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Dec 15, 2023, 12:23pm EST
politics

Nikki Haley has a theoretical path to victory. Her rivals want to keep it that way.

David Weigel/Semafor
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The Scene

MANCHESTER, N.H. – The opening riff from “Welcome to the Jungle” filled the McIntyre Ski Area lodge, and Gov. Chris Sununu walked into the crowd, triumphant. He’d endorsed Nikki Haley for president. She was surging at the right time and could beat Donald Trump here, cracking open the GOP primary, proving that it wasn’t over.

“Now that I’ve endorsed Nikki Haley, I don’t know why anyone else is running!” Sununu told reporters.

Twenty-four hours later, at a crowded VFW lodge in Londonderry, Chris Christie ripped into Haley. Her answers on abortion were “word salad.” She was losing her home state: “I’m closer to Trump here than she is in South Carolina.” And Sununu’s choice?

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“What am I going to say?” Christie asked sarcastically. “Congratulations on a bad decision?”

The emerging wisdom of donors and free agent Trump opponents is that Haley is in the best position to slow down his march to re-nomination. And a major part of that assessment is that Haley has room to grow, especially in New Hampshire, where Christie is still sitting on a pile of relatively moderate anti-Trump voters and there’s a large and untapped supply of center-left independents who could cross over.

“If we get independents, if we get conservative Democrats, that’s what the Republican Party should pursue,” Haley told reporters in Manchester. “Our goal is to get as many people in the tent as we can. Stop pushing people away from the party. Instead, bring people in.”

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But Christie isn’t buying it, and it’s not yet clear voters are as enthused about Haley’s message or electability arguments on the ground in New Hampshire or in Iowa, where she still needs a strong showing to quickly knock out Ron DeSantis. Before she gets a one-on-one shot at Trump, she must fend off fierce attacks from her rivals that will test her appeal to conservatives and moderates alike.

Christie, who has ignored Iowa to focus on the first primary state, spent considerable time this week going after Haley’s promises to find an undefined abortion “consensus” and cut off trade with China; DeSantis, often campaigning alongside Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, warns that Haley can’t go the distance against Trump.

“Even a campaigner as good as Chris is not going to be able to paper over Nikki being an establishment candidate,” DeSantis said in a CNN-hosted town hall this week.

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Haley, who leads both candidates in New Hampshire, increasingly ignores them — and has started to attract some voters who care less about litmus tests or infighting than who can actually surpass Trump. In Iowa, the vast majority of caucus-goers are conservative Republicans; in New Hampshire, up to half might be independents, or Democrats who temporarily switched their registrations.

When a potential voter in Manchester sounded skeptical about Haley’s ability to beat Trump — “he’s got well over 50%” — Haley went through the calendar to explain how only she could do it.

“We’ll have three or four people go into Iowa,” said Haley in Manchester. “A couple drop, and we’ll have two or three coming into New Hampshire. But guess what’s next? Then you’ll see me and Trump go head to head in my home state of South Carolina.”

At another stop, in Newport, Haley got skeptical questions from a man who asked about her plans for Social Security, got incredulous when she called it an “entitlement,” then stormed out, refusing to give his name to reporters. Another voter, who also asked not to be named, pressed Haley on Israel’s “human rights violations” and “ethnic cleansing.” Haley’s answer didn’t satisfy her.

“The Palestinians want a one-state solution,” said Haley. “They don’t want Israel to exist. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

Still, when the room cleared out, the voter said she was open to supporting Haley, strategically, if she could win the primary and slow down Trump: “We so don’t want Trump to go against Biden. We’re very, very worried about that. A lot of folks who lean left think we should vote in the Republican primary.”

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David’s view

A common question for Trump’s rivals, and the reporters who cover them, is why they won’t drop out and consolidate the vote. It’s time for some game theory: They’ve independently determined that no one else can beat Trump.

DeSantis’s rationale is that Haley can’t crack into Trump’s soft support, and he can; when asked for their second choice, a plurality of Trump voters still say it’s DeSantis. Haley’s case is what she said in Manchester: If the rest of the field clears out before South Carolina, she can beat Trump there, no matter what polls say now.

What would it take for Christie to quit? He batted back that question all week. He could slingshot a win in New Hampshire to a win in Michigan (where he has not campaigned yet), while Haley would lose her home state. Everyone else, he said in Londonderry, is running for a cabinet position. Meanwhile, Haley is an inflated stock whose free ride would end if Trump, and the press, wanted it to — especially on abortion.

“You’re letting her get away with saying one thing in Iowa and saying something different in New Hampshire,” Christie told reporters in Londonderry. “In the same answer yesterday, at her town hall meeting, she said: It’s good for people to decide, but there’s space for a federal law. Come on! Get to work, and start writing stories about that, and holding people to account.”

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The View From Chris Sununu

New Hampshire’s governor went everywhere with Haley this week, amplifying her electability message and tying his more moderate brand to hers. In Newport, where the Haley campaign put “51-34” on a gym scoreboard – Haley’s margin over Biden in a new Wall Street Journal poll – Sununu said that the candidate could win independents and conservatives with no adjustments.

“I don’t think she’s out there saying, Oh, I’m changing my policies. I’m changing my views. I’m changing my appeal,” Sununu told Semafor. “That’s not what she’s doing. She just has a universal appeal. There’s an opportunity here, knowing that 40-45% of the voting base will be undeclared voters. A lot of them tend towards her, not because she wavers on policy, not because she moves away from her conservative credentials, but because she comes at it with this transparent sense of trust.”

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Notable

  • In a Friday morning statement, Haley said she’d participate in an Iowa debate hosted by CNN and planned for Jan. 10. The debate’s rules require candidates to poll at 10% nationally and in Iowa, all but guaranteeing that Christie and Vivek Ramaswamy won’t make it; a DeSantis-Haley one-on-one debate is more likely.
  • In NHJournal, Michael Graham asks whether there’ll be a primary debate in the state, dependent on Haley — who looked at WMUR correspondent Adam Sexton on Tuesday and said she hoped the network would do one. “It is now considered likely among Granite State political insiders that there won’t be a CNN debate in New Hampshire.”
  • In Politico, Madison Fernandez looks at how Haley is answering and not answering the abortion question, which Christie took as an opening to attack: “We have to humanize the situation and deal with it with compassion.”
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