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Putting Nikki Haley in Focus
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Putting Nikki Haley in Focus

Will GOP voters see her as a change of pace or as a known quantity?

Nikki Haley speaks during a town hall event in Agency, Iowa, on December 19, 2023. (Photo by Christian Monterrosa/AFP/Getty Images)

Nikki Haley endured two brutal years of the presidential pre-primary. Now she stands like a ski jumper at the top of a 53-day plunge through Iowa and New Hampshire to the primary in her home state of South Carolina. Those seven-and-a-half weeks will decide whether she gets to compete for the gold medal.

Assessing her chances requires us to think first about the issues and events likely to shape the electorate’s preferences, the stratagems and foibles of her opponents, and the resources and capabilities of her campaign. But most essentially we have to ask: What kind of candidate is Haley, anyway?

Her performance has been marred by her tendency toward calculation, approaching the point of pandering. But it’s also been brightened by genuine toughness, enthusiasm, and her gifts as a communicator. She’s better at this work than anyone running in either party—damning with faint praise, I know—but she’s still a blurry figure as a potential nominee.

There are generally two modes in which people have been elected president of the United States for the first time: new sensations and old grinds. 

Our current president is the definitional grinder. Joe Biden was in national politics for 48 years before he won, including two failed presidential runs and eight years as vice president. He joined grinds like George H.W. Bush, Richard Nixon, and Lyndon Johnson on the dean’s list of presidential persistence. 

In the current crop of candidates, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis stands out as a grind. Through a combination of his own obvious discomfort with the work of campaigning and the epochal waste and dunderheadedness of his campaign and PAC, DeSantis is unlikely to make the finals this time; but he’s only 45. That’s about the age Nixon and Biden were during their first, failed presidential bids. 

DeSantis struck out this time, but he may—four, eight, or 12 years hence—get there, or at least to his party’s nomination, like Mitt Romney, as a grind. 

What DeSantis couldn’t be, however, was a new sensation like Donald Trump. Trump was very well known, but not in politics. He is most definitely a grind now, obsessed with returning to power after his defeat. But Trump’s arrival and rapid ascendency was not so different from that of Barack Obama, whom he succeeded. Obama was, in turn, like his predecessor, George W. Bush, who was the other side of the same coin as the man he replaced, Bill Clinton. While the others were youthful and Trump was at the time the oldest man ever to assume the presidency, all benefited from the image of an outsider bringing change to a dysfunctional Washington. 

And without long records in national politics to defend, Trump, Obama, Bush the younger, and Clinton could be blank slates onto which potential supporters could draw their own images of the ideal leader. Was Clinton a ’60s radical or a moderate Southern Democrat? Was Bush a conservative evangelical from Texas or an old-guard, preppy squish? Was Obama an anti-war community organizer or a post-partisan uniter? Was Trump a pragmatic dealmaker without political allegiances or the avenging angel of Christian nationalism? Either. Both. Whatever voters wanted to see.

But it’s the expectations game where the new sensations have the greatest advantage. Those individuals who in a single bound get over the undefinable but unremitting threshold of seeming presidential to voters don’t face the same scrutiny as the grinds. The blank-slate effect works in their favor here, but so does the electorate’s willingness to give newcomers a break. Bimbo eruptions, old DUIs, pestilent pastors, and even a stream of crude conduct and comments can be hung on the old self, not the new man (or woman) of the moment. That applies also to mistakes made along the way. Saying or doing the wrong thing that might be fatal for a grind might bounce off of a new sensation.

So which one is Haley? 

At 51, she’s youngish for a presidential candidate, especially these days. And having climbed from the bottom of the pack to second place in just four months, she certainly has the slingshot momentum of a new sensation. She’s also not white and not a man, both of which add to her status as being from outside the traditional pathway to power. And while she has been in politics for 20 years, her time as a lawmaker and governor of a medium-sized state in the Deep South was spent far outside Washington and without racking up problematic votes in Congress. Even when she did go into the federal government, she went to New York as United Nations ambassador, not to the swamp.

But here’s where it gets tricky. Haley is an establishment insurgent. Like Romney and John McCain, both grinds, she is trying to shift the direction of her party away from populistic nationalism. Haley got elected governor 14 years ago as a Tea Party upstart taking on the old boys’ club in Columbia. Since then, her party has moved left on fiscal and economic issues and far to the right culturally. Just by standing still, she has become a moderate. So unlike Trump, Obama, and Clinton, Haley can’t base her claim to being a new sensation on being a leader of an ideological vanguard. Trying to get your party back into the mainstream is pretty grind-y stuff.

Among recent presidents for role models, that leaves Bush the younger, a new sensation with old ideas. After the many miseries of the Gingrich era and the defeats of 1996 and 1998, Republicans were open to the idea of someone who could steer the party back to the mainstream. Bush was broadly acceptable to the still-ascendant evangelical conservatives but, by lineage and career, a welcome relief to the Chamber of Commerce types. He didn’t have much love from or for the small-government Reaganites of whom Haley is a descendant, but two of three legs of the stool was enough for a win.

Haley is trying to get two legs under herself, as well. The evangelical movement that helped Bush has long since curdled into the Christian nationalism that fuels Trump. But she is well positioned for an appeal to big-business and small-government types who, though often at odds, have been so long out of influence that they may be willing to ally again. A coalition of the squishes and the traditional conservatives could be enough to get her through these 53 days with a chance to go for the gold.

Haley is prone to error when she is trying too hard to please, as her misadventures on the causes of the Civil War and online anonymity demonstrate. And as she heads into the finals, even meaningless gaffes will be frothed up by her rivals and the press. Remember, there is a correlation between a candidate’s viability and criticism from the media, especially for Republicans. 

But if she can cultivate the image of the outsider and the insurgent, Haley may indeed be a new sensation.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.