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The Trump-Haley Rivalry Heats Up in New Hampshire
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The Trump-Haley Rivalry Heats Up in New Hampshire

But can the former South Carolina governor compete in her home state?

GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks to supporters after receiving the endorsement of New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu during a town hall event at McIntyre Ski Area on December 12, 2023, in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Photo by Sophie Park/Getty Images)

Happy Friday! We’ll be out of your inboxes next Monday and Wednesday—Merry Christmas to you all and we’ll see you again next Friday!

Up to Speed

  • A conservative group backing Nikki Haley’s presidential bid shared polling with The Dispatch Friday morning showing her just 3 points behind Donald Trump in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup in New Hampshire. The survey from Americans for Prosperity Action, a grassroots organization affiliated with the Koch network of political groups, showed the former South Carolina governor and ex-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations trailing the former president 48 percent to 45 percent, with 5 percent undecided, in a ballot test that presumes Ron DeSantis and Chris Christie are not in the race. But of course, the Florida governor and former New Jersey governor are in the race. So what does AFP Action’s polling show in that case? Trump 45 percent; Haley 32 percent; Christie 9 percent; DeSantis 6 percent—figures in line with other recent New Hampshire surveys. The AFP Action poll was conducted Sunday and Monday and has an error margin of plus-or-minus 3.9 percentage points. For more on the latest with Haley versus Trump in New Hampshire, keep reading.
  • Gov. DeSantis said Thursday that Trump’s legal troubles had “distorted the primary,” telling Christian Broadcasting Network that “I would say if I could have one thing change, I wish Trump hadn’t been indicted on any of this stuff.” DeSantis added that the news cycles around Trump’s indictments—which caused nearly all his competitors to scramble to his defense—“crowded out, I think, so much other stuff, and it’s sucked out a lot of oxygen.”
  • The New York Times, meanwhile, has a devastating look at DeSantis’ much-vaunted ground game. The Florida governor’s supportive super PAC Never Back Down was supposed to be unleashing a paid army of door knockers to the early primary states to lock down his support, but the effect has failed to deliver a commensurate boost in the polls. In one embarrassing detail, the Times reports from Iowa, some of Never Back Down’s door knockers trying to gin up support for DeSantis “openly told Iowans that they themselves were in fact Trump supporters.”
  • Then-President Trump pressured Republican members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers not to certify Joe Biden’s victory over him in the 2020 election, the Detroit News’ Craig Mauger reported Thursday. “We can’t let these people take our country away from us.” Trump told GOP canvassers in the heavily populated Michigan county that encompasses Detroit, according to a recording of a telephone call reviewed by the newspaper. Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chairwoman, could also be heard on the call telling the canvassers “we will get you attorneys,” with Trump adding, “we’ll take care of that.”
  • An Arizona judge ruled this week that a defamation lawsuit against Republican Senate candidate Kari Lake can move forward, rejecting her argument that the suit should be dismissed under Arizona’s anti-SLAPP law. The suit was filed this year by Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, who alleged that Lake’s spreading of “malicious falsehoods” about supposed fraud in the 2022 election had sparked “threats of violence and even death” against him and his family. “This court is satisfied that the disputed statements—if indeed they are ‘provable’ as false or defamatory—would be undeserving of the protections associated with our First Amendment principles,” the judge wrote.
  • Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani filed for bankruptcy this week after a court ruled he had defamed two Georgia election workers by falsely claiming they tampered with votes in 2020 and ordered him to pay them $148 million. Giuliani remained defiant throughout the trial, telling reporters last week that “I don’t regret a damn thing.”
  • Rep. Kevin McCarthy is poised to resign from Congress after 17 years, the last of which was filled with tumult as the California Republican was elected the 55th speaker of the House—and then ousted by members of his own party barely nine months later. Looking for some holiday reading? Drucker, who has covered McCarthy for more than 20 years, sat down with him for an exit interview to discuss all that and more. You can check it out here.

Haley and Trump Trade Barbs Amid Her New Hampshire Surge

It says something about Donald Trump’s dominance that a couple of polls showing Nikki Haley trailing by an average of 14.5 percentage points in New Hampshire is noteworthy, let alone the best evidence yet that the race for the Republican presidential nomination might end up being competitive.

But there’s no denying the contest shifted into a higher gear this week after surveys from CBS News and St. Anselm College revealed the former president as potentially vulnerable in the January 23 New Hampshire GOP primary, which is open to non-Republicans, with Trump sitting in the low 40s and Haley hovering around 30 percent support in each. 

The super PAC supporting Trump’s White House bid reacted by airing an advertisement attacking Haley on television in the Granite State. The super PAC supporting Haley responded in kind, with the former South Carolina governor’s campaign also targeting Trump, consistently, for the first time.

In the 30-second spot from SFA Inc., the Haley super PAC, headshots of Trump, 77, and President Joe Biden, 81, flash on-screen as the female voiceover asks: “Want an 80-year-old name from the past? Or a new generation of conservative leadership?” Meanwhile, the Haley campaign has been blasting out press releases and email fundraising appeals all week criticizing the 45th president, in whose Cabinet she served after he appointed her U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

“If you’re tired of losing; if you’re tired of drama; if you’re tired of chaos; if you’re ready for a President you can be proud of, Nikki Haley is the answer,” a Haley campaign fundraising email reads. 

Haley herself went so far as to criticize her old boss for his handling of the events of January 6, 2021, when grassroots Trump supporters who were attempting to block congressional certification of Biden’s 2020 Electoral College victory ransacked the U.S. Capitol.

“I think January 6 was a terrible day and I think that the tone at the top matters,” she told Jonathan Karl of ABC News in an interview for This Week. “When President Trump had the opportunity to stop it, when he had the opportunity to say it—the bully pulpit matters, people listen—he didn’t.” Added Haley campaign spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas in a published statement: “Nikki Haley is surging and Trump is scared.” 

There was clearly enough concern inside Team Trump for his super PAC, Make America Great Again Inc., to hit Haley with a television ad accusing her of pushing a gas tax increase while South Carolina governor. The spot refers to her as “high tax Haley,” a charge that is ultimately not supported by her record as chief executive. But the move against Haley, whom Trump calls “bird brain” but has otherwise criticized sparingly, was notable. 

Since announcing for president more than 13 months ago, Trump and his super PAC have been almost singularly focused on knocking out Ron DeSantis. The Florida governor runs second to Trump in most state and national polls, although his numbers have dropped precipitously under the weight of the former president’s unrelenting attacks, and he has fallen into the single digits, behind both Haley and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, in the Granite State. DeSantis’ collapse has given Haley an opening to seize the momentum.

“After earning the key endorsement of New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, former Ambassador Nikki Haley has broken away from the pack pursuing former President Donald Trump and become the clear alternative,” Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, said in a statement released with the poll. “However, even after cutting Trump’s lead in half, she still trails and his support remains steady in the mid-40s. Trump’s supporters seem unfettered by the former president’s ongoing legal challenges.” 

Indeed, Trump’s multiple criminal indictments and other legal challenges have been a boon to his support in the Republican primary throughout the campaign. And as it happens, the St. Anselm College poll was in the field before the Colorado Supreme Court ruled Trump ineligible for Colorado’s 2024 ballot under the 14th Amendment on the grounds that his efforts to overturn his 2020 loss to Biden amounted to engaging in an insurrection against the United States—so whether Republican voters will reward him with another corresponding bump in the polls remains to be seen.

One month out from the New Hampshire primary, the other major variable is Christie, who commands about 11 percent support among New Hampshire primary voters in the latest polls (a third survey publicized this week showed Trump above 50 percent and beating Haley by 30 points, although the error margin was a high 5.4 points.) 

Were Christie to drop out, the bulk of that support would likely go to Haley. But Christie’s line has remained unchanged since he spoke to The Dispatch last month: “I’m not going anywhere, so let’s be really clear about that,” he told reporters in New Hampshire this week. 

A spokesman for the Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. 

Haley’s Hurdle Behind the Hurdle

Catching Donald Trump in New Hampshire would be one thing. But Nikki Haley will face an even higher hurdle a month later on her home turf of South Carolina.

On paper, South Carolina—a state where she served for six years as a highly popular governor less than a decade ago—should provide Haley with a major home-field advantage. Even after a hypothetical Haley upset in New Hampshire, the Palmetto State contest would still be a must-win for her, to prove she is viable in places other than New Hampshire’s independent-heavy, moderate-friendly electorate.

But South Carolina, with its “first in the South” primary, also happens to be deep Trump country.

The former president has already locked up endorsements from most of the state GOP’s heaviest hitters. Gov. Henry McMaster, who succeeded Haley as governor in 2017 following her appointment as U.S. ambassador to the U.N., endorsed Trump just hours after he announced his reelection bid last year. Sen. Lindsey Graham followed suit a couple months later. Three of the six Republican U.S. representatives from South Carolina have also endorsed Trump; one, Rep. Joe Wilson, is on his state leadership team.

Primary polling in South Carolina has been sparse so far, but the little we have paints a clear picture: Trump hovering between 45 and 55 percent, Haley growing, but still below 25 percent. That’s not to say that the cake is completely baked. 

New developments can change perceptions; a Haley win in New Hampshire could be one such development. The latest CNN poll in South Carolina, from October, found 82 percent of Trump’s backers saying their minds were made up, suggesting that his hard support in the state is somewhere south of 50 percent. And while a Winthrop University poll last month found Trump with a 77 percent approval among South Carolina Republicans and Haley trailing him slightly at 71 percent approval, it also found her leading him among all registered voters in the state, 59 percent approval to 45 percent. (Although it lacks New Hampshire’s outsize population of independent voters, South Carolina has an open primary in which any voter can participate.)

But the fact that it takes this many words just to lay out a theoretical path for Haley in her own home state underscores just how slim her chances look there at the moment.

“Haley’s support is significant and will likely grow some, I just don’t see a path to overtake Trump in South Carolina,” said Dallas Woodhouse, a Republican strategist based in South Carolina. “It’s just a very Trump state and those voters will not care what happens in New Hampshire and Iowa.” 

For their part, the Haley campaign remains bullish.

“This has become a two-person race between Nikki Haley and Donald Trump,” Haley spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas told The Dispatch. “Nikki is continuing to surge, and South Carolinians know their governor has what it takes to win because they’ve seen her beat the odds before—not just once, but twice.” 

Notable and Quotable 

“They’re destroying the blood of our country, that’s what they’re doing. They’re destroying our country. They don’t like it when I said that. And I never read Mein Kampf. They said, ‘Oh, Hitler said that.’ In a much different way.”

—Donald Trump doubling down on his controversial comments accusing immigrants of “poisoning the blood” of the United States, December 19, 2023

“He didn’t say immigrants were poisoning the blood of this country. He said illegal immigrants were poisoning the blood of this country, which is objectively and obviously true to anybody who looks at the statistics about fentanyl overdoses.” —Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance defending the same Trump remark, December 19, 2023

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.