Nikki Haley’s unlikely path to victory
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) recently became the first major candidate to officially challenge Donald Trump in the 2024 Republican presidential primary. Does she have a shot at winning the nomination?
Put succinctly, it’s highly unlikely. Given the deep loyalty of the Trump wing of the party and the Republican establishment’s focus on nominating Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is seen as the most “electable” alternative to Trump, it is difficult to envision a scenario where Haley becomes a serious contender for the nomination.
A Harvard Harris poll released after Haley’s announcement, taken together with recent primary history, bears this out. Trump currently leads the full field of potential candidates by over 20 points with 46 percent of the vote, while DeSantis ranks in second place at 23 percent. Former Vice President Mike Pence and Haley come in at a distant third and fourth place with 7 percent and 6 percent, respectively.
Other national polls have shown DeSantis within striking distance of Trump, including a recent Quinnipiac survey taken before Haley’s announcement, which found DeSantis trailing Trump by just 6 points in the full field horserace, 42 percent to 36 percent. Yet, Haley garnered just 5 percent in third place, barely ahead of Pence at 4 percent in fourth.
Further, as Nate Cohn observed in a recent analysis, based on historical evidence, the nomination campaign is already about halfway done at this stage, and two candidates rise above the rest: Trump and DeSantis.
Both Trump and DeSantis would need to flame out spectacularly in order for Haley — or any other potential Republican candidate — to become viable, but that’s a big “if,” given Trump’s demonstrated staying power in the party as well as DeSantis’s historically strong early polling numbers and his courting of deep-pocketed GOP donors before even declaring his candidacy.
Most likely, any polling gains Haley makes will contribute to fracturing the non-Trump vote, in turn helping Trump win pluralities in early primaries, and likely the nomination. The aforementioned Harvard Harris poll validates this prediction: Following Haley’s announcement, she gained 3 points of support in the GOP primary horserace, while DeSantis lost 5 points.
And generally speaking, a multi-candidate field only works to Trump’s benefit. Virtually every Republican primary involves a winner-take-all system when it comes to delegates (on the other hand, Democrats have opted for proportional representation). Thus, Trump could win a majority of the delegates — and in turn, the nomination — with just 35 to 40 percent of the total primary vote.
In terms of where Haley fits into the field, her pitch overlaps with DeSantis’s in a number of ways. She is young, was a popular governor (albeit in deep-red South Carolina, whereas DeSantis helms the more purple state of Florida), and is positioning herself as the most electable candidate in a general election.
“Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections, that has to change,” Haley said in her announcement video.
Haley’s standout features vis-à-vis DeSantis are her identity as a woman from an immigrant family and her foreign policy experience as former United Nations ambassador. While Haley’s background may have been an effective primary pitch in 2008 or 2012, it is unlikely to propel her ahead of DeSantis in today’s GOP, which is predominantly a white working-class party that is laser-focused on the culture wars DeSantis propagates.
Further, Haley has not yet articulated a vision for the party that is different than what DeSantis, Trump, or others are offering, and thus hasn’t offered a compelling case for her candidacy aside from her background.
Her policy platform is limited to labeling Democrats “socialist”, as most Republicans do nowadays and calling for mental aptitude tests for politicians over the age of 75, which has already garnered blowback, as older voters comprise the majority of the GOP primary electorate. Further, when confronted by Fox News about how she differs from Trump, Haley failed to provide an answer of any substance.
Perhaps Haley’s reluctance to explicitly break from Trump and his policies — and the similarity of her pitch to DeSantis’s vis-à-vis her youth and electability — is telling of her true objective in entering the race.
It’s no secret to anyone, let alone to Haley, that she is a long shot. But at the same time, she is a prime contender for the vice-presidential slot, regardless of whether the nominee is Trump or DeSantis.
Haley has effectively played both sides: She has boosted her far-right bona fides by railing against wokeness and attacking DeSantis’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill as not going “far enough,” yet acted as governor to remove the Confederate flag from the state capital in South Carolina.
While Haley’s background, experience and murky stances on core Republican issues may not make her a frontrunner for the nomination, they do make her a strong contender for the vice presidency.
Whomever the nominee is, whether Trump or DeSantis, will be looking for a running mate who can keep the base engaged and appeal to the general electorate vis-à-vis bringing in independents and suburban women, key voting groups that have eluded Republicans in recent years. DeSantis especially would benefit from Haley’s foreign policy experience, given his lack thereof.
Though Haley and Trump, whose administration she served in, are not now on the best of terms, if circumstances suggested to the former president that the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador would be the strongest candidate, I have no doubt he would seek reconciliation as Ronald Reagan did in 1980 with his former rival, George H.W. Bush.
To be sure, it’s still early in the primary campaign, and anything can happen.
Nevertheless, the most likely scenario is that Nikki Haley will fail to win her home state of South Carolina — if she doesn’t bow out before then, in order to avoid a Trump sweep of the first two primary states — and drop out before Super Tuesday with an eye towards the vice presidency.
Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. His new book is “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.”
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