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A Time for Choosing
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A Time for Choosing

The politics of Nikki Haley’s VP tryout.

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley addresses a crowd during a campaign stop on December 18, 2023, in Nevada, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Not since spring have we had a poll of the Republican presidential primary that passes for interesting.

On Sunday, a month out from the start of voting, we finally got one.

A CBS News survey of New Hampshire has Donald Trump under 50 percent in the state, and Nikki Haley within 15 points of the frontrunner. She leads Trump on likability among Republican primary voters by nearly 20 points. The same poll has Chris Christie at 10 percent overall; if he were to exit the race before Election Day and his anti-Trump base moved to Haley, we’d have a true toss-up in a state that’s picked the eventual GOP nominee in every cycle for the past 20 years.

Note that I said this “passes for interesting,” not that it is interesting.

For starters, the margin of error of the poll is a hefty 5.5 percent, meaning Haley’s true level of support could be as low as 23.5 percent. (Or, I guess, as high as 34.5.) It’s also an outlier, as no other survey of New Hampshire has had Haley higher than 20 percent. And the data fails to account for any momentum Trump might gain in New Hampshire if he crushes the field in Iowa, where CBS News has him leading the caucus by 36 points. Haley is a distant third there at 13 percent.

In fact, according to the RealClearPolitics average, the frontrunner now enjoys his largest lead of the campaign in national polling. He’s at 63 percent today, more than—deep breath—50 points ahead of his nearest competitor.

Nikki Haley isn’t going to beat Trump for the nomination.

But CBS News’ New Hampshire poll remains interesting-ish, for two reasons. One is that it might convince her and her team that they have a real shot at the upset. They’ve invested gobs of time, energy, emotion, and money in this longshot effort, believing against all evidence that stubborn Republican voters might choose a traditional conservative like her over the cult leader if only Team Nikki put in the work. Now they have a tantalizing piece of statistical evidence, however small, that seems to validate their theory. It’s working. It’s gonna happen.

The more she thinks she can win, the more her strategy over the next two months might evolve. For the first time, she might begin attacking Trump aggressively. Might.

The other reason is related. The better Haley performs in the early states, the more compelling the case becomes for Trump to add her to the ticket as his vice presidential nominee. The GOP is a party divided between populists and conservatives, as regular readers of this newsletter might remember. Populists dominate, but they can’t win without bringing along the 20 percent or so of old-school Republicans who might be getting itchy about what a second Trump term portends.

Having the ultimate next-gen normie Republican in the number two slot could calm those voters’ nerves. It might even earn some crossover votes for Trump in the general election. Really now, would a would-be “dictator” name Nikki Haley, of all people, to be his number two?

The vice presidency has loomed over Haley’s candidacy since the day she launched her campaign, but the subject has grown more urgent as she’s crept up on Ron DeSantis in the polls.

In fact, everyone seems to be chattering about it lately.

There aren’t many political topics left with the power to annoy hardcore MAGA fans, DeSantis devotees, and Never Trumpers to roughly equal degrees, but “Trump-Haley 2024” is one.

One of DeSantis’ most loyal spin doctors on The Platform Formerly Known as Twitter now warns about it regularly.

The governor himself has raised the matter in appearances on the trail, as has his campaign manager in interviews.

Trump’s biggest toadies also sound increasingly alarmed.

Shared disdain for Haley among different camps of populists has led to an amusing dynamic in which Trump enthusiasts loudly denounce her while DeSantis enthusiasts parse those denunciations for proof that a secret alliance is afoot. When stalwart MAGA Rep. Anna Paulina Luna declared recently that “Nikki Haley would be a terrible VP pick,” Team Ron influencer Pedro Gonzalez took it as confirmation that Trump must be quietly considering the former governor of South Carolina for the ticket. Otherwise, why would Luna feel compelled to lobby against the idea publicly?

Some Trumpers, being Trumpers, have colorful theories of their own about a potential Trump-Haley union.

On the other side of the party, one of the few Republicans to have ruled out supporting Trump next year also looks dimly on the prospect of Haley joining forces with him in the general election. “I’m the only one in the race who is working on defeating Donald Trump,” Chris Christie said Sunday when asked about Haley. “When she hasn’t ruled out being his vice president, I don’t think you can take her as a serious contender against him. … That’s why she’s not saying strong things against Donald Trump. Why she’s saying he’s fit to be president of the United States.”

Whether a guy who famously endorsed Trump in 2016, sought a job in his cabinet, and advised him informally for years has any right to scold Haley for being a Trump “sycophant” is, of course, a separate question. But when Christie’s right, he’s right:

Taking all of this in, you’re left to wonder: Would a Trump-Haley ticket, supposedly designed to unite the party, actually end up alienating everyone?

Both wings hate the idea for opposite reasons. Never Trumpers would resent Haley for stooping to partner with a post-liberal authoritarian like Trump; post-liberal populists would resent Trump for stooping to partner with a “globalist” RINO neocon like Haley. Christie and DeSantis are plainly trying to leverage those prejudices for their own respective electoral reasons. The former hopes to convince anti-Trumpers in New Hampshire that there’s only one earnest Trump alternative on the ballot, and it ain’t Nikki Haley. The latter hopes to convince populists in Iowa that there’s only one earnest populist on the ballot, and it ain’t Donald Trump.

In fact, Team Ron’s recent obsession with Trump-Haley is an attempt to kill two birds with one stone. The more DeSantis succeeds in persuading Republican voters that his rival for second place is an avatar of pre-Trump establishmentarianism …

… the more the chatter about putting Haley on the ticket becomes a liability for Trump himself among the sort of populists to whom DeSantis has spent the past three years desperately pandering. 

Trump’s voters have their own compelling reason to treat Haley as political anathema. Because there’s a slight (really slight) chance of her upsetting him in New Hampshire and South Carolina, they’re warning the rest of the party not to risk their votes in the general election by choosing her over their guy. It’s the now familiar populist “hostage crisis” playing out in proxy form via the VP question: If they’re reluctant to vote for a ticket with Trump at the top that contains Haley, imagine how reluctant they’d be to support a ticket that contains Haley but not Trump.

She’s a nonstarter for them. Undecided Republican voters who are mulling whether to support her in the primary anyway should consider the implications of that for next November.

What about Haley herself, though? Now that she has a slight (reeeeally slight) chance at an upset, is it time to take off the gloves against Trump? Or should she continue to play nice knowing that doing so will improve her vice presidential chances?

The time for choosing has arrived.

Actually, for Nikki Haley, the time for choosing arrived six years ago.

And with one exception, every time she’s been asked to re-confirm her choice, she has.

Haley’s choice was to play ball with Trump, first and officially as his ambassador to the United Nations, but always as a loyal Republican who criticizes him gingerly, sparingly, and reluctantly. The exception came shortly after January 6, when she calculated that he was finished politically and felt confident enough about it to say so. The title of the Politico piece in which she made those remarks was titled, er, “Nikki Haley’s Time for Choosing.”

At last, she had chosen to ditch Trump. Weeks later, realizing that the Republican base would not make the same choice and that her political viability was suddenly in doubt, she thought better of it and reverted to playing ball with him again. Never since has she repeated her mistake. Even as Trump’s opponent for the Republican nomination, she’s taken care not to cross any red lines of disloyalty: She won’t say he’s unfit for office, won’t hold his criminal indictments against him, won’t even frankly accuse him of being an agent of chaos. The most she’ll allow is that, ahem, “chaos follows him.”

As if “chaos” were some malevolent spiritual entity, a poltergeist unfairly tormenting poor Donald Trump.

To listen to her in interviews, in fact, Nikki Haley is the only person left in a country of 330 million people who doesn’t have a strong opinion about Trump one way or the other.

On Sunday, ABC News’ Jonathan Karl chatted with her and mentioned you-know-who, an understandable enough subject given that she’s trailing him by more than 50 points in national polls. “You guys are exhausting! You’re exhausting in your obsession with him!” she complained, as if it’s the media rather than the voters of her own party who are driving that obsession. When Karl pressed her anyway, she replied meekly: “Anti-Trumpers want me to hate him, pro-Trumpers want me to love him, but this is where I stand. There are things I agree with the president on. … There are things I don’t agree [with].”

After six years of trying to choose between supporting Trump and opposing him, Nikki Haley has decided she’s … not going to choose, never mind that he’s been her direct competitor for the office she’s seeking for the better part of a year. She won’t even name him in her new ad, which urges voters to “leave behind the chaos and drama of the past,” with Iowa less than a month away.

Choosing not to choose has been Haley’s M.O. with respect to other unusually fraught political matters too. The lack of clarity is maddening intellectually, but it’s hard to argue with results: As we approach Christmas, she looks to be the only challenger left with even a hypothetical chance of defeating Trump.

Isn’t it likely, then, that she’ll stick to her successful strategy of choosing not to choose to the bitter end instead of taking off the gloves once she has him one-on-one?

Attacking Trump aggressively would cost her more than it would benefit her. Even if she upset him in New Hampshire and South Carolina, she’d remain an underdog on Super Tuesday due to his enormous lead in national polling. If she attacked harshly and failed to close the gap, she’d have squandered her vice-presidential chances by angering him. If she attacked harshly and did close the gap, she’d have infuriated Trump diehards whose support she’ll need to win the general election.

The realistic best-case scenario for Haley is that she’s competitive in the early primaries, ends up as the last Trump alternative standing, and takes her coast-to-coast beating after South Carolina with a smile and no ill words for Mr. Trump. That should be enough to preserve her dream of becoming the frontrunner in the 2028 cycle.

And it might land her on the ticket this year, which remains by far her clearest path to becoming president eventually.

So, I suspect, she’ll continue to choose not to choose even if she surprises us in New Hampshire and South Carolina. She might step up her criticism of Trump at the margins, to show her strongest supporters that she’s giving winning the ol’ college try, but I highly doubt there will ever come a moment where Nikki Haley declares Trump unfit for office. She’ll protect her stature as a potential VP to him until he makes his choice.

But she won’t be his choice in the end.

For all the angst lately about a Trump-Haley ticket, what would Trump actually gain by choosing her as vice president?

I think he could choose her without alienating many populists, notwithstanding their recent threats and grumbles. The sort of febrile catastrophist who believes America is finished if Trump doesn’t get a second term will inevitably talk himself into casting a vote for Vice President Haley if that’s what’s required of him. Trump’s cultists aren’t boycotting the general election.

Neither are DeSantis supporters, who are at least as catastrophist as the MAGA faithful—maybe more so, given that their big knock on Trump is that he isn’t authoritarian enough to suit their tastes. They’ll turn out on Election Day with smiles on their faces over the prospect of a populist autocracy, even if it comes packaged with Nikki Haley as conservative window dressing.

If Trump were trailing badly in general election polls, I think he’d look seriously at choosing Haley on electability grounds. She leads Biden by gaudy margins in some head-to-head polling and Trump can use all the vicarious normie credibility he can get. But he isn’t trailing in general election polls; on the contrary, he has good reason at the moment to think he can win no matter whom he nominates for vice president. So why not nominate the sort of fanatic populist loyalist he craves instead of an ambitious relic from the pre-Trump Reaganite era of Republican politics?

His base would be pleased. And you know how he loves to please his base.

Arguably the most compelling reason to nominate Haley for VP is that she’s good on the stump and would be useful to him as a surrogate next year. Imagine Nikki Haley, the woman who yanked the Confederate battle flag off the statehouse grounds in South Carolina, solemnly defending fascist dreck like this in candidate town halls as Trump’s official number two:

More so than any other prominent Republican, she can make the unreasonable parts of Trump’s agenda sound reasonable to undecided voters.

But why would Trump need to choose her as vice president to get her to do that for him?

Granted, the VP nominee is an especially exalted surrogate for the presidential nominee during a campaign. Haley events would be better attended next year if she were on the ticket than if she weren’t. But even as a regular ol’ surrogate, Team Trump can arrange plenty of facetime for her with voters on the trail and especially in national TV interviews—and she’ll be in no position to tell them no. Again, if you assume that her long-term play at this point is positioning herself for 2028, she has every incentive to do whatever Trump asks of her. She’ll be desperate to improve her populist credibility before her next run for president, and helping to reelect him next year is the most obvious way to do it.

No matter how you slice it, when the time for choosing comes, she’ll choose Trump.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.