How Nikki Haley could lose to Trump in Nevada – even though he’s not on the ballot

As if election season weren’t complicated enough already, Nevada Republicans are holding both a primary and a caucus this year – effectively giving registered conservative voters two chances to declare their preferred candidate for the party’s presidential nomination.

The situation is the result of a dispute between the state and the local branch of the Republican party over a bipartisan bill passed by Nevada’s state legislature in 2021.

The bill stipulated that the Silver State must hold political primaries if more than one candidate is in contention for a given race, doing away with the old party-run caucus system traditionally employed.

As a result, a mandatory state-run Republican primary will be held on Tuesday 6 February.

However, the state Republican party pushed back on this plan and organised that caucuses will also take place on Thursday 8 February.

Under the Nevada Republican party’s rules, candidates are barred from running in both the primary and in the caucuses.

This odd state of play has divided the contenders into two camps and means that Nikki Haley and Donald Trump will not go head-to-head this time around, as they did in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Ms Haley will instead face three lesser-known candidates – John Anthony Castro, Heath V Fulkerson and Donald Kjornes – in Tuesday’s primary while Mr Trump is only up against Texas pastor Ryan Binkey in the caucuses on Thursday, with all other challengers having long since dropped out.

As a result, Ms Haley and Mr Trump are naturally both expected to win their parallel contests.

But the state’s 26 delegates will only be assigned from the caucuses, making any victory for the former UN ambassador almost entirely symbolic in the primary.

A big performance indicating a groundswell of conservative support for her could provide Ms Haley’s campaign with some much-needed momentum ahead of the next, much-more-significant primary taking place later this month in her native South Carolina, which threatens to decide the future of her campaign even before we reach Super Tuesday on 5 March.

But, despite not competing in the primary, Mr Trump and his MAGA supporters could derail Ms Haley’s primary win in another way.

Donald Trump (left) and Nikki Haley (right)

(AFP / Getty)

After all, there is a way that the former president’s base might go about thwarting his opponent, even without his name appearing on the primary ballot.

On the primary ballot, voters will have another option to cast their vote.

Instead of choosing one of the candidates who appears on the primary ballot, Mr Trump supporters could mark their ballot paper for: “None of these candidates.”

It’s a move that would implicitly cast a protest vote on behalf of Mr Trump, as the only serious contender in the race besides Ms Haley.

Such a dastardly move would actually have something in common with the massive write-in campaign that unofficially swept President Joe Biden to victory in the Democratic party’s New Hampshire primary – where his name also did not appear on that ballot over another local-level dispute.

A grassroots campaign effort had urged Democratic voters to add his name manually to ballots so that his challengers Dean Phillips and Marianne Williamson could not pick up a shock win by default.

So now, while the Nevada Republican primary and caucuses are unlikely to yield any surprises this week, it’s possible that Mr Trump’s camp may have one more trick up its sleeve to derail Ms Haley’s campaign.

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