A few days ago, Nikki Haley did herself, her party, and her country proud when she stood defiantly in a New York office lobby, asking her supporters to stay with her as she continues her campaign. “I will suffer for you,” she told them. “I will not quit.”
The odds against Haley winning seem insurmountable. Former President Donald Trump has handily won in Iowa and New Hampshire. He claims a huge lead in former Gov. Nikki Haley’s home state of South Carolina. Two of the losing GOP candidates, Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott (whom Haley appointed to the Senate), publicly praised Trump on the New Hampshire stage. The House Republicans have almost universally endorsed him. The GOP chair announced him as the presumptive nominee. His rallies rock with thousands of rabid “MAGA” loyalists.
In truth, Haley’s presence doesn’t connect with the raw emotional charisma of some other leaders. “I am an accountant,” she tells her followers, perhaps the first major American public figure to make a virtue of this claim. “I like numbers.”
She explains that as the daughter of Indian immigrants in the small-town South, she was “not white enough to be white … not black enough to be black.” She started doing the books for the family business at age 13 (“I realize now it was child labor!”) – and enjoyed it.
Trump’s followers love him because he is the opposite of accountancy: loose, wild, and funny, upending the rules of traditional political oratory. If Trump is the headbanging high school rocker, entertaining his friends in the basement, then Haley is the honor student upstairs, practicing classical scales again and again, to perfection, on the family spinet.
Even so, voters also know that the honor student with the perfect process will get the job done. And Haley still has the chance to prove that, under her stern librarian exterior, she may share the heart, aspirations, and values of the Americans she seeks to represent and so become beloved as well. In any event, Haley has real justification to keep running. And she can win, for the following reasons and in the following ways:
First, she would be the stronger general election candidate.
America does not want an election choice between Trump and Biden, two incredibly polarizing and scandal-plagued octogenarians. The polling is clear that Haley gives the Republicans a better chance to unseat Biden, whose job approval rating is markedly worse than Jimmy Carter’s was at this point in 1980.
The RealClearPolitics polling average this week has Trump over Biden nationally by 1.9%. Haley, by contrast, leads Biden by 3.6%. That small margin may not sound like much, but in a close contest (elections like 2016 and 2020), it could prove the difference between winning and losing. Moreover, there is every reason to believe that Haley could expand that lead in a general election campaign, in which she solidifies the Republican base while persuading independents and even peeling off some Democrats – especially women. The country wants to turn the page on the bad feelings and anger of recent years. Haley, not Trump, is the way to do this.
Second, she still has a path to win the nomination.
Haley has a tactical plan. She emphasizes to her followers that ever since her political career began, she has always been the longshot challenger running against highly favored political insiders. She emphasizes how far she rose in Iowa and New Hampshire from her starting position. She notes how, as a frugal accountant-type, she saves all her money for television in the race ahead, even as Trump spent $50 million of his funds on personal legal bills. She highlights her strong fundraising from small donors even since New Hampshire, including, we now learn, a record $16.5 million of fundraising just in this past January alone.
Importantly, she explains that in a state like South Carolina, anyone can vote in the Republican primary who did not already vote in the Feb. 3 Democratic primary. Haley’s hope is to bring out the general election voters for the party primary now; for example, she is focusing on young women independents who typically never vote in primaries but may turn out in the Feb. 24 GOP primary.
The pollsters, she argues, undercount these types of general election voter groups since they have not generally mattered in party contests before. This, she says, helps explain why she came closer to Trump in New Hampshire than some predicted and why she still hopes to do well in South Carolina.
Further, if Haley stays in the race and gains strength, then Trump might become compelled to debate her. This could energize her further, perhaps just ahead of Super Tuesday. Less explicitly, she seems aware of the chance for unexpected events to change the gameboard suddenly. There is an inherent randomness to criminal trials, to old men’s health, to emotional outbursts, and world events. The end is not necessarily written.
Third, a loss now can be a win later.
Donald Trump will be 82 years old on Election Day 2028. Joe Biden will be nearly 87. Nikki Haley will be in her mid-50s. If Haley goes down fighting, she can rise four years from now – and traditional Republicans might have a chance to rise as well.
Trump clearly believes his “MAGA” movement has subsumed the Republican Party, a mindset that became apparent on the night of the New Hampshire primary, where he threatened retribution against other Republicans who failed to join him and the MAGA cause immediately.
MAGA has entered the Republican Party through Trump and may well be the dominant part of the GOP today. But even 60% of a party that speaks for roughly 30% of the total electorate is only 18% of the nation. By continuing her campaign, Haley is defining and preserving the non-MAGA piece of the GOP. The longer she goes, the more traditional Republican values have a chance to survive and reemerge later.
Win or lose, Haley’s run can have a positive impact.
Political contests don’t just select candidates. They also are a vehicle for the party and the nation to discuss, define, and identify the right policies for the future. The campaign itself is a way to prepare and educate the nation.
One of the many weaknesses in the 2020 presidential election cycle was that the second debate between Trump and Biden, which was supposed to cover foreign policy, was canceled. Thus, the American people entered the 2020-2024 cycle with no serious prior national attention ever paid to Afghanistan, Ukraine, Iran, China, or the Palestinians – all the hotspots that plague us today.
Trump suggests that he could make a quick deal with Vladimir Putin to settle the war in Ukraine. Haley seems to believe that concessions to Putin today will lead to Russian tanks in Poland tomorrow. Okay then, let’s debate it. Let’s get these issues on the table and discuss them – to educate the electorate and reach better decisions for the good of all.
Finally, the very nature and existence of the Republican Party may be at stake.
There are numerous parallels between the GOP today and the Whig party in the American 19th century. The Whigs were the major alternative to the Democrats for decades, but they split in two in the 1850s. One branch, the American Party, had a ticket (like MAGA) led by a former president, Millard Fillmore. Like MAGA, the American Party is often described as populist and “nativist,” focused on immigration abuses and working man’s rights, but also with deep anger. When questioned about the party’s secrets, members were trained to say, “I know nothing,” and the name stuck. To this day, the American Party is remembered as the “Know Nothing” party.
A separate stream of Whigs rejected the Know Nothings and went in a different direction.
With John C. Fremont as their candidate, they entered the 1856 election, with higher ideals, as the Republican Party. They lost badly, just as Haley and the non-MAGA Republicans may lose badly this time.
But four years later, these loser Republicans nominated and elected Abraham Lincoln, even as the Know Nothings melted back into oblivion. It was the losers in 1856 who saved the United States in 1860 and, eventually, the world.