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From the Center

Let’s not sugarcoat it. Nikki Haley lost big. She was routed in her home state of South Carolina’s presidential primary on Saturday, losing to Donald Trump by a historic margin. It’s not clear how much longer she will remain in the race, but before she withdraws, it’s worth noting what she has achieved. By virtue of her remaining in the race until she was Trump’s last opponent, Haley is now the nominee of the non-Trump Republican Party. This sounds like a mere rationalization, but it is actually much more valuable.

The most immediate benefit of representing the non-Trump GOP is that something might happen to Trump. There is a non-zero chance that the former president may face a legal or health-related obstacle between now and his party’s national convention that would prevent him from continuing in the race. Once Trump has selected a vice presidential candidate, that individual would almost certainly succeed him. But if that were to happen before his running mate was confirmed by convention delegates, Haley would be as well-positioned as any other party leader to step in as the nominee.

Assuming the more likely general election season in which Trump continues to November, the party will still soon reach a place in which he is no longer the Republican standard-bearer. Whether that time comes later this year after his defeat or in 2029 after his second term in office, Haley’s emergence has positioned her as his potential successor to a level that would not have been seriously considered when she entered the race.

Nothing is guaranteed to her, of course, especially given the growing animosity toward her that has developed among Trump’s most ardent backers. They see her ongoing candidacy as an affront to their champion, and their invective toward her has gotten noticeably nastier. But four years is a long time, and Republicans have historically been an extremely hierarchical party: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney all finished second in one fight for the nomination before succeeding in winning it in their next race.

If Trump is elected in November, Haley’s prospects for 2028 would probably diminish in favor of an opponent who more closely mirrors the former president’s approach. But that also presumes a successful second term for Trump, which is by no means guaranteed. And if Biden is re-elected, it becomes much more likely that Republicans will search for a different type of leader. Many GOP notables who kept their heads down during the Trump years will vie for that role, but Haley’s visibility over the last several months will allow her to begin that campaign with a decided edge.

Let’s agree that achieving either of these goals would be a decidedly uphill path for Haley. It's worth noting that her chances are far greater than they were one year ago, when she was one of more than a dozen challengers to Trump. Her one-time competitors have scattered. Ron DeSantis is back in Tallahassee, Tim Scott is fighting to be on the ticket, Mike Pence and Chris Christie are unlikely to try again, and Vivek Ramaswamy is headed for his next stop, either in the House of Representatives or as a talk show host.

Each of them has long since returned home from their time on the campaign trail, while her durability and survival skills will give her a significant advantage when the next election season begins to take shape. Like Pence and Christie, Haley represented a reminder of the pre-Trump Republican Party in this year’s Trump-dominated contest. By 2028, she will be the only one of the three who will be seen as a serious contender.

At that point, the GOP will be deep in an internal debate about whether their post-Trump party will return to its earlier status or embark in an entirely new direction. It will have to decide whether to re-establish the small government and internationally assertive agenda that Reagan defined and that his successors continued, or whether the working-class party that Trump has built will construct a future that more closely reflects his worldview. But whether Haley becomes a future nominee or not, she has secured a place for herself in that debate.

Haley would obviously have preferred to be the Republican nominee this year rather than not. But her consolation prizes are considerable, and they guarantee an important role for her when her party does begin to consider its future.

Want to talk about this topic more? Join Dan for his webinar "Politics In The Time of Coronavirus." Or read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).

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