Does Nikki Haley Have a Shot?

Elections & Politics Policy Brief #120 | By: Arvind Salem | January 31, 2024
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With Ron DeSantis dropping out right before the New Hampshire primary, it left the rest of the Republican primary as a two candidate race between Nikki Haley and Trump. Haley, not initially projected to be the last person standing against Trump, polling only 2% at the start of the race, has nevertheless weathered the withering of the field from a wide-eyed group of 13 presidential hopefuls to the battle-tested final two. Yet the one constant throughout this whole turbulent sage is that Donald Trump is still projected to win.

In the official primary election so far, there is only a sample size of two states: Iowa and New Hampshire. As the first states up, they have an outsized influence for the nominee: a good performance allowing them to gain momentum to bolster their candidacy, while a disappointing one can strike a death blow to a campaign.

Unfortunately for Haley she did not win either New Hampshire or Iowa, placing third in Iowa, after DeSantis and Trump, and second in New Hampshire. The winners of the New Hampshire Primary in the last four competitive election cycles have gone on to win the nomination and no Republican in the modern primary era has failed to win the nomination after winning both Iowa and New Hampshire. Trump beat Haley by 11 points in New Hampshire and 30 points in Iowa.

New Hampshire was expected to be closer as the voters there are typically more moderate, which is a key group that forms Haley’s appeal, yet she was unable to pull out the victory. Despite these setbacks, Haley has vowed to stay in the race, at least until her home state of South Carolina, where she was formerly governor.


The path to victory for Haley is hard to imagine, but examining her current strategy can still provide insight into potential flaws in Trump’s armor that the Democratic candidate, most likely Biden, can use against him. The longer Haley can draw out this fight, the more weaknesses she exposes to Trump, and takes away time that he could’ve used to focus on the general. However, if she loses in South Carolina, her path to victory would essentially be shut.

The reason it is so hard for Haley to win and beat Trump is that she, and every other Republican challenger to Trump, had to do two things: they needed to be different enough to merit running, yet similar enough to gain support in Republican strongholds, which is even more important in a primary of solely Republican voters. Challengers like Ramaswamy and DeSantis essentially marketed themselves as similar to Trump on policy, but were willing to go more extreme (Ramaswamy) or were more effective in accomplishing the agenda (DeSantis). However, Haley is presenting herself as an alternative to Trump not only in these terms, but also in terms of actual policy priorities.

These differences between Haley and Trump and their electoral implications are best manifested in foreign policy: Trump represents a new era of Republicans, disillusioned after conflicts in the Middle East, that advocates for more isolationism and less U.S. activity, which can be seen in his reluctance to give aid to Ukraine. However, Haley is more of a traditional conservative war hawk, who emphasizes the need for the United States to be strong on the global stage and promote U.S. leadership abroad. This philosophy is more typical of the conservatives of the past, but also what led the U.S. into largely unpopular wars in the Middle East, prompting the Republicans to turn away from that ideology.

This essentially shows Haley’s unique approach to answering the contradiction posed: her strategy seems to be representing a return to a pre-Trump Republican party and bet on the fact that there is a broad, deep-seeded desire in the Republican base to return to that era rather than continue on the path of Trumpism. This approach has also allowed her to bolster her conservative credentials amid doubts of her true commitment to the conservative cause: she can highlight her support of classical conservative policies as South Carolina’s Governor, like voter ID and pension reform, while painting Trump as the conservative neophyte who is departing from their core conservative principles. Despite this attempt voters still view her as a moderate, with her losing significantly to Trump among registered Republicans, but making some of that up with the moderate vote. Exemplifying this, an NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll of Iowa just prior to the GOP caucuses reported that 43% of Haley’s supporters said they would vote for President Joe Biden over Trump this fall.

Haley is also moving to attack Trump in terms of his mental competency, framing him just like Republicans have attempted to frame Biden: a relic of a previous era who is unfit to be president in the current day. Haley has manifested this in policy by calling for a mental competency test for anyone who would be president over the age of 75, which includes Trump, and attempting to goad him into debating her, where she would presumably try to prove this point on the debate stage.

In practical terms, the Haley campaign has stated that they believe there is still a path to victory, since more states mirror New Hampshire’s ideology than Iowa’s, and the New Hampshire contest was significantly closer than the Iowa one, although Trump still won by double-digits. Yet, that theory will be put to the test in South Carolina: if she can’t win the state where she theoretically has the most name recognition and proven track record, it will not only be tough to win, but tough to even convince donors and the public that she has a viable shot. Trump has already secured key endorsements in South Carolina to combat Haley’s theoretical advantage: Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, the state’s lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer and House speaker and statewide officials, along with U.S. Reps. Joe Wilson, William Timmons, Russell Fry and Senator Tim Scott.

Engagement Resources:
  • Joe Biden for President: Those who are not convinced by either Haley or Trump should consider exploring this campaign.
  • Nikki Haley for President: Those who are intrigued by Nikki Haley as a possible Trump alternative for conservatives should consider exploring this campaign.

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