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Updated Jan 8, 2024, 9:59am EST
politics

What about her gaffes? Nikki Haley looks to move past Iowa missteps

REUTERS/Rachel Mummey
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The News

For almost a year, Nikki Haley has campaigned as the drama-free and electable alternative to Donald Trump. Her campaign has favored a “slow and steady” approach that matches her personality. It’s paid off: In New Hampshire, she’s risen to second place with 29.1% support, and in Iowa, she’s just behind DeSantis, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average.

Her rise has brought more cameras and eyeballs to her events, after months where she’d been able to stick to frequently friendly questions. One result: A series of verbal stumbles right before the Iowa caucuses.

Haley’s first mistake came during a New Hampshire event late last month, when a voter asked her to name the cause of the Civil War. The former South Carolina governor didn’t mention slavery, instead saying the war was fought over “how government was going to run — the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do.” She later tried to walk back the comment, saying that slavery was the obvious answer, and suggesting to a New Hampshire interviewer, without evidence, that the voter who asked the question was a Democratic “plant.”

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That cleanup left new messes. Haley got more negative coverage after last week’s CNN town hall, declaring that she “had Black friends growing up.” One day later, she was asked to respond to criticism that the “Black friends” comment was a patronizing trope. Haley discussed how growing up as an Indian immigrant made her an outsider in the South at the time: “Saying that I had Black friends is a source of pride,” she told NBC News. “Saying that I had white friends is a source of pride.”

In the same period, Haley also mixed up well-known Iowa Hawkeye basketball star Caitlin Clark with CNN’s Kaitlan Collins during an event in Iowa. DeSantis doesn’t plan to let voters in the state forget this one: He showed up to CNN’s town hall last week and gifted Collins a Clark basketball jersey.

Haley got more unfriendly coverage after an interview with New Hampshire’s Union Leader, when she wouldn’t rule out becoming Trump’s vice president. The suggestion that she’d run her campaign to be his VP was “offensive,” she said, adding that she was “fighting to become president.”

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She also angered some Iowans after telling a group of New Hampshire voters that they could “correct” the Iowa caucus results. At the town hall in Iowa, she defended those remarks, too, saying she was just joking around and that the first three states (Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina) “banter against each other on different things.”

Campaigning across the state, DeSantis surrogates highlighted the comment, asking what it said about Haley’s real views of Iowa voters. And in Dubuque, the first voter called on by the Florida governor asked if he could name the star female basketball player for the Hawkeyes.

“No other state needs to ‘correct’ the record for what Iowa does,” U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas told DeSantis supporters at a Friday event in Cumming. “I like Gov. Haley, but she’s wrong. You don’t say that, and say that New Hampshire needs to ‘correct’ Iowa, unless you planned it to get a cheap joke out on the campaign trail. And I don’t think it’s appropriate.”

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Trump and allies have picked from a broader selection of Haley statements. At a Saturday rally, Trump mocked Haley for not saying “slavery” was the cause of the Civil War, “as opposed to about three paragraphs of bullshit.” Later, he said his campaign had compiled examples of Haley pledging not to run against Trump, a position she reversed in the summer of 2021.

“Have you seen her clips? We have about nine of them,” Trump said. “There are a lot more than that, but I don’t want to bore you.”

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Shelby and David's View

There’s a double standard here, of course. Even just this month, Trump set off his own cycle of scrutiny by saying the Civil War “could have been negotiated” instead of fought.

But we know he can survive offending voters and getting pilloried by pundits — after all, he made similar comments about the Civil War in office, which were quickly forgotten after being swallowed by the inevitable next controversy, and the one after that, and the one after that.

Haley, who is running as a steady hand who can reach swing voters, is another story. We’re still not convinced her gaffes will make a massive difference in voting at this stage in the primary (at least in Iowa), but they certainly don’t help. It also raises the question of whether her missteps are minor issues that her opponents have blown up out of proportion, or whether they’re representative of a larger problem with Haley and her ability to hold up under the limelight.

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Room for Disagreement

This isn’t Haley’s first time under pressure: Our own Ben Smith argued in November that her ruthless approach as a candidate for governor shows she’s prepared for this phase of the campaign.

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Notable

Despite the recent gaffes, Haley has the backing of a number of major GOP donors: She and her allies are using those funds to try and “change the course of a presidential run,” Politico recently reported.

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Correction

An earlier version of this story described Haley as accusing the DeSantis campaign of planting a town hall question. She accused Democrats of planting the question.

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