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Nikki Haley Is the Perfect Republican Presidential Candidate (for 2015)

Trump gets his first official challenger for 2024.
February 14, 2023
Nikki Haley Is the Perfect Republican Presidential Candidate (for 2015)
(Mark Makela/Getty Images)

She’s running!

On paper, Nikki Haley should be a top-tier contender in the 2024 Republican primary. She’s a successful former governor from an important, early primary state. She has an impressive personal backstory, solid foreign policy chops, and great candidate skills, too. This used to be an extremely attractive package for GOP primary voters.

Used to be.

But not anymore.

Instead, Haley’s candidacy represents the best of the “meh” middle tier of 2024 candidates, which for now includes the notional campaigns of Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, and Chris Christie. No one is really asking any of those guys to run. But they don’t have anything better to do. So they’ll eventually put exploratory committees together and take a joy ride that may or may not make it to Iowa.

And Haley, despite how good she is on paper, finds herself in that same tier: No one is asking for what she’s selling. Why is that?

While many Republican voters may be moving off Trump the man, the forces that he unleashed within the party—economic populism, isolationist foreign policy, election denialism, and above all, an unapologetic and vulgar focus on fighting culture war issues—remain incredibly popular with GOP voters.

Back in the fall, a right-leaning swing voter explained it to me this way in a focus group:

I like Nikki Haley, but I don’t know if she would be able to win. She might have been able to win a couple of years ago, but I think her popularity has gone down quite a bit.

And that strikes me as about right: Haley would be the frontrunner in a Republican party that no longer exists.

It’s just that she doesn’t seem to realize this fact.

While other old-school Republicans such as Jeff Flake, Ben Sasse, and Liz Cheney were exorcised from the party, Haley tried her best to hold on. Since 2016, she has not so much threaded the Trump needle as vacillated between being a staunch Trump supporter and a wobbly-kneed critic.

So how will she win constituencies from either new MAGA-friendly voters or old-guard establishment types? Haley isn’t like another potential fusion candidate, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who has a strong record of conservative policies that better fit the current iteration of the Republican party while also breaking from Trump over his election fraud claims.

And she certainly isn’t a Ron DeSantis-style, four-star general in the culture wars.

Haley’s soft campaign launch pitch was “It’s time for a new generation”—code for the desire for younger candidates and fresh blood in Washington. But generational change isn’t a pitch for Haley specifically—DeSantis is seven years younger. And as a political commodity, she’s been in front of the public since the beginning of the Obama years.

Haley’s fundamental weakness is that she doesn’t seem to know who or what she wants to be. Is she the MAGA devotee who loyally served in the Trump administration? Or the sober and serious foreign policy heavyweight? Or the reform-minded former governor of South Carolina who signed the bill to take down the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds?

An announcement teaser video tried to frame her as a fighter: “I wear heels. It’s not for a fashion statement. It’s because if I see something wrong, we’re going to kick them every single time.” That’s closer to a message that might resonate with base voters. But it’s a fourth political persona she’s presenting to voters.

If you wanted to be generous, you’d say that this risks confusing voters about which brand she’s campaigning on. If you wanted to be cynical, you’d say that voters always sniff out the genuine articles from the try-hards. (Ted Cruz, RIP.)

I’ve been conducting weekly focus groups since the start of 2022 and voters aren’t super enthused by Haley. When we ask who these voters want to see run in 2024, Haley gets some hand raises, but rarely does she come up organically, the way Ron DeSantis has since the summer.

And voters’ opinions are—if they have any—generally muted. Last year, a Trump voter told me about Haley, “She has a place. I like her.” Another Trump voter in December floated his preferred Republican ticket as, “Ideally, it would be DeSantis with [the] VP Nikki or the South Dakota governor.”

So you can see why Haley is at least in the conversation. Outside of her resumé, she is a relatively young, minority woman. And this diversity turns out to be attractive even to anti-woke Republican voters. One Trump voter told me in the summer, “Nikki Haley. You wanna break that glass ceiling, that’s the woman who’s gonna do it. She stood up to the U.N. She had no problem whatsoever.”

Republican voters like candidates that cut against the fact that the party is mainly powered by older white men. Though it should be said that the interest in her is less about diversity for the sake of diversity than it is pure tactical advantage: The voters frequently tell me that a candidate who shatters GOP stereotypes could be helpful with young voters and swing voters.

Which is probably true! But it also probably won’t matter if such candidates can’t make it out of the primaries.

A recent poll published by The Bulwark and conducted by GOP polling firm North Star Opinion Research found similar results. Haley had a decent favorability/unfavorability rating–47 percent fav and only 9 percent unfav among likely Republican primary voters.

But on a 10-way ballot test, Haley only got 4 percent of the vote compared to DeSantis’s 39 percent and Trump’s 28 percent. It’s not that at least half of the respondents didn’t like her—they did.

The problem is they didn’t like her enough to cast their vote for her.

Whatever happens from here on out, Haley deserves credit for jumping in early to test her value proposition. She’s putting herself out there to run the Trump gauntlet and if the 2024 version of Haley at all resembles the politician we’ve seen over the last 15 years, then she will represent a better, healthier version of the Republican party.

Whether or not Republican voters want that is another question. And one to which (we think) we already know the answer.

Sarah Longwell

Sarah Longwell is publisher of The Bulwark.