Dec 18, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Nikki Haley's anti-Trump ceiling

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Nikki Haley's polling surge in New Hampshire has unleashed a new frenzy of hope from restless pundits and anti-Trump conservatives eager for signs of a competitive Republican primary.

Reality check: While the former UN ambassador's momentum is unmistakable, so too are the immense challenges she faces from GOP voters who have stuck by former President Trump through the worst of times.

Why it matters: There's so far no indication the coalition Haley is banking on — anti-Trump voters and pro-Trump voters willing to consider her as a second option — exists at the scale she needs to win.

  • Even if Haley were to pull off a massive upset in New Hampshire, where Sunday's CBS News poll has her trailing Trump by 15 points, the state's Jan. 23 primary is unique when it comes to the influence of independent voters.
  • Replicating that success in Trumpier states — starting Jan. 15 with the Iowa caucuses, where the same CBS poll has her down 45 points to Trump and nine to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — will be far more difficult.

Zoom in: Much of the optimism surrounding Haley's chances is driven by an expectation that other candidates — namely former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — will drop out and endorse her.

  • Christie's exit undoubtedly would boost Haley in New Hampshire, but many supporters of Trump-adjacent candidates DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy rank the former president as their second choice.
  • DeSantis' campaign has hammered Haley over that dynamic, arguing in a memo last month that he's the only candidate who can bridge the "not for Trump" and "consider Trump and others" divide.

What they're saying: Haley acknowledged the difficult tightrope she's walking yesterday, telling ABC's "This Week": "Anti-Trumpers think I don't hate Trump enough. Pro-Trumpers don't think I love him enough."

  • She described Trump as "the right president at the right time," but argued that "nobody wants that chaos again."
  • "You guys are exhausting. You're exhausting, in your obsession with him," Haley later complained when pressed on Trump's campaign vow to exact retribution on his enemies.
Screenshot of pro-Haley ad

What to watch: Haley, who continues to rack up anti-Trump endorsements and big-dollar donations, is hoping her strong electability case against President Biden will appeal to GOP voters' more pragmatic sensibilities.

  • "[In] the latest polls, Haley demolishes Biden. Trump barely squeaks by and DeSantis doesn't beat Biden at all," says the narrator of a new ad by SFA Fund Inc., a pro-Haley super PAC.
  • SFA and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity have spent $18 million to boost Haley in Iowa since May, according to AdImpact — hoping for a knockout blow against DeSantis in the nation's first contest.

The bottom line: "Would a Haley win in [New Hampshire] really cause Republican voters to rethink the race when they've had every opportunity to rethink Trump since 2015 and have never done so?" Nate Silver asks in his latest Substack post.

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