Nikki Haley Holdouts Aren’t a Problem for Trump

Published April 12, 2024

National Review

The fact that Nikki Haley continues to get votes in Republican primaries has confounded many reporters and pundits. “She has dropped out and yet keeps getting votes,” the refrain goes. “This must be a sign that Donald Trump has problems unifying the GOP vote.”

This makes sense to those not steeped in election analysis. But the truth is that this is not unusual. In fact, the data show that, save one, Trump is the strongest nonincumbent putative GOP nominee of the past 40 years.

It might seem odd to some, but candidates never get 100 percent of the votes even after their opponents have quit the race. There are always some people who are either confused or willing to register a protest vote long after the nomination race is over. It’s like garbage time in runaway basketball games: No one’s trying very hard, but the losing team still scores some points.

That’s why it’s important to compare Trump today with other putative nominees to truly assess how he’s faring. If he were doing significantly worse than others have in the past, we could infer that he might be in some trouble with the base.

Instead, he’s doing better.

Using data from Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, I looked at the level of support in states that every Republican nonincumbent since 1996 received after his final serious foe had left the race. On both of the metrics I used — the median vote share and the range of results from all states — Trump’s doing better.

In some cases, it’s not even close. Trump’s median vote share in a post–Super Tuesday state is 80.6 percent. Mitt Romney’s median vote share after Newt Gingrich dropped out was only 69.1 percent. Trump today is running more than eleven points ahead of where Romney was when he was on cruise control.

Trump’s also doing better than more establishment-friendly nominees such as George W. Bush (2000), John McCain (2008), and Bob Dole (1996). Dole’s median vote share was only 73.8 percent after Pat Buchanan dropped out, while McCain’s was 75.8. Only Bush got close to Trump, with a median vote share of 78.2 percent after McCain bailed out.

In one sense, this is not surprising. Romney and Dole in particular were disliked by the most conservative elements in the party and selected movement-conservative favorites for their running mates. McCain fared better, but he too picked someone who became a movement icon in Sarah Palin. Only Bush felt comfortable enough to select someone in his mold, Dick Cheney.

That’s likely because Bush and Trump share an attribute: They are the only two of the five who, in competitive primaries, performed best with the base and worst with moderates. The others had to swerve right to gain support from the base. Trump already has that backing nailed down (as did Bush), and hence he can go where he pleases in the general election.

Trump’s recent statement on abortion needs to be understood in that light. The base loves him. Many may not like his position, but they aren’t going to leave him over it. He can focus on the moderates and independents he needs to beat Biden in the fall.

Some of Haley’s voters are in this moderate camp, and Trump’s centrist shift is something they may like. Others are conservatives who may not love Trump but will back him over the liberal Biden. A few are likely non-Republicans who never were going to vote for Trump and backed Haley only because it gave them two bites at the apple of taking him down.

The fact is that most voters who oppose Republican nominees-in-waiting are party loyalists who will back the nominee, however reluctantly. Haley’s backers are mostly of this sort, and Trump is making the moves he needs to lure those who are on the fence.

This doesn’t mean that Trump is going to win. His difficulties with white college-educated moderates are deep and well documented. Most of those voters don’t participate in partisan primaries, however. Haley found to her chagrin that even their distaste for Trump could not get them off their sofas and into the primary voting booth. Trump needs to woo these voters, but Haley’s weaker-than-historic showing in post-dropout primaries is not a sign that Trump’s in trouble.

Even the one example of a putative GOP nominee who did worse in the final contests than Trump is doing now fails to prove that Trump’s goose is cooked. That one case is of Trump himself in 2016. Trump fixed his weakness by shifting right on abortion and picking Mike Pence. Problem solved. He went on to win the Electoral College and the White House.

There are lots of reasons to wonder whether Trump can beat Biden despite the incumbent’s record-low job-approval ratings. Trump’s performance in the most recent primaries isn’t one of them.

Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how America’s political order is being upended by populist challenges, from the left and the right. He also studies populism’s impact in other democracies in the developed world.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today

More in Education and American Ideals