Nikki Haley’s rise in the polls comes at the right time for a presidential candidate. And her history —including a key episode that’s typically not mentioned in 2024 reporting — suggests that she may be readier for the intensity of national politics than you might expect.
The Republican presidential primary is, against all odds, starting to look like the exact thing Donald Trump sought to avoid: A winnowing field that could plausibly produce just one ticket out of the January 15 Iowa caucus, a real presidential face-off in New Hampshire, and a high-profile moment of opportunity for a challenger.
I’m using “opportunity” here loosely, of course: Trump is still putting up big numbers with Republicans and dominating news cycles while trying to persuade the press his nomination is inevitable and his rivals are a boring sideshow. So far, it’s pretty much been successful.
But it’s now possible to imagine a strong Haley performance in Iowa making her suddenly competitive, with all the national attention that comes with it. And if you spent the spring of 2010 in Columbia, South Carolina, which I was lucky enough to do, you might have reason to believe that Haley is unusually well qualified for the absolute insanity of a one-on-one primary faceoff with Trump.
South Carolina politics are legendarily awful. It’s the state in which supporters of George W. Bush conducted a push poll suggesting John McCain was the father of an “illegitimate black child,” and where Mitt Romney’s opponents sent around fake Christmas cards with quotes from the Book of Mormon. The home state of Strom Thurmond is a place where subterranean conversations around race and sex are always bursting right out into public.
And in 2010 Haley was barely a serious candidate — a little-known, third-term state rep whose political mentor, Governor Mark Sanford, had just become a national punchline after vanishing for a torrid affair in Argentina. (His hapless spokesman famously claimed the governor was hiking the Appalachian Trail.)
Then Haley, a reformist accountant daughter of Indian immigrants, started rising, and the race became about a single subject: Whether she’d cheated on her husband.
It was, at the time and in retrospect, incredibly gross — which is why it’s rarely been brought up in public conversations about her since, even though it’s critical to understanding her political journey. First her former press secretary took it upon himself to “admit” on his blog he’d had an affair with her. The next week, a prominent lobbyist volunteered on local television that he’d had an affair with her during a Salt Lake City conference on school choice. Haley heatedly denied both claims and said she’d resign if they were true.
I’ve been reading through my blog entries about that race, which I covered in Twitter-level detail for Politico. It was so crazy! Haley’s accuser was simultaneously playing the roles of Matt Drudge and Monica Lewinsky. There was Sarah Palin, swooping in to Haley’s rescue with a robocall telling voters: “They come after you with all kinds of made-up nonsense to try to knock you down Believe me. I’ve been there.” Then there was the moment when the Haley accuser endorsed her “in the most conflicted sense imaginable.” Sanford’s ex-wife also endorsed Haley, in a statement that made reference to her own husband’s affair. A couple weeks later, a racist legislator randomly jumped into the fray to call Haley a “raghead.”
These stories consumed the campaign, and the press chased the allegations while questioning their relevance at the same time. “The notion of reporters and opposition researchers digging into the past of a married woman for allegedly straying strikes me as more likely to produce sympathy than anything else,” I wrote the day it broke.
That was correct.
Haley didn’t just survive the allegations. She turned them, ferociously, on her opponents. “As Nikki Haley rises in the polls, the good old boys in Columbia see their taxpayer-funded fraternity party coming crumbling down,” her spokesman, Tim Pearson, said in a statement that crystallized the campaign’s message and, with Palin’s help, effectively won the argument with voters.
There was something about the sleaze of the allegations — which the other candidates had actually tried to steer clear of — that left them covered in slime anyway.
And the soap opera narrative matched the substance of Haley’s message. She had presented herself as a reformer. She used the way these men treated her to prove that point. She won with more than twice as many votes as the second place finisher and sailed through a run-off.
Haley later succeeded on the national and global stage, and showed a clear grasp of domestic political symbolism when she represented the U.S. at the United Nations.
But that month Haley survived in 2010 was just as eye-popping as the worst of national politics in the Trump era. It was probably a horrible moment for her and her family, as well, but, in a way that I associate with only the most ambitious politicians, she never seemed to internalize the stress. She channeled it into politically perfect, righteous anger.
I was reminded of that summer when Vivek Ramaswamy leeringly brought up Haley’s daughter’s TikTok account, and Haley turned to bury him: “You are scum.”
Haley’s grasp of gender politics is Greta Gerwig-level astute, and she’s still running on a reformist message that dares the likes of Ramaswamy to attack her. “You are scum” isn’t a bad slogan for that particular appeal. And I’ve never seen a politician better than Haley at turning a smear directed at her into a weapon — one that anyone who has a shot against Trump will need in their arsenal.
Room for Disagreement
Today’s Republican Party might have rejected Haley in 2010, and many analysts see her as a figure from “the party’s recent pre-Trump past,” as Osita Nwanevu put it in The New Republic.
- The New York Times’s Katherine Miller sees Haley rising: “The biggest enemy she will have to defeat is people’s idea of what other people want from politics now.”
- The Washington Post’s Dan Balz laid out Haley’s narrow path to the nomination: “To isolate Trump in a one-on-one contest, Haley will need a strong second in New Hampshire and the swift collapse of the rest of the field as the campaign moves to her home state of South Carolina. She might seem well-positioned to claim that status after the early states cast ballots, but the road ahead will be bumpy.”
- Big Wall Street donors have begun to swing Haley’s way: “Big donors have praised Haley’s foreign policy nous, electability and more moderate stance on abortion compared with that espoused by some of her Republican rivals.”
An earlier version of this story said Gov. Sanford resigned over his scandal; he served out his term.