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Opinion: Trump may have won South Carolina, but Haley could still come out on top

Editor’s Note: A CNN contributor, Geoff Duncan served as Georgia’s lieutenant governor from 2019-2023. He is a former professional baseball player, and the author of “GOP 2.0: How the 2020 Election Can Lead to a Better Way Forward for America’s Conservative Party.” The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

Nikki Haley’s defeat in the South Carolina primary was not the desired outcome for her or any Republican hoping for a different choice than former President Donald Trump, but it shouldn’t represent the death knell for her campaign. Immediately after the polls closed on Saturday night, CNN projected that the former South Carolina governor had come up short to Trump. It was an outcome that surprised absolutely no one, as Trump had enjoyed a 30-point lead in the polls before the primary, according to the FiveThirtyEight average.

Geoff Duncan - CNN
Geoff Duncan - CNN

The immediate delegate math and the polls may not be on Haley’s side, but believe it or not, many other numbers are. Here are just a few.

First, the money. During the fourth quarter of 2023, Haley out-raised Trump, $24 million to $19 million. The number was more than double the amount she raised in the third quarter. In January 2024, as the rest of the GOP field winnowed, Haley’s fundraising again bested Trump’s, $9.8 million to $8.8 million.

Sure, Trump started the year with more cash on hand than Haley — $33 million to $14.5 million — but he also shelled out $23 million dollars in the fourth quarter from his campaign account on legal fees and payment to his own properties. Since then, he has also been assessed roughly half a billion dollars in civil legal penalties ($355 million plus interest for fraudulently inflating his net worth, as well as $83.3 million in a defamation ruling involving sexual assault allegations, which he has denied but in which a jury found him liable for sexual abuse). Even though Trump plans to appeal both rulings, they create headaches for a candidate who has always refused to be forthcoming about the state of his personal finances.

The bottom line: Campaigns typically end when they run out of money, which is not a situation Haley is expected to face anytime soon, especially with at least 10 high-dollar fundraisers scheduled in the days post-South Carolina.

Second, the age factor. Trump (77) and President Joe Biden (81) are a combined 158 years old. Nearly six in 10 voters (59%) believe both frontrunners are old for the job, according to an ABC News/Ipsos poll. Father Time is undefeated, and neither man is getting any younger. Meanwhile, at 52, Haley is a quarter-century younger than both, and much closer to the median American age of 38.9. She would be the first fully Generation X president, breaking Baby Boomers’ stranglehold of the White House in the 21st century (except for Biden, whose 1942 birthdate falls in the Silent Generation).

Biden’s verbal stumbles are well-documented (most recently his conflation of the presidents of Egypt and Mexico at a press conference meant to dispel concerns about his mental fitness), but lately Trump has been giving him a run for his money, confusing Haley for former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in his attempt to shift blame for the events of January 6, 2021, and mixing up the leaders of Hungary and Turkey.

Third, there’s Super Tuesday. Of the 16 states that vote on March 5, 11 are not limited only to registered Republicans. Put another way, of the 874 delegates up for grabs on Super Tuesday, about two-thirds are in states with at least semi-open primaries.

Trump and his allies have grumbled about independents’ ability to compete in GOP primaries. In the lead-up to last month’s New Hampshire primary, he complained that state law allowed “Democrats to vote in the Republican primary.” The claim was false, but it offers a valuable insight into Trump’s worldview: His appeal is extremely limited beyond his base. His low support among swing voters in the suburbs cost Republicans dearly in 2020. A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that almost two-thirds of Americans living in suburban areas hold an unfavorable opinion of Trump, and that Biden is leading Trump by 16 points with suburban registered voters.

Finally, and most importantly, there are world affairs. The suspicious death of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny has laid bare the importance of American leadership in the world. After pledging “devastating” consequences if Navalny were to die in prison, Biden’s words have yet to be met by serious action. Not to be outdone, Trump likened Navalny’s death to his own self-inflicted legal dilemma. Trump notably declined to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin.

To her credit, Haley has taken dead aim at both Trump and Putin, accusing the former of emboldening the latter. She called Trump’s encouragement of Russia to invade NATO countries that do not meet their defense spending obligations “bone-chilling.” In words unlikely to ever come from Trump’s mouth, Haley added, “Vladimir Putin is not cool. This is not someone we want to associate with. This is not someone that we want to be friends with.”

There is only one viable exit ramp from the Trump-Biden sequel, and that is Haley. During the 2016 South Carolina primary, there were still six serious candidates in the GOP race.

There is no reason for Haley to stop now. Even if the Trump fever doesn’t break in time for 2024, there’s always 2028, and time for GOP voters to wake up to what might have been, and still might be.

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