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Jan 30, 2024, 5:59pm EST
politics

The Republican primaries were built for Donald Trump

Nikki Haley hosts a rally in Conway, South Carolina, on Jan. 28, 2024 as part of her swing in the Palmetto State.
Anadolu via Getty Images/Photo by Peter Zay
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The Scene

LAS VEGAS – In one week, Nevada will host the first-in-the-west presidential primary, as state law requires. Nikki Haley will win it. And it won’t matter, because Republicans decided to hold a separate caucus two days later — with Donald Trump on the ballot, but not Haley.

“A woman who claims to be fiscally conservative just wasted $5 million in Nevada taxpayers money, for a nothing result that gives her a plastic tiara and a participation trophy,” said Michael McDonald, the chairman of the state Republican Party.

Trump is skipping Nevada’s non-binding primary in favor of the caucus, which Haley isn’t contesting, and which local Republicans will use to assign the state’s 26 delegates. (Candidates could only pick one to compete in.) McDonald’s party made that choice last year, along with limits on how super PACs — a critical part of ground operations for rival candidates — could organize at caucus sites. That drove the pro-DeSantis Never Back Down out of the state, denouncing “Trump-inspired rigging.”

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As Trump’s allies try to nudge Haley out of the race, and as the Haley campaign fundraises off the pressure, the former president’s pre-established primary advantages are coming into view. The race has moved from two early states with proportional delegate rules and easy crossover voting — both helpful to Haley — into states built for Trump.

“We’re not going to have a lot of competition, I think, but it doesn’t matter,” Trump said at a Saturday rally here. “We want to get a great, beautiful mandate.”

In South Carolina, where Haley consistently polls behind Trump, delegates in the Feb. 24 primary are winner-take-all; a race as close as New Hampshire’s would leave Trump with 50 delegates. In Michigan, the state GOP will assign just 16 delegates based on Feb. 27 primary results and pick the other 39 at a March 2 convention, the kind that Trump supporters have dominated.

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Even in the Virgin Islands, where both Trump and Haley have sent surrogates ahead of the Feb. 8 caucuses, the national RNC’s opposition to ranked-choice voting cut their delegate pool from nine to 4 — and an upset win for Haley would come the same day as Trump’s sure-thing Nevada win. Even Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo, who was critical of the party’s decision to hold a caucus next week that he said would confuse voters, has said he’ll write “none of the above” on his primary ballot and then caucus for Trump.

Haley and her campaign have described a race that will take two months to settle. “We’ll have all the time we need to defeat Joe Biden,” Haley said in her New Hampshire concession speech last week. In a campaign memo distributed before the speech, Haley campaign manager Betsy Ankney looked toward Super Tuesday on March 5, when 11 of 16 voting states “have open or semi-open primaries.”

But Nevada comes first, and Haley is shrugging it off. In New Hampshire, the candidate told reporters that she’d “focus on the states that are fair,” which did not include Nevada, where “the Trump train” rolled over the process.

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“Talk to the people in Nevada,” Haley said. “They will tell you the caucuses have been sealed up, bought and paid for a long time. So, that’s why we got into the primary.”

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David’s view

Six months ago, the Trump campaign’s work to get favorable primary rules in early states looked like an insurance policy. What if something went awry in Iowa or New Hampshire?

Trump won both, and his endorsers are in a holding pattern as Haley continues her campaign. They explain that party rules make it hard for Haley to compete with Trump, even though just two small states have voted; they say that preventing Trump from moving on, immediately, is hurting the effort to beat Joe Biden.

“We have blown over $400 million to determine that Donald Trump is going to be the Republican nominee,” RNC Arizona committeeman Tyler Bowyer told activists and fellow RNC members on Monday, at a two-day election strategy conference hosted here by Turning Point USA. Hours earlier, Republican Party of Texas chairman Matt Rinaldi had endorsed Trump, judging that “the threat our nation faces from the Democrats, globalists, and fake Republicans that hand power to Democrats is truly extraordinary.”

Haley, who’s picked up no Republican endorsements since New Hampshire, isn’t affected by this. Goading her to quit the race backfired, in important ways; a RNC resolution that would have declared Trump as the party’s presumptive nominee was pulled after Trump turned on it, and helped Haley raise money. Talking with national media, campaigning in South Carolina cities where she draws big crowds, Haley gets covered as the only Trump alternative at a moment when he’s losing defamation lawsuits.

But the primary really is made for Trump. In their own spin memo, circulated to reporters this week, Trump’s campaign pointed to state winner-take-all rules — some implemented last year — that would pad his lead even if Haley’s support surged. What if Haley won 43.2% of the primary vote after Super Tuesday? She’d take 12.1% of the remaining delegates. The math checks out.

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The View From The Trump Campaign

The Monday memo from Trump co-managers Chris LaCivita and Susie Wiles looked to another date, out of Haley’s control, that’ll shrink her path to victory: The Democratic race in South Carolina, scheduled for Saturday. “Anyone who votes in the February 3rd Democrat primary cannot vote in the GOP primary on February 24th,” they wrote, “so Nikki’s losing strategy of counting on Democrats to pollute the Primary won’t work.”

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The View From Haley supporters

Very few Nevada Republicans have stepped out to endorse Haley. The most prominent is Amy Tarkanian, a former state party chair who believes that the current leadership erred by creating a caucus.

“If Trump is so far ahead in the polls, as they say, then this caucus scheme is a waste of resources,” Tarkanian said. She was still meeting voters who were confused or annoyed by the dual primary/caucus pile-up, and expected Haley to benefit from winning the non-competitive Feb. 6 race: “She will most likely come up on top with a feather in her cap, and that will encourage donors to support her.”

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The View From Nevada Democrats

Nevada Democrats started the state-run primary, as an effort to generate more interest and turn out more voters than the 2008 vintage caucus. Encouraged by the early numbers, they’re critical of Republicans for not wanting to play along.

“Democrats passed legislation moving from a caucus to a presidential preference primary to simplify the process and make voting easier and more accessible,” Nevada State Democratic Party Chair Daniele Monroe-Moreno told Semafor in a statement. “But the Nevada GOP is committed to confusing voters and making it harder for them to participate — all in the name of boosting their MAGA leader Donald Trump.”

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Notable

  • In the Nevada Independent, strategist Michael Schaus asks why “Trump loyalists running the party are seemingly uninterested in building a coalition of ideologically diverse center-right voters and politicians.”
  • In the AP, Thomas Beaumont previews the closed-door RNC meeting unfolding in Las Vegas this week, after the Trump endorsement resolution was 86’d. “Trump batted down the proposal, which some members of the committee criticized publicly as premature.”
  • For NBC News, Matt Dixon and Jonathan allen look at Haley’s challenge in convincing anti-Trump voters to cross over in the South Carolina primary, when there’s “little evidence of any significant appetite for crossover voting in the Palmetto State.”
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