Nikki Haley did well enough in the Iowa caucuses Monday night to keep her supporters’ hopes alive. But her third-place showing, on the heels of Ron DeSantis and a mile behind Donald Trump, was also just disappointing enough to raise doubts about her candidacy.
Her plan coming out of Iowa is a classic underdog strategy: Use strong early results to upend expectations in the contests to come, reshaping the dynamic of the race one upset victory at a time. So, the thinking goes, her solid-enough performance in Iowa will propel her higher in New Hampshire, where she holds a strong second place in the polls.
It’s possible. But even if Ms. Haley does well in New Hampshire, it won’t matter. That’s because Ms. Haley is starkly out of step with the evolution of her party over the past decade.
The shape of today’s Republican electorate can be seen most clearly in national polling of Republican voters, where Mr. Trump has led by a substantial margin for months. Even in the unlikely event that all the voters who have told pollsters in recent weeks that they support Mr. DeSantis, Chris Christie and the former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson switched over to Ms. Haley, she would reach only the high 20s, placing her more than 30 points behind Mr. Trump, who sits at around 60 percent. (The voters who have said they support Vivek Ramaswamy, who dropped out of the race on Monday night, would likely switch to Mr. Trump.)
Sure, Ms. Haley might peel off some of those Trump voters if she manages to puncture his air of inevitability by knocking him sideways in New Hampshire. But imagining that she could wrest the nomination from him ignores the fact that, if he were to suffer a humiliating setback in New Hampshire, Mr. Trump would be guaranteed to attack her with a viciousness he has so far reserved primarily for Mr. DeSantis. In December, as she climbed in the polls, MAGA loyalists like Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon offered a preview of these sort of slashing attacks (referring to her as a “hologram” sent by donors or as potentially worse than “Judas Pence”).
More important, though, the fulfillment of the Haley campaign’s hopes would require a wholesale shift in preferences among millions of Republican voters.
This is a reality obscured by who will be voting in New Hampshire. For one thing, unlike most of the states to come, New Hampshire allows “unaffiliated” (independent) voters to participate in the Republican primary, as well as any Democratic-registered voters who changed their party affiliation before Oct. 6, 2023. That’s a pool of voters who disproportionately favor Ms. Haley.
Then there’s the character of the Republican electorate in the state. As Jonathan Martin recently pointed out in Politico, Ms. Haley attracts voters who are “less religious, more educated and wealthier” than the average Republican in 2024 — which just so happens to describe New Hampshire Republicans. Few states are a better match for Ms. Haley’s campaign.
She will find the states that follow New Hampshire, including her home state of South Carolina, much less hospitable. There are several reasons that despite being a former popular governor there, Ms. Haley is trailing Mr. Trump in South Carolina by 30 points.
For one thing, his takeover of the party in 2016 was made possible by his enormously powerful appeal to voters who haven’t graduated from college. This dynamic was partly about policy. By 2016, these voters had grown weary of candidates emphasizing cuts to entitlements and taxes on the wealthy while also favoring liberal rates of immigration, free-trade agreements that resulted in manufacturing jobs being shipped abroad, and pious defenses of waging wars in the name of abstractions like “freedom” and the “liberal international order.”
Ms. Haley tries to sound tough on immigration, but she supports raising the retirement age in order to cut Social Security spending, has tried to dance around the question of where she stands on free trade and is a vocal supporter of hawkish internationalism. That places her mostly on the wrong side of the policies that have defined her party’s Trumpian shift over the past decade.
But more fundamental to Mr. Trump’s strength is populist anger at “them” — the progressive-leaning elites who graduate from the country’s most selective universities, control the commanding heights of culture, run America’s leading public institutions and media outlets and sneer at him and his supporters, calling them racists, xenophobes, misogynists and fascists.
When these supporters have been asked why they support Mr. Trump so fervently, they’ve often responded by saying, “He fights.” Ms. Haley might cultivate an image of toughness, but she will never be able to surpass Mr. Trump’s reputation as a fighter when seemingly every day brings fresh headlines about prosecutors and judges moving against him (and, through him, against his supporters).
That points to a final advantage Mr. Trump enjoys with Republican voters over Ms. Haley. In her debate last week with Mr. DeSantis, both tried to sound like fighters, demonstrating it by repeatedly sniping at each other. Yet the overly clever attacks sounded scripted, and both candidates came off as inauthentic tryhards.
Mr. Trump by contrast often speaks from a place of unfiltered rage. No consultant in the country would have advised him to attack John McCain, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, a Gold Star family, Ted Cruz’s father and wife, his own vice president, judges and prosecutors in his own trials or any of the other targets of his unhinged wrath over the years. Yet he has done all of these things and won the love and support of a majority of party voters, not so much despite as because of it.
Such Republicans are exceedingly unlikely to be swayed to switch their allegiance to a conventional politician, even one who can brag about polls showing she’d beat Joe Biden by a wider margin than the former president would. They have reason to believe that Mr. Trump would beat him, too, and they’d rather go into the general election with someone they feel they can trust.
Sure, a win or close second in New Hampshire may produce a bounce for Ms. Haley. But New Hampshire is overwhelmingly likely to end up as the high-water mark for her campaign.
She and her supporters should be proud of her accomplishment in getting within reach of becoming the most viable candidate after Mr. Trump. Unfortunately, that will almost certainly leave her in a distant second place.
Damon Linker, who writes the newsletter “Notes From the Middleground,” is a senior lecturer in the department of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow in the Open Society Project at the Niskanen Center.
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