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Nikki Haley Has Seven Weeks to Flip the...

Nikki Haley Has Seven Weeks to Flip the Script

By: Philip Wegmann - January 17, 2024

GOP presidential hopeful Nikki Haley speaks during a campaign event on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023, in Bluffton, S.C. Haley is among a cluster of Republican candidates competing for second place in a GOP Republican primary thus far largely dominated by former President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

Whether Haley gets her two-person race or not, the candidate who once polled at just 3% nationally in a crowded field has reason for hope. Now she publicly dares opponents to write her off.

She didn’t rewrite the speech.

Nikki Haley finished third, then declared that the election was a “two-person race” after winning just one of the 99 counties in Iowa. Right before midnight, supporters cheered the former United Nations ambassador despite the results streaming across cable news in real-time. And the next day, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis reiterated the obvious: He still exists and has no plans to exit the race.

She now has a seven-week window to flip the script, 49 days before Super Tuesday to set up a true one-on-one race with former President Donald Trump. It all starts in New Hampshire next week, where it could just as easily end.

Gov. Chris Sununu predicts that in his state, the former governor of South Carolina will deliver Trump his first loss. In a recent interview with RealClearPolitics, he declared that a win would be “a giant reset button on the entire election.”

Polling data underscores the optimism: Haley trails Trump 43.5% to 29.3% in the RealClearPolitics New Hampshire Average. Until recently, Chris Christie polled a distant third with 11.3%. But the former New Jersey governor is no more. He left the race last week, and if his more moderate supporters back Haley, as some analysts predict, she could pull within striking distance of Trump.

A win in the Granite State, according to Sununu, unlocks the entire thing. Follow that up with a victory in South Carolina, he told RCP, and the primary becomes “a one-on-one race with a lot of opportunity to beat Trump.”

Such is the theory for making the “two-person race” Haley described a reality. It leans heavily on an if-then formulation. But beating Trump was never going to be easy. And what’s more, only an unconventional victory will do, according to Republican pollster Frank Luntz.

“She will not outdo Trump among Republicans,” Luntz told RCP, “but she can undo him among independents.” Thousands of unaffiliated voters are expected to participate in the New Hampshire primary. “If she can get independents to 40% of the electorate,” he said, then with that expanded voter pool Haley could “potentially win.”

The diplomat appears to be taking that tack. Her campaign was aggressively courting independents and moderates already, and Monday evening she pivoted to a bipartisan broadside, billing her campaign as “the last best hope of stopping the Trump-Biden nightmare.”

All the same, Luntz doubts that Haley will win South Carolina, “but you have to go one step at a time. And for her to have any chance, she has to win in New Hampshire. “Second place won’t unlock the race either,” he added. “It is not enough to come close to Trump. She actually has to beat him.”

Alex Stroman agrees with half of that analysis. For Haley, the GOP operative from South Carolina said, New Hampshire “is do or die.” If she can win up north, he believes she can win down south: “If Nikki Haley wins in New Hampshire, she can absolutely win in South Carolina.”

The Haley campaign said as much in a memo released late Monday night. Trump had predicted a win by as much as 60 points, campaign manager Betsy Ankney wrote. “He won by 30%. In a state in which caucus voters are among the most pro-Trump of any electorate in America, he got 51%, and 49% preferred someone else,” she added. “That’s far from the ringing endorsement of Trump that the media portrays.” 

“The race now moves to less Trump-friendly territory,” she continued. “And the field of candidates is effectively down to two, with only Trump and Nikki Haley having substantial support in both New Hampshire and South Carolina.”

Some cold water for that optimism: Trump already dominates in South Carolina in early polling. He leads her by more than 30 points in the RealClearPolitics Average. This puts Haley on a tight schedule. She has a week to pull off an upset in New Hampshire and then roughly a month to pull off another upset in South Carolina. But if Haley knows how to win anywhere, it is at home. She won two statewide races there before decamping from the governor’s mansion in Columbia to serve as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York.

And luckily for Haley, she has been preparing, and perhaps more importantly saving, for this exact moment. An accountant before politics, the candidate flew commercial during the earlier, leaner days of the campaign. She is known to dig through campaign budgets herself looking for pennies to pinch. It didn’t hurt either that, when DeSantis began to falter, Trump-weary donors migrated to Haley.

Ahead of New Hampshire, her campaign crowed that Haley “is the only Trump alternative with the resources and breadth of support to take the fight to Trump for the long haul.”

Careful preparation gives surrogates like South Carolina Rep. Ralph Norman confidence that Haley has built a resilient operation. All the same, even Norman was caught off guard when the diplomat abruptly withdrew from a scheduled debate with DeSantis, explaining in a statement shared to Twitter early Tuesday morning that “the next debate I do will either be with Donald Trump or with Joe Biden.”

“So that surprised me,” Norman admitted after learning the news during an interview with RCP, “but I think that’s a good move on her part.” She performed well in each debate, and while DeSantis would declare victory after each contest, Haley steadily rose in the standings. “She has answered every question,” Norman added, insisting that Haley already survived all the “attack modes” of the competition.

By walking away from the debates, Haley avoids unwanted on-stage attacks. It comes at a cost, though. Luntz said she essentially turned down what he calls “mega moments,” or opportunities to refocus the race in front of millions of voters in prime time. “Trump will not debate her, and she won’t debate DeSantis,” he said, and so she will miss out on “those critical moments that make or break candidates.”

This was an unforced error from a veteran player in his estimation. “She’s very good. She knows her stuff. And for her to give up those contests,” Luntz said, “I don’t think that helps her.”

Just give it time, Norman countered. He served with Haley in the South Carolina state house, and the congressman believes the race will narrow just as soon as voters meet the candidate. “I think what you’re gonna find is, the more they see of her,” he said, “they’re gonna say, ‘we cannot go with anybody but her. She gives us eight years. She can beat Biden, and what more do you want?’”

The other dynamic that will cut down the field: funding. Norman doesn’t believe DeSantis will get in the way of Haley the same way that Trump’s old rivals smashed into one another eight years ago. “The groups get behind whose message they like and then who they think can stop this assault on America that the Biden administration is doing,” Norman explained. “The money will do a lot of that, and it’s just a different day than it was in 2016.”

For his part, DeSantis doesn’t believe his supporters would ever make the jump to Haley even if she gets the two person-race she predicts. “Most of the people supporting me, if they had to choose between Trump and Haley,” he told RCP last month, “they would choose Trump because they may have misgivings about Trump’s electability or other things, but Haley on policy is just a no go for them.”

Regardless, if Haley is going to strike anywhere, it will be up north. Marc Short, former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, told RCP he expects “Haley will compete well in New Hampshire” and turn in “a really good performance.” He has his doubts about South Carolina, though, where Gov. Henry McMaster and Sen. Lindsey Graham have already given their endorsement to Trump.

And Short doubts the conventional wisdom about a winnowing field. “The donor community has said, ‘we need to shorten the field and take on Trump,’” he told RCP. “Well, as each candidate has gotten out, Trump has only gotten stronger,” Short cautioned. “It’s like the reality is that each candidate dropping out is creating more of an inevitability of Trump as the nominee.”

And if DeSantis drops out early, he continued, it isn’t a given that his supporters would be up for grabs. “As he collapsed,” he said of the Florida governor, “his voters went back to Trump. Is that the same case with his remaining percentage of vote, or has the Trump vote already gone back and what’s left is anti-Trump? I just don’t know.”

Whether Haley gets her two-person race or not, the candidate who once polled at just 3% nationally in a crowded field has reason for hope. At least in New Hampshire, she has worked her way to the front of the line, and now she publicly dares opponents to write her off.

“Underestimate me because that’s always fun. I love you Iowa,” she told a crowd of supporters Monday, “but we’re on to New Hampshire.”


This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.
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Philip Wegmann

Philip Wegmann is White House Correspondent for Real Clear Politics. He previously wrote for The Washington Examiner and has done investigative reporting on congressional corruption and institutional malfeasance.