By the time Eddie Lindsey arrived to Suffolk Punch on Friday night, some 300 people had already packed into the taphouse. It was pouring rain outside, and the brewery was uncomfortably warm and humid. The serpentine line for beer reached the door; the event space’s main room was already jam-packed. “All of Charlotte decided to show up,” a man near Lindsey cracked. Lindsey decided to stick around.

Four days before Super Tuesday, Nikki Haley was making her debut appearance in North Carolina, and Lindsey wanted to show his support. “The Republican Party has gone away from what its core values should be,” Lindsey told me, half-talking, half-yelling over the blaring playlist, handpicked by Haley herself — Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga,” Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” Gone are the days of balanced budgets and small government, Lindsey lamented. “It feels like my party has been hijacked.”

To Lindsey, Haley — the ex-South Carolina governor, the long-shot Republican candidate for president — is the embodiment of what his party can and should be. He’s not alone. As Haley zigzags the country, there’s an unexpected degree of excitement about a candidate who trails in many polls by nearly 70 percentage points. The venues she reserves are consistently past capacity — packed ballrooms, overflowing breweries, crowded courtyards. Middle-aged women stroll by, adorned with pink beads around their necks, declaring that it’s time for a woman in the White House. Grey-haired men complain about the two octogenarians running, and they wonder if any version of America will be left for their grandchildren. In many cases, the grandkids are there, too — the little girls wearing custom friendship bracelets, and if they get lucky, exchanging them with Haley herself at the end of the night.

Most of these people readily acknowledge that Haley doesn’t have a chance. “There’s no way she’s going to win,” Lindsey told me at the Friday night rally in Charlotte. Others agree, yet give varying reasons for showing up to her events. “I like to play the game,” Jim Kane in Boston told me, a longtime local GOP official. Others are driven by FOMO — “fear of missing out” — the idea that Haley just might pull it off, and they wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of that.

“I’m one of the people who stays at the football game because it’s over, because you don’t want to be the one in the parking lot and hear the cheering,” Kevin Washburn, another Charlotte attendee, said. Others, like Lindsey, feel a sense of moral duty. “If I don’t vote, I can’t say anything in November,” he said.

Heading into Super Tuesday, Trump has secured 244 delegates, compared to Haley’s 43. Another 865 are up for grabs Tuesday, and unless Haley finds a way to win several, if not most, of those states, the primary is all but over. She trails by double-digits in most states with available polling; in some, she’s down by 75.

Her supporters know this. “You’ve seen it at our events: a room full of happy warriors who are hopeful about the future,” Betsy Ankney, Haley’s campaign manager, told reporters on Monday. Some of those warriors have developed alternative explanations for Haley’s candidacy. Perhaps Trump will be convicted, and Haley could be ushered in as his replacement. Others fantasize about a scenario where her supports contest Trump’s nomination on the floor of July’s Republican convention.

But the vast majority are clear-eyed, understanding that it would take a “cataclysmic event,” as Mark Potocki in Boston said, for Haley to win the election.

If that’s true — if the election is effectively over — why do her supporters turn out in hordes, from Raleigh to Richmond to Washington? And better yet, why is Haley still running?

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley greets supporters after a campaign event Friday, March 1, 2024, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson) | Chris Carlson

As a matter of practicality, the Haley campaign should have died by now. The first nail in the coffin should have been the loss in Iowa. Days before the caucuses, a Des Moines Register poll showed her in second place, ahead of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, infusing a giant dose of optimism into her campaign. She took third.

The second nail should have been New Hampshire, when she finished with 43%, even after an endorsement from Gov. Chris Sununu, who incessantly predicted a “massive” Haley victory. The third nail? In Nevada, where Haley ducked the caucus and finished second in an uncompetitive primary to “none of these candidates.” And the fourth, in her home state of South Carolina, where Trump swept up endorsements from most major officeholders and won by 20 percentage points.

But Haley has managed to repackage each defeat as something of a win, as a “stick-it-to-the-naysayers” moral victory. “They said we’d never make it to Iowa,” she tells voters at each rally. “We came within one percent of second place. They said we were down 35 points in the polls in New Hampshire. We came in at 43%.”

In the days following South Carolina, it seemed another nail was being hammered: Americans For Prosperity-Action, the deep-pocketed political wing of the Koch network, decided it would stop its donations, abandoning the campaign it once deemed “by far the strongest candidate Republicans could put up” against Biden.

Even so, her fundraising numbers only climb. In January, she raked in $16.5 million, her largest single month to date. In February, she added another $12 million, even after losing AFP-Action’s backing. When Trump said anyone supporting her campaign would be “permanently barred” from MAGA, Haley’s team began hawking shirts that said, “Barred Permanently.” They sold 25,000. “Every time Donald Trump does something stupid, she raises money off of it,” said Jamil Jaffer, a co-chair of Haley’s Virginia leadership team.

Small donors don’t care about her long-term strategy, Haley claims. “They don’t ask me, ‘What’s your plan?’” she said earlier this month. “All they say is ‘Thank you for giving me hope.’”

If Haley has any intention of dropping out, she has refused to let on. She repeatedly dodges questions about her long-term strategy, saying that she’s focused on competing in Super Tuesday states. But she’s undoubtedly operating now with an air of urgency. Before the South Carolina primary, she told voters to bring five friends to the polls with them; now, she asks for ten. In late February, she announced a last-minute “state-of-the-race” speech, strategically hinting at a concession; instead, she used the instant media attention — including live feeds on the major news networks — to give a campaign speech and vow to stay in the race.

She’s become increasingly aggressive in her attacks on Trump, too. She refuses to say she’s “anti-Trump,” only that she’s “pro-America” — but her criticisms have taken a never-Trump tack. In the fall, she was hesitant to speak any ill of the former president; at the August debate in Milwaukee, when asked if she would support Trump if he is the nominee even if he is a convicted criminal, Haley suggested she would.

Now, she’s waging war with the RNC itself. As Trump moves to install his daughter, Lara, as the RNC’s co-chair, Haley has blasted RNC leadership for suggesting they will pay Trump’s legal fees, and she’s called on all RNC committee members to hold an on-the-record vote. And though she took the “RNC pledge” before the first debate, vowing to support the party’s eventual nominee, she now refuses to say whether she’d honor it.

“The RNC is now not the same RNC,” she said on Sunday.

The people who show up at Haley’s events largely fit into three buckets. There are the independents and occasional Democrats, who feel disillusioned by the other candidates and welcome Haley’s proposed return to normalcy. There are the committed Republicans, some who voted for Trump in 2016 or 2020, but now doubt his ability to win in November. The rest fall into the biggest category: the homeless conservatives who, like Lindsey, feel their party deserted them. In Haley, they feel like they’ve found a glimpse of their old home.

In her final push before Super Tuesday, Haley was strategic, decamping to the enclaves of yesterday’s Republican Party. She visited Utah on Wednesday, one of Trump’s worst-performing red states in both 2016 and 2020, and pitched Beehive State voters on “faith and family.” She jetted to Virginia, the purple state where Glenn Youngkin, the pro-business pragmatist, won the governor’s mansion in 2022. Then, to Washington D.C., the enclave of the establishment-types, where she earned her first primary victory. Then, North Carolina and Massachusetts — two states with nearly opposite political demographics, but a comparable proclivity for electing moderate Republicans to statewide positions.

I followed her along for the whole blitz. Each state has different politics, but the attendees at her rallies were remarkably similar. They skew older; at any given event, I could count the attendees who appeared to be ages 18 to 30 on two hands. Most attendees expressed real disappointment in the two major-party candidates, Trump and Biden. “I’m an old guy,” Doug Zirkle, 82, told me in Richmond. “At some point, you have to step down.” Nearby, Rob chimed in. “I’m 65, but even at my age, doing a job like that would be really, really difficult.”

But it’s more than Haley’s age — she’s 52 — that appeals to voters. “She’s the only candidate who talks sense,” Katherine Watters said in Raleigh. “She doesn’t get bullied. She’s a tough Southern woman.”

Plenty of voters speculate about her path to victory. Some wonder if she could be trying to gain concessions from Trump on foreign policy or other platform areas by getting floor time at the Republican convention this summer, like Henry Olsen argued in Politico. But that would require her to win a plurality in five states — an admitted long shot.

Now, with Haley’s campaign in potentially its final throes, it enters a much different stage. A once lean campaign has become increasingly expensive. Haley bragged in one debate about flying commercial and staying in Residence Inns — now, to maximize her state-by-state visits, she’s taking private jets. At some events, her guests are greeted by elaborate charcuterie boards and extensive beer menus. She seems to be spending like a candidate with nothing to lose — or a candidate with little time left.

She spent over half a year in Iowa, building up staff and leaning on AFP-Action’s grassroots canvassing. In New Hampshire, she earned Sununu’s endorsement early and assembled a state leadership team in the fall. In South Carolina, she benefited from hometown connections and the familiarity of a long political career.

But ahead of Super Tuesday, she has no such luxury. She bolts from one state to the next, not announcing leadership teams in respective states until days, or even hours, ahead of her visits. She’s never met many of her endorsers in these states, bouncing from fundraisers to rallies to planes. Several attendees at her North Carolina events said they had gone to her rallies in nearby Myrtle Beach or Greenville, South Carolina, because she’d yet to visit their state.

It’s a fast-paced campaign, just like she ran in South Carolina and the other early states, but on a much bigger field. The odds are stacked against her; the political class has long counted her out; she keeps fighting, albeit exhausted. In Washington, after eliciting laughter after fumbling through a memorized line, she smiled and joked, “I barely know what city I’m in right now.” In Utah, before sitting down for a TV interview, she quickly asked her interviewer, “Now, Utah is a caucus state, right?”

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks during a rally at the Noorda Center for the Performing Arts at Utah Valley University in Orem on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

On Saturday evening, as the crowd began to disperse at the Needham Sheraton hotel west of Boston, some two dozen people hung around. Most were waiting for selfies and autographs from Haley, who hovers after most rallies to greet attendees. “God bless her,” Mark Potocki told me. “She’s doing the right thing — this whole campaign.”

Potocki grew up in Boston, a second-generation American himself, like Haley. His parents fled Poland after World War II and settled in New England, finding work in the area’s booming industrial sector. As Potocki grew, he became interested in politics, following the Republican governors who rose to prominence in the deep-blue state: Weld, Cellucci, Romney. “Haley is in that same mold,” he told me. “She’s a uniter.”

But Potocki isn’t short-sighted about her chances of winning the Republican nomination. “This is Trump’s party,” he told me. “If some cataclysmic event happens, then yes. Otherwise, it’s a long shot.”

It’s a fair point. Even in Massachusetts, where moderate Republicans have found surprising success in statewide races, Trump has taken over the state party. Polls show him with a 40-point lead in the primary. Across the country, it’s even wider.

Why, then, would Potocki show up on a rainy Saturday night, along with 400 others, and squeeze into a hotel ballroom to listen to a hopeless candidate? Why listen to her calls for strength abroad and eliminating the gas tax and border reform and “common sense” abortion laws, if her odds of ever implementing any her plans are close to none? Even more, why go to the ballot box on Tuesday and cast a vote?

“Because I’m fighting,” Potocki said. “I want to make it known I’m not accepting the choices, and I want to make a choice.”