Nikki Haley had barely taken to the makeshift riser Wednesday at the Wild Goose Tavern in Costa Mesa when the interruptions started.
“You already lost, Nikki!” a Donald Trump supporter shouted, prompting security to shuffle the man outside. As the saloon door opened, a blast of chants and boos from Trump protesters outside filled the room.
“Don’t ever get upset at people like this,” Haley said over the noise, sidestepping the incident with the practiced comfort of a politician who has navigated similar situations before. “My husband is deployed right now. And they sacrifice their lives every day for us to have the ability for them to do that — to have freedom of speech. So we should never be upset at that.”
The crowd of about 100 people cheered and Haley gracefully moved on with her stump speech. But as Haley toured California this week, drumming up votes and donor dollars, the incident highlighted her campaign’s biggest challenge: overtaking former President Trump. And in California, which is expected to handily deliver Trump all of the Republican delegates in its March 5 primary, the question looms: Why would Californians support Haley?
“It feels like a waste of time because she’s not going to be the nominee,” said Jared Sichel, who watched the incident unfold from the back of the bar. As co-founder of the Republican marketing firm Winning Tuesday, Sichel keeps a close eye on electoral politics, and he said the Republican Party is “Trump’s party now, for better or worse.”
In Tuesday’s Nevada primary, Haley received fewer votes than the ballot entry labeled “none of these candidates.” On Thursday, Trump was poised to win the Nevada caucuses, which actually award delegates for the state.
Despite the odds, Austin, 34, who declined to give his last name, insisted that Haley could bring “a return to normalcy” to the country. The Los Angeles resident brushed off her standing in the polls, saying he had “a lot of trouble believing polls after 2016,” when broad predictions that Hillary Clinton would win proved false.
“I think she’s the right candidate to put our country on the path of optimism — for the future of us here domestically and strength on the global stage,” Austin said.
While the former United Nations ambassador has endured the longest in the race against Trump, she has so far been unable to mount a significant challenge. As anticipated, she came in third in January’s Iowa caucuses, behind Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who dropped out less than a week later.
Haley then went to New Hampshire for her first one-on-one race against Trump. She saw her biggest bump in support, but still lost with 43% of the vote to Trump’s 54%. Still, she pledged to fight on, telling supporters after the primaries that night: “This race is far from over.”
“In my mind, the big question is whether or not she stays in,” said Jon Fleischman, Republican strategist and former executive director of the California Republican Party. “She’s saying that she’ll stay in the race through Super Tuesday, but it just seems to me that it’d be an awfully hard pill to swallow to get really trounced by Donald Trump in the state that elected you governor.”
Unless she manages to pull a major upset on Feb. 24 in her home state of South Carolina, which is currently stacked for Trump in the latest polling, she is expected to continue losing to Trump through the remainder of the primary season. FiveThirtyEight.com, the polling aggregator, has Trump at 75.8% support across the board in the Republican primary, with Haley at 17.6%.
“Why are they supporting her?” Jon Gould, dean of the School of Social Ecology at UC Irvine, said of California voters. “Number one: Protest. Protest against Trump. Two: Hope that maybe there’s a chance that she can pull it off. And three: The backup plan, because I think there’s still a number of people who are wondering whether he will be the candidate by September, given … whether some of the criminal cases end up in a conviction for him.”
Tustin resident Jane Horrocks, 46, said she doesn’t usually attend political events, but came to the Wild Goose on Wednesday morning to support Haley for one reason: “We just want an alternative to Donald Trump.”
“And also I think she has the best chance of taking on Joe Biden,” added her 18-year-old son, Jack, who’s already registered to vote as a Republican in his first election.
The candidate herself frequently champions polling that shows her surpassing Biden in a general election — discounting the challenge she faces in winning the primary. For Republicans who are tired of losing by large margins in the last several national elections, Haley’s electability is attractive.
John Cox, a previous gubernatorial candidate in California, has pledged to be a delegate for Haley — despite being endorsed by Trump in his 2018 run for governor. Trump is the only Republican that Biden could beat, Cox wagered, adding, “I don’t think any of the Democrats can beat Nikki.”
“I want to win in November. I’m not a Trump hater or a never Trumper by any stretch of the imagination. But I want to win,” Cox said. “I want to win congressional seats, I want to win the Senate. I just feel the president has just turned off so many people.”
Haley has been increasingly targeting that demographic of disaffected Republican voters. She has ramped up her attacks on Trump and Biden, calling them too old and chaotic for another term in office.
“For a long time, she was playing nice with Trump to the point where a lot of people were like, well, is she really running for vice president?” Fleischman said. “In the last few weeks, [she] has really tilted hard negative on Trump and I think she’s seen a response from anti-Trump donors because of that.”
In many ways, Gould said, Orange County Republicans are Haley’s target audience.
In his recent polling on the county’s political seesawing, Gould found an emerging group of the O.C. electorate he called “modestly partisan Republicans” — a demographic of mostly non-white and wealthy people who are attached to the Republican Party, despite feeling left out in the national conversation. They don’t care about culture war issues, the poll found, and may support taxpayer-funded measures for progressive issues.
“It seems to me that her target audience is probably people who would have previously supported George H.W. Bush, and maybe Reagan,” Gould said. “The expression that they sometimes say to me is, they wonder what happened to their party? Where did their party go?”
Mario Guerra, a member of the California Republican Party board of directors and former mayor of Downey, voted for Trump in both elections, but he signed up to be a Haley delegate this year.
“I think we do need change. I think we need youth, we need leadership,” Guerra said. “I think she’s shown her leadership skills and I think she can lead our country. I think there are a lot of good things she can do for our country.”
Haley’s tour this week brought her to fundraisers in Northern California before heading south for a whirlwind Wednesday. After the stop in Costa Mesa, Haley headed to the Pacific Club in Newport Beach for an exclusive luncheon with donors, before finishing her day in Los Angeles with another donor reception and supporter rally.
“It’s clear that she’s coming here because there’s a lot of money that can be raised,” Gould said of Haley.
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Sporting a blue blazer, Corona del Mar resident Steve Gabriel, 75, strolled into the Pacific Club fundraiser. He had met Haley previously, and is convinced she is the best presidential candidate, hands down. Her foreign policy experience equips her for the job better than Trump or Biden, he said.
“There’s nobody in this country, in my opinion, that is stronger than her because of her history,” Gabriel said. “There’s no better person in this country right now to deal with China than her. And China is a threat.”
Still, does Haley have a shot at the presidency?
“Unfortunately, no,” he said. “But you never know. … Fingers crossed.”
Times staff writer Hannah Fry contributed to this report.