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Haley’s Comet
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Haley’s Comet

How does she win?

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition's Annual Leadership Summit on October 28, 2023, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Never have so many written so much about so little.

Until Monday, that was my feeling about Nikki Haley’s “surge” in the Republican primary.

It was just about a year ago that Ron DeSantis won reelection in Florida by an astounding 19 points, portending a changing of the guard—at last—in the leadership of the GOP. Polling conducted in the months afterward showed the governor competitive with, or even ahead of, Donald Trump in early primary states. The coming presidential race looked like it would be a Shakespearean drama about an old king trying to fend off a cunning young prince.

Instead, we got Bambi Meets Godzilla.

DeSantis hasn’t been within 30 points of Trump nationally in the RealClearPolitics average since May. He hasn’t been within 40 points since early September. Trump sits at 59.1 percent in the average as I write this, tied for his best mark yet. DeSantis is at 12.6 percent, two-tenths of a point off his worst.

The press is bored and dejected. The “Horse Race Industrial Complex,” as Tim Miller calls it, hasn’t had anything interesting to write about for six months. And so any sign of life, even the smallest green shoot pushing up through parched cracked soil, is destined to be lavished with undue coverage about the race “heating up.”

Enter Haley. She’s also seeing her best national polling to date at the moment, leaving her a mere … 51 points behind the frontrunner. “She’s breaking through at the right moment,” former Jeb Bush adviser Mike Murphy gushed to Politico. “Everything else has been ridiculous preseason coverage, like baseball teams at summer training. … I think it all starts now.”

It probably won’t surprise you to learn I do not share his optimism. Jonathan Last recently pointed out that the candidate who’s gained the most ground in polling since the start of August isn’t Haley, it’s, er, Trump. He’s the one who’s “surging,” no doubt thanks to some DeSantis-curious populists concluding that they’re not so curious about the governor after all.

But I’m also mindful of my own blind spots. Being a devout pessimist and a sworn Never Trumper places me at high risk of overlooking honest-to-goodness green shoots on the American right. If and when the day ever comes that Republican voters turn against Trump, I’ll be the last person who awakens to it. “But they’re cultists and authoritarians!” I’ll shout as the orderlies drag me away. “They’ll never do the right thing!”

So today, in honor of another intriguing green shoot spotted in Iowa, let’s dream big. Let’s imagine what Nikki Haley’s path to the Republican nomination might look like.

J. Ann Selzer is Iowa’s most respected pollster. On Monday, she released a new survey of the Republican race in her state that found Haley surging into—well, not quite contention, but something that appears contention-like if you squint. 

Since August, Trump has gained a single point in Iowa, rising to 43 percent. Haley has gained 10 points, more than doubling her total from two months ago. She stands at 16 percent today; that’s good enough for a second-place tie with DeSantis, who’s lost three points over the same period.

According to the “gold standard” in Iowa polling, in other words, Haleymentum is real. And while 27 points is a big gap to have to close in two and a half months, it’s noteworthy that Trump is well under 50 percent. In fact, a majority of Iowa Republicans are keeping their options open; just 27 percent in the poll say they’re fully committed to voting for him.

Oh, and there’s another reason for (very modest) excitement. Iowa isn’t the only early state where Haley is on the move.

In 2016, Ted Cruz invested heavily in Iowa, calculating that the large share of evangelicals there would propel him to an upset over the frontrunner Trump and that winning Iowa would propel him to victories elsewhere. He was half right. Iowa came through for him, but he landed with a thud in New Hampshire the following week. New Hampshire likes “mavericks,” and Trump was the more maverick-y of the two.

Haley is different. She’s campaigned aggressively in New Hampshire this year and has roughly tripled her vote share there in the past six weeks. The numbers in the RealClearPolitics average of the Granite State look strikingly like Selzer’s numbers in Iowa: Trump is stuck in the mid-40s while Haley is in the mid-teens and rising. She’s not truly in contention yet, but she’s the only candidate left who seems capable of approaching something like contention before the year is out.

And she’s arguably the closest thing to a “maverick” in the race this time, the last best hope of a conservative insurgency against the dominant populist wing. Trump has begun taking potshots at her, spotting her in the distance in his rear-view mirror. DeSantis has also jabbed at her regularly of late, unable to pretend any longer that the primary remains a two-man race between him and Trump.

If Haley manages to make a race of it in Iowa, one can imagine her catching the bounce in New Hampshire that eluded Cruz eight years earlier. There’s an alternate universe where she stuns Trump in the caucuses, parlays that into a victory in New Hampshire, then gets to play a home game in her native South Carolina with her momentum surging.

What would need to happen to make our universe look like that universe?

“The field would need to clear and give Haley a one-on-one race with Trump,” you might say—and in fact, some are saying it.

But that’s wrong.

That’s what we might call a “2016 strategy.” If only the field had cleared earlier for Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, anti-Trumpers complained at the time, the last man standing would have consolidated conservative voters and defeated Trump. I’m skeptical of that, but it’s at least mathematically plausible. In the three early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, Trump failed in 2016 to reach as high as 36 percent of the vote in any of them.

But 2024 is different. Not only is Trump polling well above that in those states this time (and waaaaay above it in national polling), there’s reason to think he would benefit more than Haley would from certain candidates dropping out. The most important data point from the new Selzer poll of Iowa has to do with voters’ second-choice candidates, as the Des Moines Register pointed out:

Of those who name DeSantis as their first choice for president, 27% name Haley as their second choice. But 41% say their second choice is Trump.

For Haley, 34% of her first-choice supporters pick DeSantis as their second choice for president, 19% select Scott and 14% choose Burgum. Just 12% say Trump is their second-choice candidate.

If DeSantis quits, Trump gains votes on balance. Not Haley.

Which makes sense. From day one, the Florida governor’s strategy has been to sell himself as “more Trump than Trump.” He swung to Trump’s right on everything from abortion to immigration to vaccines in the belief that only by cracking the frontrunner’s cultish base does a challenger have any chance of defeating him. And he’s right about that. We can debate whether he should have wooed normie Republicans before making a play for populists rather than vice versa, but his basic insight is sound. There simply aren’t enough Trump-skeptical traditional conservatives left in the party to form a bloc capable of out-voting Trump’s bloc.

His efforts to court populists weren’t fruitless. The governor has attracted a small but significant cohort of what we might call “proactive post-liberals” who relish his abuses of state power against their political enemies. They didn’t join the New Right because they found Trump funny and engaging at his rallies; they joined because they want to see their leaders put a hurt on the out group, not just talk about doing that.

Those people aren’t switching to Reagan Republican Nikki Haley—who ordered the Confederate battle flag removed from the South Carolina state house—if DeSantis drops out. They’re going straight back to the cult leader.

So Haley won’t benefit from a “2016 strategy,” if what we mean by that is the entire field clearing so that she can have a one-on-one race with Trump.

But if by “2016 strategy” we mean one wing of the field clearing while the other remains crowded, that’s more promising.

What Haley needs is for the other normies in the field to drop out, freeing their supporters to rally behind her, while the populist candidates fight on and battle for MAGA voters. Trump prevailed eight years ago because he had the populist bloc to himself while conservative challengers divvied up traditional Republicans. Haley will try to flip the script this time, consolidating conservative voters while Trump, DeSantis, and to a lesser extent Vivek Ramaswamy hopefully split up the nationalists.

She’s on her way with the consolidation part. Mike Pence, the most unapologetically Reaganite candidate in the race, dropped out on Saturday. Most of his small bloc will probably migrate to Haley. If her comet continues to rise in polling in Iowa, it’s conceivable that Tim Scott will take a hint and drop out before the caucuses as well. She’ll get most of his votes too.

That’ll leave Chris Christie, who’s staked everything on New Hampshire. As it becomes clearer that Haley is the only Trump alternative with real traction, he’ll face immense pressure to get behind her. No one in the race has questioned Trump’s fitness for office as aggressively as Christie; all of that will go up in smoke if he ends up sabotaging Haley in New Hampshire by splitting the conservative vote there.

Based on the numbers in the Selzer poll of Iowa, if all of the other conservative candidates dropped out, we might expect Haley to land somewhere around 25 percent. She could pick up a few extra points among true undecideds as she gathers steam, pushing her toward 30. As she breaks from the pack, the remainder of normie voters who have stuck with DeSantis to that point might finally leave him for dead and switch to Haley as well. That would put her at 35-ish percent, within spitting distance of Trump’s 43.

But to keep Trump’s number that low, she needs DeSantis and Vivek to hang around in the race and to hang onto the populist voters they’ve already won over. If either were to drop out, Trump’s lead would almost certainly grow. Even if they didn’t, their diehard populist voters might begin to abandon them and migrate to Trump as caucus day approached in order to beat back the challenge from the surging “globalist” Haley.

That too might not suffice, though. As unlikely as it may seem, I think what Haley needs is for DeSantis to somehow start luring away some of Trump’s populist base.

Don’t ask me how. The governor has spent five months doing everything he can think of to make that happen and all it’s gotten him is polling irrelevance. Perhaps Trump’s legal troubles will finally take a dramatic turn that convinces MAGA voters he can’t win. Perhaps the evidence of his own age-related cognitive decline will begin to penetrate on the right. Perhaps it’ll be a simpler matter of late-deciders in Iowa giving DeSantis a second look. After all, according to Selzer, he has the highest net favorable rating of any candidate in the race.

What Haley needs, in short, is to keep surging while DeSantis also surges somehow among MAGA voters. She can’t win a two-way race against Trump in a populist party. She can, perhaps, win a three-way race with conservatives united behind her and the populist majority split between Trump and DeSantis.

The dynamics of a three-way race might not get her over the top given how robust Trump’s lead is. She’d need to steal the show at the remaining debates to make an impression among “gettable” voters. She’d also need the politics of Israel’s war with Hamas to work in her favor, which will be difficult. Haley may be the most articulate and ardent hawk in the field, but DeSantis is working hard to impress Republican supporters of Israel with his own stalwart defense of the Jewish state. And her advocacy on Israel’s behalf is destined to remind “America First” Republicans of her reputation as a “neocon” interventionist, including and especially with respect to Ukraine.

Above all, she needs more polling to show that she’d outperform Trump and DeSantis significantly against Joe Biden. DeSantis’ “electability” pitch has crumbled under the weight of numbers that show him doing no better than Trump, and sometimes worse, head-to-head against the president. Haley’s the one who beats Biden handily. “The demographics gravitating toward Haley’s growing coalition—independents, degree-holders, suburbanites, younger women, etc.—are the same demographics that make up a winning coalition in a general election,” Noah Rothman wrote today, citing data in the Selzer poll. If Republican voters become convinced that Haley would be a sure winner next fall against a badly damaged incumbent while Trump would be a 50/50 gamble at best, even some “soft” Trump voters might begin to tilt her way.

In the alternate universe where everything breaks right for her, the Iowa caucus shakes out at Haley 40, Trump 35, DeSantis 20, Ramaswamy 5.

In our universe, it’s not going to shake out that way.

Realistically, there’s no way DeSantis—and especially Ramaswamy—hang on until Iowa if the race has otherwise transformed into a one-on-one between Trump and Haley.

The rage of Trump voters would be incandescent if two populists enabled a “globalist” victory by refusing to bow out after it became clear they had no chance to win. Vivek in particular would surely bail once Trump asked him to do so, understanding that his relevance in the party depends on the favor of the frontrunner and his supporters.

And while DeSantis wouldn’t be as eager to do Trump’s bidding, he too would make a rational decision about his future if he ended up in a position to play spoiler at MAGA’s expense in Iowa. He would quit and endorse Trump, knowing that’s the only way to preserve his viability for 2028.

Meanwhile, he might do some damage to Haley before he drops. The two governors will likely spar at the next debate (maybe the next several, if there are several), each seeking pride of place as the One True Alternative to Trump. Even if my fantasy came true of the two surging at the same time and eating up Trump support from the right and the center simultaneously, a DeSantis surge would surely hurt Haley to some degree in the process. The normie conservative voters who have already left his camp to join hers might migrate back to him once they saw signs of life for him in the polls. The outcome in Iowa might plausibly be more like Trump 40, DeSantis 30, Haley 30.

And if she did catch a series of breaks and rise to real contention, a panicked Trump wouldn’t sit by helplessly after losing Iowa. True to form, he would start issuing threats: “If we nominate Nikki Haley, my people won’t turn out for her in the general election,” he’d warn. And he’d be right, to some unknowable degree, and undecided voters in this party of cowards would take it to heart. Sure, the polls show Nikki Haley beating Biden by six points. But what happens when MAGA voters decide to boycott the race?

The undecideds would end up voting for Trump, concluding that he’s their most electable candidate after all. And they’d probably be right about that.

In our fallen universe, the outcome you’d bet on in Iowa is something like Trump 50, Haley 30, DeSantis 20. The governor of Florida will fight on and try to score at least a gentleman’s second there, if just to spare himself the ignominy of having squandered millions on a campaign that didn’t receive a single vote. Haley may finish ahead of him, forcing DeSantis out of the race, but the margin between her and Trump will be too large for her to leverage it into a bounce in New Hampshire. She’ll lose there too and make her last stand in South Carolina.

It will be very surprising if the primary is still competitive by the time Trump’s and DeSantis’ home state votes in mid-March. A coronation before Florida would be the worst outcome. But in this universe, in this party, the worst outcome is the one to bet on.

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.