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Never Haley?

I won’t vote for her. Will I?

Nikki Haley speaks to guests at the Republican Jewish Coalition annual leadership meeting on November 19, 2022 in Las Vegas. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.)

A few weeks ago I was listening to The Dispatch Podcast, as all right-thinking people do, when Sarah Isgur asked the panel for predictions to ring in the new year.

Neither Donald Trump nor Ron DeSantis will be the 2024 Republican nominee, said Jonah Goldberg, calmly.

By the time I regained consciousness, they had moved on to a different topic. Jonah’s bombshell forecast somehow went unexplored.

I’m still flabbergasted. Who on the American right might conceivably have the mojo to dethrone the king of the GOP and his heir apparent, the only two politicians who reliably poll in double digits in early primary surveys?

Jonah didn’t elaborate on his prediction but I took it to be a pessimistic one. If a dark horse enters the race and slays the avatars of right-wing populism, he won’t do it by running to the center. He’ll do it by presenting himself as a populist more demagogic than they are. The dark horse will be truly dark.

I can, sort of, imagine Tucker Carlson as the Republican nominee. I can’t imagine Nikki Haley.

You know who can, though? Nikki Haley.

I’ve said my piece about her before but if you can’t spare the time to revisit that column, you can glean why Never Trumpers have special contempt for her from two short videos. The first comes from April 2021, after it had become clear that Republican voters wouldn’t be moving on from Trump post-insurrection.

The second comes from an interview she gave to Fox News on Thursday night, after it became clear from the midterms that Trump is an electoral albatross and many Republican voters will be looking to move on in 2024.

In a party of opportunists, Haley’s opportunism has always stung a bit more. Before Trump entered politics, she was cracked up to be the future of the GOP; when she shifted from Trump critic in 2016 to ally a year later, it felt like the party’s unconditional surrender to Trumpism. (See also “Rubio, Marco.”) Fealty to Trump was now the price of advancement in Republican politics. Nikki Haley, the future of the GOP, was willing to pay that price.

Sometimes. Haley’s other obnoxious quirk is seizing openings to break with Trump only to scurry back to his side once she senses that the opening isn’t there after all. Days after January 6, she assessed that Trump was too damaged to run again and that he had “let us down” by pursuing election conspiracy theories. “We can’t let that ever happen again,” she warned. Less than four months later, she was pledging on video to stand aside and defer to him if he ran for president again in 2024. Now, with Trump suddenly seeming vulnerable, she’s un-pledging. 

Rest assured that if his primary polling surges and he looks unbeatable, she’ll quietly drop out of the race and re-pledge her loyalty in order to scurry back on side again.

“Every time she criticizes me, she uncriticizes me about 15 minutes later,” an amused Trump said of Haley in 2021. “I guess she gets the base.” I tend to think of her as what we might call the ur-Stefanik, except that’s actually unfair to the person for whom that term is named. After all, Elise Stefanik has been a consistent Trump toady since she sold her soul in 2019, and she was among the very first Republicans to have endorsed him for president in 2024. Haley keeps selling her soul, then snatching it back, then eagerly selling it again when she calculates that her presidential ambitions require doing so.

She’s beneath contempt. I might have to vote for her in the coming primary.

It’s unlikely that I’ll have to. The only way I’d support her is if she emerged as the One True Alternative in the field. In a two-person race between Trump and Not Trump, I’m foursquare behind Not Trump. For Haley to become Not Trump, she’d need to outpoll DeSantis and a dozen other candidates.


What’s not so unlikely is Haley turning a two-person race into a three-person one.

Precious few 2024 hopefuls will be able to muster more than 10 percent of the vote, I suspect. Mike Pence might do so early on by dint of name recognition but should fade as his voters become better acquainted with DeSantis. Glenn Youngkin could make a splash, but his credentials as a successful governor offering a presentable face for culture war in a state with lots of Democrats are also outdone by DeSantis’.

The one figure different enough from the rest of the pack to potentially build a base of her own in the primary is Haley. Not big enough to overcome Trump and DeSantis, but maybe big enough to keep her hanging around in the race awhile.

Which is worrisome.

Many mainstream Republican voters who were spooked by the party’s midterm disaster will conclude that the GOP needs someone radically different and more electable in 2024. Some will talk themselves into believing that Haley is that radically different, more electable option. Who better to win back wary suburbanites than an accomplished executive from the pre-Trump GOP? How better to turn the tables of identity politics on the left than by nominating a young non-white woman to face the Democrats’ old—very, very old—white guy?

Haley is keen to feed that narrative. In her interview with Fox, she called on Americans to embrace generational change in their leadership: “I don’t think you need to be 80 years old to go be a leader in D.C. I think we need a young generation to come in, step up, and really start fixing things.” Ostensibly that’s a dig at Joe Biden, but Donald Trump will be 78 on Election Day, as Haley well knows.

(Fun fact: Ron DeSantis is seven years younger than Haley.)

Apart from Pence, she’ll probably be the only candidate in the field with executive experience as a governor and service in Trump’s Cabinet. That won’t impress MAGA voters, who’ll despise her for daring to run against their hero, but it might impress normie Republicans. Especially if they spend the next two years watching kooks in the House run Congress off the rails. Haley 2024: A return to normalcy.

It’s not hard to imagine her parlaying all of that into 15 percent of the primary vote. And if she does, the odds of Trump winning the nomination skyrocket. He might not be able to beat DeSantis head to head; he might not be able to beat him even if the field ends up crowded, provided that all of the alternatives to DeSantis poll in the low single digits and end up dropping out before Iowa.

But if someone comes along and stakes out 15 percent of the vote, nearly all of which will come out of the “Not Trump” candidate’s pot, that’s a recipe for another plurality Trump victory a la 2016.

Team Trump is counting on it, in fact. “The die-hard MAGA supporters won’t vote for anyone but Trump. Everyone else who gets in dilutes support for DeSantis,” one Trump operative told the Washington Examiner last month. “Basically, we’re praying Nikki Haley runs.” Their prayers are about to be answered.

It gets worse. Hypothetically, Haley could be an asset to DeSantis or whoever else might emerge as the “Not Trump” candidate if she focuses most of her rhetorical fire on Trump. A crowded field helps him on balance but much less than it otherwise might if the rest of the candidates spend their time and energy trying to convince Republican voters that nominating Trump again is insanity.

That’s not how we’d expect Haley to behave given her history, though, is it?

If anyone is prone to rerunning the Ted Cruz strategy from 2016, she is. Remember that Cruz spent the early months of that primary scrupulously refusing to attack Trump, treating him as a populist brother in arms despite their ideological differences. He and other non-Trump candidates like Jeb Bush attacked each other instead, believing that whoever ended up as the last man standing against Trump would unite the anti-Trump wing of the party and win the nomination.

Haley doubtless understands that she’s not going to lure MAGA voters away from Trump, especially if she starts attacking him. Making an enemy of him is the surest way to ruin her chances of ever becoming her party’s nominee. If she runs in 2024 as a longshot, at a minimum she’ll want to emerge from the race with her future presidential ambitions intact.

In which case the obvious strategy for her is to focus her fire on DeSantis, not Trump.

There’s little downside to doing so (unless DeSantis goes on to win the presidency and holds a grudge, that is.) She might successfully pull off the Cruz strategy, destroying DeSantis and then consolidating a majority of Republican voters who are ready to move past Trump. Or she might fail at the Cruz strategy, but in doing so she’ll earn the gratitude of Trump and his voters by serving as a stalking horse against DeSantis. If she’s destined to fall short in 2024, it’s frankly in her interest to see Trump win the nomination again. That way she’ll be able to run in 2028, an option that won’t be available if President DeSantis is seeking reelection that year.

If she succeeds at building a solid base of support at DeSantis’ expense, she might even end up as Trump’s running mate. No doubt he’d prefer someone like Kari Lake or Kristi Noem, but Trump understands by now that he has a “woman problem.” (Matt Gaetz keeps telling him!) If there’s a female candidate in the field polling in double digits, one whom suburban voters seem to like, he’ll be hard-pressed to say no to her. Even if he’s leery of her, ahem, “complexion problem.”

Maybe that’s Haley’s entire play in running for president, come to think of it. She can’t win a primary against Trump or DeSantis but she might be able to maneuver herself into being one 78-year-old heartbeat away from the presidency come January 2025.

Imagine on the eve of Iowa the race stands at Trump 45, DeSantis 35, Haley 15, whereupon Haley suddenly announces that she’s dropping out and urges her supporters to vote for Trump. It would be diabolical, a naked bid to play kingmaker for a coup-plotter whom she herself had denounced after January 6. And for no grander reason than that Haley had calculated that she stood to gain personally from Trump winning, the fate of the country be damned.

If you’ve followed her career with even passing interest, it’s not hard to imagine.

I really, really, really don’t want to vote for her in 2024. But when the smoke clears, if she’s the lone option left beside Trump, I will. For all her faults, I don’t foresee President Haley trying to stage any coups. Better to be led by a cynical careerist than a fascist.

Besides, there’s a chance that Haley could prove useful in ridding the GOP of its Trump problem. If DeSantis surges ahead in primary polling and becomes a solid favorite to win, the Haley weathervane will spin and calculate that it’s his favor she needs to earn, not Trump’s. She could start attacking her old boss and reposition herself as a stalking horse for DeSantis, hoping that she’ll land on his VP radar by doing so. 

There are even circumstances in which we Never Trumpers might find ourselves glad to have her in the race. If DeSantis were to pass on running due to scandal or fear of alienating MAGA, the anti-Trump right will quickly grow desperate for a viable alternative to rally around. Glenn Youngkin could be that guy, but Youngkin has held elected office for all of one year. Like it or not, for better or worse, Haley may be the most plausible champion in the “electable” lane.

My guess, though, is that DeSantis will run and Haley will end up earning the distinction of being the most formidable also-ran in the field, a 7-percent candidate rather than a 15-percent one. It wouldn’t surprise me if she ends up drawing attacks out of all proportion to the threat she poses, too, not unlike Mitt Romney in 2008. The animosity toward Romney within the Republican field that year was complicated, a product of his wealth, of him not having “paid his dues” politically, of his aggressive ads in early states, and of his repositioning as a staunch social conservative after having previously supported legal abortion. With Haley, the disdain will be more straightforward: She’s a slave to her ambition and willing to be as phony as necessary in service to it. Evidence of that disdain is already starting to bubble up, in fact.

In all probability, Haley will either help slay the Trump dragon in 2024 or finally get her electoral comeuppance after having alienated Trump fans and anti-Trumpers at various points with her cynical maneuvering. The only truly bad outcome involving her that we might plausibly see is a Trump/Haley ticket landing in the White House. How’s that for a grim forecast? Top it if you can, Jonah!

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.