If we’re permitted to stretch the meaning of this sentence’s penultimate word, the 2024 Republican Primary has its second major candidate. That candidate is Nikki Haley, who joins Donald Trump in the field. To find her chances of becoming the Republican nominee, one must first request permission to squint into the strongest microscope at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That necessitates the question: why is she even running?
To be fair, once the field develops later this year, Haley would be reasonably placed as a top five candidate in a vintage and verbose PPFA Power Rankings. However, not all top fives were created equal. In this race, there’s a top two, draw several lines, and then everyone else.
I could just end the post right here, but come on. This is Presidential Politics For America we’re talking about. If I don’t write like I’m getting paid by the word, please call 911. For reasons beyond my understanding, I’m going to say more about Nikki Haley.
Let’s start with the data. She’s facing an almost vertical uphill climb, but does she at least start at a decent base camp? Here are the latest national polls charted by Real Clear Politics:
Not great. Although in fourth place, it’s a distant fourth. Polling at 3.8 is bad enough in a field where five or so strong candidates keep each other under 25 percent, like the 2016 Republican and 2020 Democratic primaries, but when two candidates tower above the field, it looks considerably worse. For a recent historical analogue, Haley is more Martin O’Malley, the afterthought in 2016’s Clinton-Sanders civil war, than she is Amy Klobuchar, who took advantage of 2020’s competitive field to linger on the cusp of viability longer than her polling would suggest were possible.
And it doesn’t look much better in the early states. A mid-November Iowa poll found Haley at just 1%, and semi-regular University of New Hampshire polling consistently finds her 30 to 40 points behind either Trump or DeSantis.
We should consider why, exactly, a big name in the party and a long-speculated presidential and VP candidate has almost no initial appeal.
Her non-competitiveness might seem surprising, as her résumé is pretty impressive. She served three terms in South Carolina’s General Assembly (legislative experience), six years as the state’s governor (executive experience), and two years as President Trump’s Ambassador to the United Nations after getting overwhelmingly confirmed by a 96-4 vote (foreign policy experience and crossover appeal). In the middle of that career arc, the GOP, acknowledging her potential in the party, tabbed Haley to give the Republican response to President Obama’s final State of the Union Address. She’s had this political success as both a woman and a minority. (Her parents were born in India. Haley’s birth name was Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, and she married Michael Haley in 1996.) She’s generally seen as a competent person with strong conservative values. All of the above made her a natural Republican candidate for a national election.
But someone forgot to tell Republican voters.
Nikki Haley represents what the Republican Party used to be, back in the days where it nominated Mitt Romney in one cycle and Jeb(!) Bush was the early favorite in the next. Republicans like Haley now get the dreaded “globalist” and “neocon” epithets, labels that are detested by the base of the party. She is a candidate who would be perceived by rural America as someone who would take their government benefits and send it to Ukraine, which indeed are the general positions of Republican Classic but are both the opposite of what they think Donald Trump’s new Republican Party would do.
Speaking of Trump, Haley’s relationship with the party’s standard bearer has been a roller coaster, one with so many ups and downs that pretty much everyone has asked to get off the ride. Like most Republicans, she was highly critical of Trump in his first presidential campaign; ahead of the South Carolina Primary, she described him as “everything a governor doesn’t want in a President.” Yet, also like most Republicans, once he won the nomination she gradually moved into the laudatory camp. She then accepted his nomination to be US Ambassador to the UN, becoming part of his foreign policy team and therefore politically attached.
At the end of Trump’s presidency, Haley condemned his incitement of the January 6 attack on the Capitol, which seems to have severed their relationship. Nonetheless, a couple months later she said that if Trump ran again in 2024, she would not challenge him, a signal that she had renewed her fealty. Of course, much has now been made of her flipping on that vow, an easy point of attack for Trump loyalists.
In total, across these last eight years, she has likely alienated nearly everyone who was MAGA and nearly everyone who was Never Trump. And if we remove everyone who’s pro-Trump and everyone who’s anti-Trump, I’m not sure how many Americans that leaves. National polls suggest it’s about 3% of Republicans, which sounds about right.
Haley, although perfectly in line with economic and social conservatism, is simply not the culture warrior the party demands. That’s clearly Trump and his mini-me DeSantis. Haley’s culture war opportunities came back when she was Governor. In the aftermath of 2015’s Charleston church shooting, when Dylan Roof was depicted with Confederate symbology ahead of murdering nine black parishioners, there was pressure on South Carolina’s government to remove the Confederate flag from the State Capitol. This was pressure to which Governor Haley ultimately relented, a touchstone moment that has since evolved into debates over what statues deserve their spots in our public square. For some on the right, Haley should have held the line.
Later, at the end of the decade, she was softer on the post-George Floyd riots and Black Lives Matter movement for conservatives’ liking, earning her a takedown from conservative deity Tucker Carlson. (To show he had not changed his mind on Haley, when it appeared Haley was ready to announce her candidacy, Carlson invited on a former Haley aide for the main purpose of bashing her.) These retreats on the Confederate flag and civil strife, when she should have been pushing back, have fostered resentment from the Republican base. To them, she is a coward, and cowards don’t deserve to lead wars, even if just cultural ones.
Ultimately, her problem is that it’s unclear what she stands for. The old Republican Party? The new one? Pro-Trump? Anti? It’s too late to pick a lane; she’s swerved between them for so long that she’s lost control of the car.
Frankly, the most interesting part of her candidacy is not whether she can win, but what effect she’ll have on the race. Primarily, we should be asking whether her presence in the race more helps Trump or DeSantis. I’d say the former. If this race ultimately turns into a repeat of 2016 — that is, a large field with establishment Republicans dividing their support while consolidated MAGA takes a plurality of the vote — then Trump looks good. There’s a reason he encouraged Haley to run even after she promised she wouldn’t. Her main effect here is merely as a potential spoiler. The same can be said of Haley’s fellow South Carolinian, Senator Tim Scott, who’s reportedly ready to launch his own presidential bid. I don’t see how they both remain until the South Carolina Primary. There’s just not enough oxygen in the room for the two of them to breathe.
So why run? She may be ambitious, but she’s not stupid. Knowing all of the above, I think she’s aiming either for a third place finish — certainly realistic — or as the owner of a valuable South Carolina endorsement ahead of its pivotal primary, the third in the cycle. In either case, she’d position herself as an obvious choice for VP to whomever emerges from the Trump-DeSantis showdown. Since the the victor will almost certainly not pick the other guy, it makes a lot of sense to go to a battle-tested Haley, who could act as a sop to not only the establishment but to suburban women who have recently strayed from the party.
Today’s featured image is made possible by our old friend Gage Skidmore.
2 thoughts on “Nikki Haley 2024: Why?”
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