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The Right Resistance: What to make of Nikki Haley’s ‘surge’? Is she for real, or just a pretender?

Is Nikki Haley for real?

Call me skeptical, but at the beginning of another Republican debate week – the third, this time in Miami, on Wednesday night – anticipation is high in some circles for a meaningful few days in the 2024 GOP primary race. The first such forum was in August and the second a month later – and much of the buzz surrounding the impending meeting of the surviving not-Trump GOP candidates (those who qualified, that is) involves the supposed popularity surge of former South Carolina governor and Trump U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. The race’s lone woman hopeful has been making reasonable strides in the past couple weeks and it’s got many formerly bored watchers jabbering over the possibility of a real horse race now.


Nationally speaking, former president Donald Trump remains light years in front of his nearest rival(s) and hasn’t seen his support level shift noticeably downward for months. Florida’s Ron DeSantis remains in the second spot in most surveys and doesn’t appear vulnerable to giving up the position to any of the other candidates except Haley. Mike Pence quit the race a little over a week ago. The rest are just hanging around, biding time and hoping for something – anything – to transpire to change the trajectory of the contest.


At current, Haley’s getting more than her share of attention, at least from the establishment media. In an article titled “‘The rise is real’: Haley’s breakout is jolting 2024’s undercard race”, Natalie Allison reported at Politico before Halloween last week:


“Haley, sparked by two widely-praised debate performances and a turn in the primary to international affairs — a subject of authority for the former U.N. ambassador — may have better timing than any of those candidates. Her ascent, while still only a handful of points nationally, comes amid escalating anxiety within the GOP about the primary field’s failure to winnow. In recent weeks, Republican politicians, pundits and at least one newspaper editorial board have called for most of the remaining candidates to drop out and consolidate around Haley... “Despite Trump still leading the rest of the field by as many as 50 points nationally and 30 points in the early states, Haley is now the main reason DeSantis can no longer declare the primary a ‘two-man race.’ She has closed in on DeSantis, surpassing him in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and is slowly gaining on him in Iowa...


“Haley, to be sure, isn’t filling stadiums. Campaigning recently in Iowa, her events look much like they did throughout the spring and summer — with an advance team ensuring every seat was filled, ‘Pick Nikki’ signs lining the walls and an open-ended question-and-answer portion at the end of her stump speech. She is largely running the same type of campaign she has from the start.”


Which is to insinuate that she’s still the same dull, uninspiring establishment schlep but with a little more luster spawned by over-spun debate performances and notoriety mostly stemming from singling out and saying mean things about the GOP’s brainy but young and inexperienced newcomer, Vivek Ramaswamy. Since day one, Haley’s played the woman card from the bottom of the deck to get people to notice her, and now, apparently, some misguided followers view her as an expert in foreign policy because she hung out at the basically useless United Nations during Trump’s presidency for a couple trips ‘round the sun.


Despite the hyperbole emanating from the Nikki Haley camp, it does appear the Iowa race is shifting towards Trump even more, with some token momentum for the GOP’s lone female candidate to compete with Gov. DeSantis for second place amidst the corn stalks and soybean rows (and don’t forget the hog farms). The annual Iowa crop harvest is nearing completion at this time of year, which means the agriculture-heavy jurisdiction’s residents will soon shift their attention to politics ahead of the party caucuses scheduled for January 15.


The reason why the Haley folks are blowing smoke about the latest poll swing is because placement is extremely important in Iowa’s unique caucusing system. Finishing second or third in New Hampshire (or any state that apportions delegates instead of holding a “winner take all” type primary) is satisfying for the candidates because they then can spin their coming in second or third – or even fourth – as proof positive to the establishment media that they’re “viable” and “still in the game”. None of this will matter a hoot months down the road when the top competitors count delegates by the hundreds, and, let’s face it, no one remembers who did what in the early states.


But the way that the parties apportion their caucus participants matters a great deal in the Hawkeye State, and after several of the candidates are “eliminated” from consideration in successive rounds of voting, an attendee’s second and third choices become paramount. As an example, say an Iowa caucus goer has Senator Tim Scott as his or her first choice but switches to Trump for his second choice. Once Scott is no longer deemed viable (because of a low mark on the first ballot), that person heads over to the Trump gaggle and votes for Trump for as long as the balloting continues, as though Tim Scott wasn’t even a thought.


Iowa’s voting set-up is quirky, but usually the cream rises to the top, as Senator Ted Cruz did in 2016 against a much more “diverse” (in terms of qualifications) field than this year’s. The 2016 field included Trump as well as recognizable establishment figures such as presidential brother and son Jeb(!) Bush, Senator Marco Rubio and then viable Chris Christie (eight years younger but not an inch thinner).


The mystery, then, is whether Haley qualifies as “cream” for this year’s intra-party nomination fight. I don’t think she does. To me, Nikki Haley is one of those candidates who makes a person feel good to say that they favor. Imagine a pollster calls and asks for impressions of each candidate, then proceeds to list the contenders one by one. “What is your impression of Asa Hutchinson – Favorable, Unfavorable or Don’t know?”


Answer: “He’s a Trump basher. Unfavorable.”


Several of this year’s 2024 candidates likely wouldn’t draw out strong feelings of like or dislike, but a few of them certainly would, those being Trump, Ron DeSantis, Chris Christie, Vivek Ramaswamy and… maybe Nikki Haley, the latter just because, well, she’s a she. By human nature and western tradition, it’s hard for compassionate people to outright admit that they don’t like a woman politician because it makes them appear mean and judgmental, even if the opinion has nothing to do with gender but is based on something much more substantial, like the lady’s surface looks. Kidding.


No, real policy differences are the reason for conservatives to discount Haley. Am I way off base here? I’m just trying to figure out why Nikki Haley, of all people, is rising in popularity while candidates like DeSantis are staying even or even falling slightly. Objectively comparing the accomplishments of Haley and DeSantis – it’s not even close. Nikki was a halfway decent governor of the Palmetto State but didn’t lead on any particular conservative issue that would set her apart from the rest in today’s life and death struggle versus the left. DeSantis, on the other hand, was way out front in battling the CDC’s COVID dictatorship and didn’t hesitate to tackle Big Tech censorship, teacher’s unions, the LGBTQIA+++ (whatever that means) lobby and a host of other “woke” causes like Critical Race Theory, DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) hiring and denying parental rights in education.


Nikki Haley hasn’t had a meaningful job (that I know of) since leaving the Trump administration and has wavered back and forth on her opinions of her former boss, seemingly fluttering between “Yeah, he’s a great man” when it’s politically expedient and “He’s the most divisive politician of our time” when she seeks to distance herself from her past.


Presidential candidates can’t have it both ways, which is exactly what Haley is attempting to do in this year’s horserace. Nikki, like all the other not-Trump candidates, realizes that she couldn’t possibly hope to win the GOP primary race, much less the general election, without the true backing of Donald Trump’s MAGA voters. Head-to-head (with senile Joe Biden) polls may seem to suggest otherwise, but the former president and his agenda have taken over the Republican party and, from here on out, nothing gets by without his full say-so.


If you don’t believe it, how else did new Speaker Mike Johnson win the gavel over the others? Johnson had to have Trump’s stamp of approval before a lot of members would even think about voting for him.


DeSantis refrained from attacking Trump head-on for much of the campaign season because Ron realized his only shot at victory was to try and win converts from Trump’s orbit, not completely take it over. No matter what the “experts” say, there aren’t enough Never Trump Republican voters left to steal the nomination by themselves. No, victory must come with a big tent, which includes the tens of millions of Trump enthusiasts.


This is the main reason why Nikki Haley’s modest rise doesn’t have staying power. Nikki’s clearly aligned herself with the GOP establishment’s priorities, and, let’s face it, the party ruling elites don’t have much of a recent track record to proudly tout. Mitch McConnell still presides over the Republican senate caucus, but his days are numbered, literally and figuratively.


Haley doesn’t have a pathway to success. Even if she managed to wrest the 2024 runner up spot away from DeSantis, it doesn’t mean she’s caught enough fire to fuel her to a lasting and legitimate challenge to Trump. Would DeSantis’s faithful switch to Haley if he suddenly exited the race? Not likely.


As the 2024 GOP field’s shiniest not-Trump object (at least at current), Nikki Haley will continue to draw interest from the establishment media for every slight bump in polling favor vis-à-vis the other candidates. The marginal improvements don’t really indicate anything, however, because at the end of the day, Nikki is still saddled with her record and lack of political gumption.



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  • Liz Cheney

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  • Joe Manchin

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