Campaigning at the Iowa State Fair recently, 2024 presidential candidate Nikki Haley sported a T-shirt with the legend “Underestimate Me … That’ll Be Fun.” This feisty slogan perfectly fits the image the former South Carolina governor and Trump-administration diplomat has projected throughout her political career. She’s the Indian American woman who defied racist and sexist detractors to usher her famously reactionary state into a modern era of progress and is a voice of reason who manages to stay snuggly close to MAGA zealots without losing her freedom of action.
As a longtime critic of her record and the relentless self-promotion that has obscured it, I wouldn’t for a moment underestimate Haley. She has world-class political skills and an instinct for the main chance that has served her well — it dates back at least to the 2010 gubernatorial campaign in which this Mark Sanford and Sarah Palin protégée exploited nasty smears accusing her of sexual infidelity to transform herself into the victim and vanquisher of the ex-Democratic “good old boys” who had dominated the state GOP for years. Similarly, in 2015 she got massive favorable press around the world for taking down a Confederate flag at the statehouse after a white-supremacist massacre at a Charleston church made such a step no longer controversial (a previous Republican governor had proposed taking down the flag 20 years earlier). She has managed to make that “courageous” stand the only thing that national political observers remember about her governorship, instead of more characteristic moments such as her rejection of any corporate investment in her state that might involve “union jobs.”
More recently, her virtuoso efforts to pose as both a loyal friend of Donald Trump and the symbol of a post-Trump Republican Party infuriated New York Times columnist Frank Bruni into calling her out: “Past Haley, present Haley, future Haley: They’re all constructs, all creations, malleable, negotiable, tethered not to dependable principle but to reliable opportunism.”
Bruni was enraged by Haley’s characteristically crafty performance in the first Republican debate last week, which showed, in his mind, what the candidate could represent if she flatly repudiated Trump and the MAGA creed. Indeed, she attacked Trump’s presidential record from the right (criticizing him for signing the then–wildly popular CARES Act), called him unelectable, and savagely took down Trump mini-me Vivek Ramaswamy’s Trump-adjacent foreign-policy views. But in a moment of truth, she raised her hand when the candidates were asked if they would support Trump as the presidential nominee even if he becomes a convicted felon.
The debate also gave Haley the chance to rehearse her latest rap on abortion policy, which has been getting rave reviews from those across the ideological spectrum (including Bruni) who don’t seem to understand that her “reasonable” approach simply means recognizing that Republicans don’t have the Senate votes to impose the national ban she would eagerly sign. As abortion-rights advocate Jessica Valenti explains, Haley is again confecting a “moderate” image out of thin air:
Haley … tried to position herself as moderate on abortion by repeating something she’s said multiple times on the campaign trail: “Can’t we all agree that contraception should be available? And can’t we all agree that we are not going to put a woman in jail or give her the death penalty if she gets an abortion?”
It’s a scary state of affairs when “I’ll allow you birth control and won’t kill you” is something a candidate says to show they’re the reasonable one of the bunch …
Just by virtue of not being yet another man saying a stupid thing about women’s bodies, she’s ahead of the game. But despite all the sweet ‘pro-woman’ messaging, Haley’s policies are no different than any of those men’s. She just hides it better.
The question now, though, is whether this supreme opportunist has created a real opportunity for herself as a viable presidential candidate who will perhaps replace the ever-struggling Ron DeSantis as the defender of and rival to Trump with the best chance to emerge if the 45th president’s campaign somehow collapses.
Haley has gotten reams of publicity (most of it favorable) for her debate performance; she especially outperformed her fellow South Carolinian Tim Scott, who had previously been the back-of-the-pack candidate to watch. And now, a leading pollster for Trump has let it be known in a deafening stage whisper heard by Axios that Haley is “surging” in the early states:
Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio is telling Republican donors that Nikki Haley “has surged” in Iowa since last week’s GOP presidential debate — and that she and Vivek Ramaswamy are essentially tied with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in New Hampshire, according to a polling memo obtained by Axios.
Lo and behold, another pollster, working for the DeSantis campaign, has also leaked private polling results showing Haley gaining ground in Iowa but not at the expense of DeSantis, who is surging even more.
Both of these polls should be taken with a shaker of salt since Team Trump and Team DeSantis are strictly focused on damaging each other, even if that means temporarily showing progress by a third candidate (in this case, not one who was doing very well prior to the debate). In public polling, Haley is at 4.9 percent (and fourth place) in the national RealClearPolitics averages; she’s at 4.6 percent (and fifth) in Iowa and 3.8 percent (and seventh) in New Hampshire. And it’s important to note that a lot of those who loved Haley’s debate performance won’t be in a position to vote for her in the primaries. As the Washington Post reported, its postdebate polling showed that, among Republicans, the “winner” was DeSantis at 29 percent, closely followed by Haley’s punching bag, Ramaswamy, at 26 percent, and with only 15 percent thinking she was the star.
So unless Haley is enjoying a boom that has yet to fully appear, she needs more breaks to become a viable candidate, and that’s assuming anyone is truly viable against Trump. If she does become a threat to the top two candidates, they’ll probably stop ignoring her, and, particularly if Trump begins eyeing her with malice, her careful dance at the periphery of MAGA-land may become much more difficult. Displacing Chris Christie as the most prominent anti-Trump candidate is not a recipe for success. But if she leans back into her periodic loyalty to the former president, she could fall prey to the irrepressible suspicion that she’s really running for the vice-presidency, a suggestion she has contemptuously dismissed without ruling it out. You do have to wonder if Haley’s frequent predictions that Kamala Harris would soon become president if Joe Biden wins in 2024 involve an element of projection. Becoming president without having to win a presidential-nomination election is every political opportunist’s dream.