Nikki Haley’s Slow Burn Was No Accident

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After 10 long months of campaigning, it was a 30-­second video that suggested Nikki Haley was finally getting somewhere. The December television ad, paid for by Donald Trump’s allies and aired in New Hampshire, accused the Republican presidential candidate of flip-flopping on the gas tax as South Carolina governor. But you could practically hear the champagne corks popping at Haley’s headquarters in Charleston. “Someone’s getting nervous,” she posted on social media.

Haley’s emergence as perhaps the top threat to another Trump nomination isn’t what many Republicans expected when she launched her underdog campaign last February. But as the first votes in the 2024 GOP presidential primaries neared, she climbed to second place in many national and early state surveys, eclipsing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and even narrowing the gap with Trump to single digits in the Granite State. Her slow-burn rise has been fueled by standout debate performances, which convinced many Republicans—including plenty of Wall Street donors—that Haley is the party’s best hope to beat both the GOP front runner and President Joe Biden. (One recent poll of a hypothetical matchup with Biden found her leading by 17 points.) Her momentum has opened a spigot of cash and spurred a series of key endorsements, from New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu to Americans for Prosperity Action, the Koch-backed grassroots powerhouse that has committed upwards of $30 million on her behalf.

More than any of Trump’s rivals, Haley has managed to make the case for her candidacy without turning off the pool of Republicans in the former President’s corner. “I believe Donald Trump was the right President at the right time; I agree with a lot of his policies,” Haley says at a recent Iowa town hall in a small ballroom at the Sioux City Convention Center, where a staffer has carted in extra chair after extra chair to accommodate a crowd that has gathered nearly six weeks ahead of the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses. “The truth is, rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him,” she pivots. “We can’t have a country in disarray in a world on fire, and be dealing with four years of chaos. We won’t survive it.” Haley repeats lines like these in hay-filled barns and quaint eateries across Iowa and New Hampshire, targeting conservatives exhausted by Trump—a disjointed coalition that spans those who revile the former President and those convinced he can’t win. Her ability to draw these contrasts while eschewing direct confrontation have persuaded many non-Trump Republicans that she is their best bet to take him down.

People listen to Haley speak after receiving the endorsement of New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu during a Town hall event at McIntyre Ski Area in Manchester, NH on Dec. 12, 2023.
People listen to Haley speak after receiving the endorsement of New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu during a Town hall event at McIntyre Ski Area in Manchester, NH on Dec. 12, 2023.Sophie Park—Getty Images

Haley’s path to the nomination remains steep and narrow. Trump maintains a huge lead in most national polls and early-state surveys, lapping the field by as much as 50 points in some cases. Haley’s allies argue that will change as rivals drop out and the non-Trump vote consolidates around her. One of her donors, Eric Levine, likens her strategy to the old joke about two hikers who stumble upon a hungry bear: neither has to outrun the bear, as long as one outruns the other. “Donald Trump wins when there’s a lot of people in the race,” says Levine. “Donald Trump loses if it’s one-on-one. If it’s mano a womano, he's gonna lose.”

The data doesn’t necessarily agree. Some polls suggest Trump would draw a fair share of his rivals’ supporters if they ended their bids. And much of the primary calendar and delegate process this year appears likely to facilitate a Trump nomination. More than one GOP operative suggests to me that Haley’s best shot would be if the former President needed to step aside for health reasons.

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But other imponderables, mostly in courtrooms, are recasting the meaning of second place. Trump faces criminal trials that could yield a conviction before November or, with the Supreme Court involved, scramble the election in unexpected ways. “I think he’s probably the starting quarterback,” says Don O’Connor, a bank worker at a Haley town hall in Clear Lake, Iowa, who is leaning toward her. “But starting quarterbacks get hurt, starting quarterbacks get to the point they can’t play anymore, and you better have a strong backup.” 

The press conference was Trump’s idea. It was October 2018, and he and Haley had agreed that she would resign her post at the end of the year. When they announced the news in the Oval Office, he sounded like he was promoting her. “Nikki Haley, ambassador to the United Nations, has been very special to me,” Trump effused. “She’s done an incredible job.” Haley smiled bashfully as Trump said she’d have her pick of positions if she worked for him again. She pre-empted inquiries about her future by pledging to campaign for Trump. The moment was the capstone of Haley’s successful tenure in an Administration not known for successful tenures.

Then President Donald Trump meets with Haley, then United States Ambassador to the United Nations in the Oval office of the White House on Oct. 9, 2018 where she announced her resignation.
Then-President Donald Trump meets with Haley, then United States Ambassador to the United Nations in the Oval office of the White House on Oct. 9, 2018 where she announced her resignation.Olivier Douliery—AFP/Getty Images

Haley grew up in Bamberg, S.C., the daughter of Indian immigrants in a town still largely divided between Black and white. She learned at a young age that her turbaned father and the rest of her Sikh family couldn’t avoid standing out, and learned almost as quickly to steer conversations back to common ground. After studying accounting at Clemson University and helping run her mother’s small retail business, she began eyeing her local state house seat, where the 30-year incumbent was hinting he might retire. He didn’t, but Haley ran anyway and won. Six years later, she found herself an underdog once again.  

“I remember when she told me she was running for governor,” says Nathan Ballentine, a Republican in the South Carolina House who has long been a friend of Haley’s. “I didn't say it out loud, but in my mind, I was thinking, ‘What the hell is she thinking?’”

She defeated the lieutenant governor, the state attorney general, and a sitting congressman. Taking down a former president? Well, that’s just the next logical step. 

“This is how Nikki Haley gets elected,” says Ted Pitts, her chief of staff when she was governor. “She starts off being kind of seen as a lower-tier candidate, and works her way up the ranks.”

To this day, Haley has never lost a race. Still, her current rivals allege she’s only vying to be Trump’s running mate. They paint her as the candidate of the ruling class—a video from the DeSantis camp includes the slogan “Make the Establishment Great Again!” The portrait amuses those who have followed Haley’s career, in which she rode the Tea Party wave to the governor’s mansion and is now campaigning on capping federal spending and raising the retirement age for young workers. “Nobody’s to the right of Nikki Haley on the economy,” says Drew Klein, senior adviser to AFP Action.

Haley is also known for delicately navigating matters of race and identity. Her response to the racist murders at a church in Charleston in 2015 catapulted her to national prominence. Haley attended the funerals of all nine Black churchgoers and led the removal of the Confederate flag from the state Capitol, a move at odds with much of her party’s base. She was less resolute late last month in New Hampshire when she was asked what caused the Civil War and initially failed to mention slavery.

In 2016, Haley delivered the GOP response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, using the speech to condemn the “angriest voices” in politics. After Trump beat Hillary Clinton, he met with Haley. He made a dig about her backing Florida Senator Marco Rubio over him in the primaries, Haley recalls in her memoir, but then they talked foreign policy. When his team offered her the U.N. job, she scoffed to a Trump ally, “I don’t even know what the United Nations does. All I know is everybody hates it.”

But Haley went on to acquit herself in the role. “She’s been one of the best ambassadors we’ve ever had to the U.N., just for the sole reason that she could very clearly express U.S. positions and often declare outrage,” Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley says. “Too many people that are at the U.N. tried to be too polite.” Many backers cite her foreign policy experience as central to her case for the presidency.

Haley’s staunch support for Ukraine—perhaps her sharpest policy difference with Trump—is informed by her past dealings with Russia. And her backing of Israel’s war against Hamas is an extension of her efforts at the U.N. to champion the U.S. ally. “There has never been anyone that’s been more supportive of the State of Israel than she was when she was at the United Nations,” says Fred Zeidman, a Haley donor who helped with Jewish voter outreach for George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.

Haley at times broke with Trump, condemning Russian election meddling and supporting NATO. But in her memoir, she lavishes praise on him and his agenda. Her pattern of threading the needle on Trump continued for years. After the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, she suggested his political career was over, but later said he still had a role to play. She initially said she would not run in 2024 if he did. Once she entered the race, Trump mocked her reversal and took to calling her “Birdbrain.”

But after viewers saw her on the debate stage, her poll numbers began ticking upward, and some fund­raisers supporting her home-state Senator, Tim Scott, moved to her after he dropped out. Haley also stepped into the expectant space vacated by DeSantis, who hasn’t worn well. When former Representative Will Hurd of Texas ended his own presidential bid in October, he quickly endorsed Haley. “The difference between Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis,” he says, “is when you meet Nikki Haley, you actually like her.” 

On Wednesday night, Haley will have a chance to cement herself as the best Trump alternative when she faces DeSantis one-on-one in a CNN debate in Des Moines. Up to now, her debate performances have continuously bolstered her case. Throughout the face-offs, Republicans have respected how she stays cool under pressure, cracking only in ways that seem relatable, as when she called entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy “scum” for mentioning her daughter.

Fourth Republican Presidential Debate Held In Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy at a GOP debate in Alabama on Dec. 6Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

“The key inflection points for her were the debates, which I always expected she would do very well at,” says Republican strategist Alex Conant, who worked for Rubio when Haley endorsed him. “She's somebody who takes prep seriously. … Some candidates just go into it thinking, ‘I've got this, I don't need any help.’ They just wing it. And she was the opposite of that.”

Her supporters in Iowa especially like how she handled a question on abortion at the first debate, when moderator Martha MacCallum asked what she would say to her party after it sustained loss after loss since the fall of Roe

“I am unapologetically pro-life,” Haley said over whistles. “Not because the Republican Party tells me to be, but because my husband was adopted and I had trouble having both of my children, so I'm surrounded by blessings.”

Then, she took a riskier line: “Having said that, we need to stop demonizing this issue. This is talking about the fact that unelected Justices didn’t need to decide something this personal, because it’s personal for every woman and man. Now it’s been put in the hands of the people. That’s great. When it comes to a federal ban, let’s be honest with the American people and say, 'It will take sixty Senate votes. It will take a majority of the House. So in order to do that, let’s find consensus.'” 

That answer comes up often at her Iowa town halls, where everyone is thinking about electability. “Her view on abortion is much more palatable than any of the other candidates,” says James Koopman, who is canvassing for her in Iowa. “I know that’s a huge emotional button for Democrats. In fact, it’s probably the key issue for them. And if we, being Republicans, haven’t learned anything in the last four years, then we have our head in the sand.”

Seeing a path to an upset beginning here, Haley has assiduously sought to keep expectations low.

“The way I look at it, we just need to have a good showing in Iowa,” she tells the crowd in Sioux City. “I don't think that means we have to win, necessarily.”

“I think you've got three major people that are going to go into Iowa, and I think after Iowa one's going to drop,” she continues. “And then I think you're going to have a play with me and Trump in New Hampshire, and then we're gonna go to my home state of South Carolina, and we're gonna take it.”

I ask Klein, with the Koch-funded AFP Action, about what I’ve heard about DeSantis’ Iowa ground game being better than Haley’s. “I think we're undoubtedly a missing puzzle piece in Nikki’s operation,” Klein says. “I think the difference is, other candidates parachuted in.” Can she win Iowa? “Nothing is impossible. But again we continue to say, this is not simply about what the results are in Iowa. This is about what's the path all the way through those early nominating states and into the convention.”

Obstacles remain. DeSantis still leads her in some polls, and he and his supporters are expected to continue the fight past Iowa. And critically, many in the party see Trump’s nomination as inevitable.

Presidential Candidate Nikki Haley Attends Lady Hawkeyes Tailgate Event
Nikki Haley arrives at the Iowa Athletic Club in Coralville, Iowa, on Dec. 30Sergio—Bloomberg/Getty Images

But there’s a less conventional path to victory that has helped Haley fans nurture hope. Trump could lock up enough delegates to secure the nomination as soon as March. Then, he could be convicted in one of the four trials he faces this year. No one—not ordinary voters, not GOP insiders, not even legal scholars—knows exactly what would happen after that. Trump would still be eligible for the presidency. (He could even run for office from jail.) But some Haley backers want her to stay in the race as long as possible, just in case.

“I’m worried they could figure out a way to prevent him from being on the ballot,” says O’Connor, the voter who’s thinking of Trump like a quarterback. “If we can't get the nomination in August, who's our backup plan?”

In the meantime, Haley continues her balancing act. Where some party operatives warn she needs to hit Trump harder, the voters flocking to her disagree. They don’t want more division. “I think he did just about everything right,” says Jim Latham, another Haley supporter in Clear Lake. “I applaud most of his decisions when he was president. I morally do not care for the man.”

I follow up later to ask if he would vote for Trump if he were the nominee. Assuming Democrats put up Biden, he says the race would be a very ugly thing that would fracture America. He would hold his nose and back Trump.

Back in Sioux City, Haley faces one of her toughest questions of the night. 

“Everything that I've heard from ya, I really like,” begins the man who has been handed the microphone. He confesses that he has trouble trusting politicians these days. “I’ve heard a lot of people say that you’re running just to run as President Trump’s VP,” he says. “If asked, what would you say?”

A tight smile spreads across her face. “I’ve never played for second my entire life,” she says. “I’m not going to start right now.” 

As the crowd cheers, Haley scans the room for another question. But the voter presses on: “That’s a no?” She shakes her head and slashes the air twice as if to say, “No chance.” She doesn’t say no.

This story has been updated to reflect the current amount that Americans for Prosperity Action has committed in support of Haley's candidacy.

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