Republican primary debate earlier this year, Haley leaned into far-right talking points. “You have to deport them,” she said at one point of the roughly 10 million undocumented immigrants in the US.

She has also pushed to raise the country’s retirement age and called Democratic legislation addressing climate change a “communist manifesto”.

Her unconditional support for Israel — even amid its deadly campaign in Gaza — has also been a hallmark of her campaign. In a recent interview, she said that displaced Palestinians in Gaza should be resettled in Arab countries.

Still, she did stake out positions that put her at odds with some members of her party, particularly Trump.

Her firm support for Ukraine, for example, drew ire from the party’s right flank, and she has criticised Trump’s actions on January 6, 2021, when his supporters stormed the US Capitol to overturn the 2020 election results.

“I think he should have stopped it when it started,” she told NBC’s Meet the Press.

But Haley acknowledged the political costs of making those kinds of criticisms. Speaking to reporters in 2015, she addressed the backlash she and others faced from Trump.

“Every time someone criticises him, he goes and makes a political attack back,” Haley said. “That’s not who we are as Republicans. That’s not what we do.”

What happens to Haley voters?

With Haley now out of the presidential race, President Joe Biden, the Democratic incumbent, has already made a play for the moderate voters who backed her campaign.

In a statement on Wednesday, Biden praised Haley for being willing to “speak the truth about Donald Trump”. He also courted her supporters, saying there is “a place for them in my campaign”.

A recent Quinnipiac poll found that, of the Republicans who voted for Haley, only 37 percent said they would cast their ballot for Biden if she dropped out. Nearly half, however, pledged to back Trump.

Nwanevu, the political writer, said that reflected Trump’s steadfast dominance in the Republican field. Since emerging as an outsider candidate in 2016 with no political experience, Trump has exerted increasing dominance over the Republican Party — and voters have rallied behind him.

“Trump is tremendously popular among Republican voters, more so than when he ran in 2016 when he won most primaries without a majority of the vote,” Nwanevu told Al Jazeera.

Recent poll numbers have also buoyed Trump’s campaign. A March poll from the New York Times and Siena College showed that Trump had a lead over Biden of 48 percent to 43 percent. Biden’s popularity, meanwhile, has slumped to record lows.

Those numbers have proven unifying for Republicans. Kousser, the political science professor, told Al Jazeera that Biden’s low approval ratings would reassure some Republican voters that the former president has the capacity to win, even with his abrasive public persona and legal baggage.

“They don’t feel that they have to choose between the candidate closest to their heart and someone who can win in November,” he said.

Officials falling in line

Republican officials have likewise lined up behind Trump’s candidacy.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for instance, has previously slammed Trump over his actions on January 6. But on Wednesday, McConnell again offered his support to Trump despite their stormy personal relationship.

“It should come as no surprise that, as nominee, he will have my support,” McConnell said.

Nwanevu, the writer, said that even establishment Republicans who have qualms with Trump have come to see him as a vessel to advance traditional conservative priorities.

“The Republican establishment has largely brought Trump on board with their main policy goals. During his first term, you didn’t see the big realignment on trade he promised. He cut taxes, pushed deregulation and appointed conservative justices to the Supreme Court,” he explained.

“There are still some in the party who feel they could be accomplishing more on the policy front without Trump looming over them, but those forces in the party have largely resigned themselves and realised they aren’t able to displace him.”

In her exit speech, Haley again took on the cadence of a moderate, a signal that she may still believe that there is a future for her in the party, should Trump lose again in 2024.

“At its best, politics is about bringing people into your cause, not turning them away,” Haley said in her remarks on Wednesday. “And our conservative cause badly needs more people.”

Source: Al Jazeera