What is Nikki Haley's strategy?
A long shot but not impossible.
Nikki Haley has had a lot of good news lately. The former South Carolina governor has been surging in the polls after strong debate performances and the conservative-libertarian Koch brothers network has endorsed her candidacy. While all these are positive developments for Haley, she is still an underdog in the Republican presidential primary. The question is where she goes from here.
The big picture is that Haley is still in third place in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average. Donald Trump leads the pack with a formidable 60 percent share. Haley is currently battling for second place with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who she trails by three points. DeSantis trails Trump by almost 50 points.
There has been speculation that Haley and the other Republican candidates are competing to be Donald Trump’s running mate, but I think we can discard this theory out of hand. Opposing and saying critical things about Donald Trump is not the way to his heart. Being a sycophant is the way into Donald Trump’s good graces. Just ask Mike Pence.
The only Republican presidential candidate who stands a possibility of being Trump’s running mate is Vivek Ramaswamy. I’d say that it’s much more likely that The Former Guy picks someone like South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem or Marjorie Taylor Greene from the must-win state of Georgia. (If Americans elect a Trump-Greene ticket then we deserve whatever fresh hell we unleash upon ourselves.)
There is a better possibility that Haley is positioning herself for a 2028 run, but even this is doubtful. If she was solely campaigning for four years into the future, she would probably be even more circumspect about challenging Donald Trump directly than she has been since Trump shouldn’t be a factor in 2028. While Haley has been hesitant to directly criticize Trump, she has made clear that Trump is an unwise choice for a 2024 candidate, even though she called him “the right president at the right time” in the same breath.
Waiting for 2028 is also risky in an era when even one year seems like an eternity in terms of politics, especially if Donald Trump pulls off another fluke victory. After four more years of Trump, any Republican candidate will face voters who are tired of their party. There is also always the chance that Trump, through some uncertain means, would once again try to retain power and throw the Republican field into confusion.
I think that Haley does believe that she has a chance to beat Trump for the nomination. I think that she does have a chance, but it’s a long shot.
The first step in a Haley strategy would be to knock the other non-Trump candidates out of the race. She is well on the way to doing that.
DeSantis is the only serious non-Trump competition that Haley faces at this point, and the DeSantis campaign is in trouble. This time last year, DeSantis’s name was on the lips of almost every untrumpy Republican pundit. You don’t hear them saying much about him anymore.
The DeSantis campaign realizes that it is in trouble. There have been a number of recent high-profile departures from DeSantis’s Super PAC and DeSantis seems to be trying to find a viable message now that his strategy of winning over Trump’s base by being further to the right than The Former Guy has spectacularly failed.
Haley leads DeSantis by more than 10 points in New Hampshire polling and has narrowed the gap in Iowa to about two points, although both candidates trail Trump in both states. DeSantis has placed a heavy emphasis on winning Iowa and if it becomes apparent that his campaign is crashing and burning there, he may cut his losses and drop out of the race. It’s more likely that a poor showing in Iowa will put DeSantis out of the race early next year than before the primaries start.
If Haley can make the Republican primary a two-way race (and let’s face it: Ramaswamy, Burgum, Hutchinson, and Christie don’t really count at this point), then she may be able to better take on Trump. In the current state of the race, the Republican challengers form a circular firing squad. If any candidate surges, the rest of the field piles on, attacking them instead of Trump. If the rest of the field drops and either endorses Haley or stays neutral, she would be more free to challenge Trump directly.
For his part, DeSantis has already tried and failed to challenge Trump directly. That failure is part of why Haley is now competitive.
There is also the chance that the last man (or woman) standing against Trump will benefit from Trump’s scandals. Maybe at some point, Republican voters will come to their senses and realize that they are about to renominate a mentally unstable, [counts on fingers] four-time indicted, would-be authoritarian who has never won the popular vote. This self-awareness has never happened in eight years, but hope springs eternal.
If Haley is very lucky, Trump’s legal woes may force him to drop out of the race (unlikely) or trigger Republican voters to wake up to the disastrous choice they are about to make (slightly less unlikely). Probably the best she can hope for is that his court appearances and legal strategizing will distract him from the campaign. Remember that Trump’s trial for election interference starts the day before Super Tuesday.
If Haley does survive the lower-level bouts of the Republican primary to fight the boss-level opponent, she is going to have to find a way to challenge and criticize Donald Trump directly. The risk here is that she might alienate the majority of Republican voters who are still enamored with Trump. I think that this problem is the big reason that the GOP hopefuls avoid Trump like the third rail.
It isn’t clear what Nikki Haley’s strategy is to directly challenge Trump or even if she has such a strategy. What is clear, however, is that the path to the Republican nomination leads through Donald Trump. Saying that “rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him,” is a true statement that has been worth a few polling points, but such tepid criticism won’t close a 50-point gap.
There is a tenuous path for Nikki Haley to win the Republican nomination, but it’s a long shot and time is running out. The Iowa caucuses are on January 15 and New Hampshire votes a week later on January 23. The South Carolina primary, where Haley should do well, is third in line on February 3. At this point, she trails Trump in South Carolina as well.
Even though she is a far from perfect candidate, Haley is the closest thing to a Reagan conservative in the Republican primary, and she seems to be a palatable choice for many Never Trumpers and Trump fans who nevertheless realize that The Former Guy is a liability. If Trump’s negatives increase, she may be able to eat away at Trump’s support with her coalition.
This article has contained a lot of “ifs,” which underscores the long odds against a Haley win, but I’ll add one more to the list. If Haley can hold the initiative and score well in these early states without necessarily winning them, she may plant the seed for a dark horse victory over Donald Trump and in so doing, save Republican voters from themselves.
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