Sep 19, 2023, 5:51pm EDT
politicsNorth America

Nikki Haley is riding a charming, focused, and consistent campaign to third place

David Weigel

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The Scene

GRAND MOUND, Iowa – It was a model Nikki Haley campaign stop: Corn ready to be harvested, a 30-ton combine ready to do the job, and reporters watching from a respectful distance.

“I’ve been in a combine simulator before, but I’ve never actually been able to drive one,” Haley said afterwards, at an agricultural policy roundtable with farmers and supporters on Dennis Campbell’s farm.

An hour later, in a facility next door, she told a crowd of hundreds that “I had driven a combine simulator, but thanks to Dennis, I actually got to drive one!” The next day, in West Des Moines, she added a laugh line: “I’d driven a simulator, but I’ve never driven a combine, and we didn’t hurt anything.” And when former Gov. Terry Brandstad asked how she’d defend renewable fuels, Haley had a story to tell: “I drove a combine yesterday, on a cornfield, and did my part.”

One week out from the next GOP debate, still riding a wave of attention and interest from the first one, Haley has built her own lane in the Republican primary. A relentless commitment to her message — and even the anecdotes she tells on the trail — has helped. Reporters are invited to watch her dazzle crowds, but they don’t get to pepper her with questions after.

Instead, Haley gets to talk about her own electability, in sync with the voters showing up to see her. She pledges to “veto any spending bill that doesn’t take us back to pre-COVID levels,” a $1.8 trillion spending cut, without much detail. She leans into her support for funding the war in Ukraine, and commits to an amorphous abortion stance — finding “consensus,” to “save as many lives as possible” – even as social conservatives protest it.


“I want you to be president,” said Jim Barton, 62, a South Carolina transplant who asked the first question in Grand Mound. “You’re electable. But can you win the nomination?”

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David’s view

No other candidate in this race has executed an underdog strategy so effectively, with so little deviation from her original plan. Haley has managed to nail her core message — that she’s a fresher, more electable, less erratic alternative to Trump.

At the same time, she appears to have topped out in the high single-digits among Republican voters nationally and in Iowa, and it’s not clear how much more of a constituency is left for her approach.

Haley ran a thrifty campaign, focused on breaking out at the first debate, then did so. She took risky positions with the base — funding Ukraine’s defense against Russia, punting on abortion limits by saying Congress wouldn’t pass them — early on, making them old news while the campaign press was focused on other candidates.

Haley’s proposal for “mandatory mental competency tests” for elderly politicians, mentioned nearly every day, was part of her campaign announcement; her promise to put China “on the ash heap of history” has run through most of her policy roll-outs. Unlike Mike Pence, she isn’t hunted by MAGA hecklers; unlike Ron DeSantis, her anecdotes and family stories are concise, and delivered consistently. Tim Scott, whose entry into the race complicated her path, increasingly gets asked why he’s single; Haley’s crowds listen raptly as she tells personal stories about her family.


“I’m the wife of a combat veteran,” Haley told Faith and Freedom Coalition president Ralph Reed at an Iowa gala on Saturday night. “Two months ago, I dropped my husband Michael off at 4 a.m. for another year long deployment. I watched him and 230 soldiers pick up their two duffel bags of belongings to go to a country they’ve never been — all in the name of protecting America.”

She had said that nearly word-for-word at the debate in Milwaukee, and in Des Moines, she was saying it to disagree with Reed on a burning issue — Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s refusal to allow votes on military promotions until the Biden administration abandons a new abortion policy.

But in the room, the answer got no protests. No candidate is attacking a rival who, in the strongest phase of her campaign so far, is still losing her home state to Trump. And with other candidates picking up the burden of attacking Trump, Republicans are inclined to think the best of her.

“Nikki was the one who put the foreign policy together for the Trump administration,” said Clinton County GOP chair Tim Striley, introducing the candidate at her Grand Mound town hall with a rosy assessment of her two years as U.N. ambassador. “That administration did very well on foreign policy; we weren’t facing World War III on four different fronts, were we?”

The campaign’s careful approach to the media has helped. In seven months as a candidate, Haley has only “gaggled” with the press corps – taken a few questions after an event – twice. In June, after announcing that her husband Michael would deploy to Africa with the National Guard, she let reporters ask about it; in August, after her speech at the Des Moines Register’s Iowa State Fair soapbox, she walked to the press tent for 12 minutes of Q&A.


That’s had a subtle effect on Haley’s coverage. Meg Kinnard, a Columbia-based Associated Press reporter who has covered Haley for years, asked her in April 2021 if she’d run for president against Trump. “I would not,” said the future candidate — an answer she had to recant months later. And since then, Kinnard has talked to Haley just once, on topic, at the June 17 deployment ceremony for her husband.

The candidate has prioritized structured interviews instead, the vast majority of them on Fox News, where it’s in everyone’s interest to advance the message of the day. (On Tuesday, she appeared on Cavuto Live to say that the president had “emboldened” unions and contributed to the UAW strike.) The one campaign trail reporter with regular access to Haley, Fox News’s indefatigable Paul Steinhauser, has gotten updates on her fundraising, on Ron DeSantis’s early hype, on Gov. Chris Sununu’s relevance in New Hampshire — all on message, and more like the careful rhetoric of a general election candidate than the usual randomness of a messy primary.

“I have always told the truth, and I think the American people expect us to tell the truth,” Haley told Steinhauser after a speech to Club for Growth donors in March. In September, when Steinhauser asked about her crowds growing after the debate, Haley credited it to how she’d “spoken a lot of hard truths, and Granite Staters appreciate that.”

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The View From Democrats

Haley has described herself as the nominee that Joe Biden fears most, pointing to anonymous chatter about her and a CNN poll that showed her leading the president by 6 points.

But Democrats are of two minds. Haley’s youth (51) and discipline pose obvious challenges, but she’s endorsed some pre-Trump, Paul Ryan-era GOP economic thinking. In Iowa, she described Medicaid as “welfare,” and she’d previously called for raising the retirement age for Medicare and Social Security. One proposed source of savings — to “claw back the unspent $500 billion of covid money” — overstates the amount of unspent outlays by a factor of 10. She hasn’t gotten specific, beyond the usual promise to cut “waste,” and Democrats are experienced in filling in those details with negative ads.

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The View From Iowa Voters

Republicans showing up to see Haley last week were overwhelmingly won over by her performance in the first debate, and excited for the second. Charles Peterson, 45, said that he’d appreciated what DeSantis did in Florida, but saw a lot more that he liked in Haley’s approach to politics and messaging.

“He’s bold, but he carries some bravado, and I don’t know that you need to haul that into our politics,” said Peterson. “He’ll say, ‘I’m gonna shoot the bad guys,’ but she’ll say, ‘I’m going to work with Mexico to attack our drug problem.’”

Other voters said that Haley had risen in their estimation after the Milwaukee debate, but not enough to switch their votes.

“I love the way she fights. She’s a tenacious person. I thought she was more of a Bush Republican, but I don’t think that now,” said Tim O’Donnell, 72. “But I would vote for Trump today. I would love to see her as vice president under Trump — if they let him win. If they don’t shoot him, or whatever.”

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  • In the Daily Beast, Jake Lahut reports that a “quiet detente” between Haley and Scott has been frayed by stories about Scott’s bachelor status, which his campaign blames on Haley.
  • In the Washington Post, Maeve Reston and Marisa Iati look at how Haley’s insistence that she’s really running against Vice President Harris has affected the race.