So far, most Republicans don’t seem to be taking Nikki Haley’s run for president very seriously.
The two-time South Carolina governor, who served as Donald Trump’s U.N. ambassador, is starting with little backing from Republican voters — early primary polls put her at just 3 percent nationally, and place her fourth in her home state. Pundits have politely said she faces an “uphill climb,” speculated that she’s effectively campaigning for vice president, and suggested it’s not even worth profiling her.
Haley’s old boss doesn’t sound overly threatened, either. Trump has snarked that Haley is “overly ambitious” but that she needs to “follow her heart, not her honor” after previously promising not to run if he did. On Sunday, he shared an American Conservative article about Haley titled “The Born Loser.”
The View From Nikki Haley's Fans
But those within Haley’s orbit say they see a path.
While governor, Haley was often touted as a future Republican star who, as a woman and child of Indian immigrants, could put a cosmopolitan spin on tea party conservatism and defuse culture war conflicts, like when she famously removed the confederate flag from South Carolina’s capitol after a white supremacist gunman attacked a historic black church in Charleston.
Her backers still sense that possibility, especially after another election cycle of Republicans struggling in the diversifying suburbs, and say party leaders do too. Katon Dawson, former chair of the South Carolina GOP, told Semafor he’s been getting calls for six months from Republicans who say they like Haley. “She’s different, she helps the ticket,” he said. “If she was on the top of the ticket, it would be a game changer for us as a party.”
According to a person familiar with Haley’s thinking, she plans to remind voters of her conservative achievements as governor: In 2011, she signed a hardline anti-immigration bill allowing police to look up an individual’s documented status if they’d been pulled over or arrested, as well as legislation requiring a photo ID to vote.
Haley also plans to emphasize her fiscal conservatism and contrast herself with the current president.
“She’s running against Joe Biden,” the person familiar with Haley’s thinking said. “She’ll focus on a proud and strong America. We’re seeing a generation being taught to hate America. This is the greatest country on Earth. That’s her message, and her personal story is proof of that.”
As for the polls? They say not to worry, arguing Haley thrives as an underdog, having won her first race for governor after starting with next to no name recognition. Alex Stroman, a former executive director of the South Carolina GOP, said Haley used to joke about how often voters would ask “Nikki who?”
National polls “don’t matter right now,” Stroman said. “The voters in South Carolina, they know Nikki, they like Nikki — but when Nikki Haley starts getting to know the people of Iowa and New Hampshire, watch out.” (He noted that Haley seemed to be doing particularly well in the Granite State; a recent poll there gave her 8% of the vote).
Haley’s long history of vacillating on her support for Trump is seen as a major hurdle that could alienate both wings of the party: She was a critic in 2016 before joining his administration, even linking his rhetoric to the KKK and the Charleston church shooter; left the White House as a popular figure within Trump’s inner circle and spoke at the RNC in support of his re-election; blamed him for the Jan. 6th attack and declared his political career dead; then finally said she would support him if he ran for president again and not run herself just months later.
But her supporters are unfazed, arguing that it doesn’t indicate she’s a fair-weather fan. Instead, as Stroman explained, it represents her willingness to call “balls and strikes” about when her own party is wrong. As for her decision to run, after previously saying she wouldn’t? “People understand, you have a right to change your mind,” Dawson said.
But the biggest question for Haley isn’t why voters would pick her over Trump. It’s why they’d choose her over Trump’s more popular rivals, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to run. Some suggested her foreign policy experience could be key.
“Having the opportunity to serve as ambassador, certainly that was a great opportunity for her to glean some of the national experience on global issues that she would not have gotten as a governor of a state,” Mark Smith, a South Carolina Republican state representative who grew up with Haley and was her junior prom date, told Semafor.
Supporters also hope her early entrance will give her a head start over the rest of the non-Trump field. “She’s ready,” the person familiar with her thinking said. “None of them have the operation that Haley has. None of them have been [doing] the groundwork that Haley’s been preparing for years.”
The View From Mar-a-Lago
Trump’s team argues that, if it decides to go all-in against Haley, they’ll have plenty of fodder to show she’s out of step with the party’s conservative base, partly because she sometimes uses softer rhetoric on social issues — such as when she tweeted that George Floyd’s death “needs to be personal and painful for everyone.”
For now, though, Trump’s campaign seems to be taking an even more brutal approach: Shrugging.
As one person close to the Trump campaign texted me: “I guess the audition for Trump’s VP starts now.”