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Jan 4, 2024, 6:14am EST
politics

Nikki Haley’s next challenge: Managing expectations

REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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The News

With two weeks to go until the Iowa caucus, presidential candidates are fine-tuning their messaging, blitzing the state with appearances and ads, and — in Nikki Haley’s case — setting some clear expectations for the next few months.

“We know Trump is going to win the caucus in Iowa. That’s just a given,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who endorsed Haley in December, told a crowd in the state on Wednesday. But he also said that Haley would “shock everyone in Iowa with a strong second,” before winning New Hampshire outright and forcing a “one-on-one” race with Trump.

Haley has spent the past several months focusing not just on Iowa, as her opponent Ron DeSantis has, but on all of the early voting states. The goal? To “get as many votes as possible” in both Iowa and New Hampshire, according to Mark Harris, who serves as lead strategist for the pro-Haley SFA Fund Inc. super PAC.

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“Ron set the bar of winning [Iowa], and right now, I think it’s a fight for second between us and him,” Harris told reporters on a press call Wednesday. “I think it’s very possible we get there, we’re working on it. I’m encouraged by the direction that we’re headed. But we don’t have to do that. Ron has to come in first. He set that bar — we have not set that bar for Iowa or New Hampshire.”

Haley’s orbit believes a strong showing in Iowa — or even eking out a second place finish “with a little luck,” as Harris put it — would propel her into New Hampshire, where multiple polls have indicated she’s inching closer to Trump. Haley’s rise in that state has been somewhat blunted by Chris Christie, who has solely focused on New Hampshire and has faced calls to withdraw in an effort to help Haley — but with or without his support, her supporters remain confident that they’ll come out of the state looking strong.

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Shelby’s view

Haley jumped into the race early and has maintained a “slow and steady” mentality, spending carefully and aiming to be in it for the long haul. Like much of the field, her focus up to this point has been less on beating Trump immediately and more on ensuring she becomes the only non-Trump alternative left standing.

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Haley’s stately pace certainly has its benefits: She’s peaking at the right time, keeping expectations reasonable and on the vaguer side, while also avoiding the money problems and in-house drama that have plagued DeSantis. (On Wednesday, her campaign announced it had more than doubled its previous fundraising hauls, earning $24 million in the fourth quarter of 2023 and entering the new year with $14.5 million cash on hand.)

Haley’s campaign strategy to spread herself across multiple early voting states seems to give her a little more flexibility than DeSantis. But her path still looks promising only in comparison to her top rival: A strong Trump performance in New Hampshire could snuff her campaign out early, and she faces bigger struggles in her home state of South Carolina the next month.

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Room for Disagreement

Chris Christie and Ron DeSantis have both argued Haley can’t win — though for opposite reasons. Christie has argued that he’s the only presidential candidate “trying to beat Trump,” accusing Haley of “running for first loser” and suggesting the rest of the field is “trying for something else.” Meanwhile, DeSantis has argued that Haley is too “reflective of the old failed Republican establishment of yesteryear” to attract MAGA votes and claimed she’s just trying to be Trump’s vice president.

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Notable

  • Publicly, Nikki Haley has the support of just one member of Congress — but privately, she has a small group of lawmakers hoping she can come out on top, Semafor’s Kadia Goba reported this week.
  • The DeSantis-Haley rivalry is all over the airwaves in Iowa, CNN recently reported. As for Trump? While he’s leading in the polls, he’s “rarely the subject of the millions of dollars being spent to sway Republicans, nor is he lately the focal point of his rivals on the campaign trail.”
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