Nikki Haley Never Stood a Chance

Nikki Haley Never Stood a Chance

She—and some of the other Republican challengers—were good candidates on paper. But given the state of today’s GOP, there was nowhere to go for them but down.


Life comes at you fast.

Before the 2024 Republican presidential primary elections began, the race was over. After a violent insurrection to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 victory, which should have disqualified former president Donald Trump, a strong-on-paper field of rivals emerged. It included Trump’s vice president Mike Pence, a popular (in his own state, at least) Governor, Ron DeSantis, South Carolina conservative charmer Senator Tim Scott, former Trump supporter turned strident Trump critic Chris Christie, and former Trump critic turned Trump’s U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, among others. 

Now with Super Tuesday past, the last standing holdout, Nikki Haley, has ended her campaign, and, barring even more serious legal or health problems, Trump is sure to be the nominee. Haley dropped out Wednesday morning, without endorsing Trump, though she left the door open.

The field of rivals collapsed quickly. Pence, Scott and Christie quit before a single voter caucused or cast a ballot. DeSantis, who led Trump in a few late 2022 polls, stayed to fight in Iowa. Then he crawled out from under his distant second-place wreckage, made more painful by the 99 counties he visited there and the hundreds of millions of dollars he spent doing that, and left the race, endorsing Trump.  

After DeSantis’s humiliation, only two remained: “A fella and a lady,” in the words of plucky former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. The phrase perfectly captured Haley’s backward-looking appeal. The daughter of wealthy Indian immigrants, she has a weakness for mid 20th-century colloquialisms and American-exceptionalist optimism, some of which seem genuine and some designed to try to make the older white male Republican base comfortable with her. Haley stayed in until Super Tuesday, but once she lost her own state, South Carolina, by twenty points, she was toast. (She won the Washington, D.C., GOP primary overwhelmingly, and Vermont on Super Tuesday, but that only confirmed she is out of step with her party.)

But did it have to be this way? With so many politically accomplished rivals to Trump, couldn’t there have been a different nominee? Once Haley emerged as the last Trump challenger, I kept wondering whether she might have found broader support among Republican voters, had she or the GOP’s anti-Trump forces played their cards differently.

“That’s fan fiction,” a friend who is a former Republican told me glumly.

“I’m not a fan!” I shot back.

He may be right, but trying to understand why Haley didn’t make for a stronger challenger to Trump teaches us a lot about the current state of the GOP.

Even my former-Republican friend – OK, it’s the Bulwark’s Tim Miller, an advisor to Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign who left the party over Trump and voted for Hillary Clinton– acknowledges there’s one place where theoretical GOP fan fiction could begin: Just after the 2022 midterms, when there was no “red wave” – the Congressional tsunami that usually strikes Democratic presidents in their first midterm – thanks largely to Trump’s Supreme Court justices overturning Roe v Wade, and to his endorsing the wingnuttiest candidates in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer still thanks Trump in his nightly prayers.

That same month, DeSantis won a landslide re-election. And in December, though he hadn’t even declared his candidacy, DeSantis led Trump in at least two respected national presidential polls by decent margins.

“All the fan fiction has to be about DeSantis,” that is, not Haley, Miller instructs me, world-wearily. At one point, DeSantis was a genuine challenger. But his story ended long before he dropped out of the race after Iowa. By May 2023, Trump led him by 24 percentage points. The race was basically over.

What happened? DeSantis made serious mistakes. He waited until last May to declare his candidacy–Haley had jumped in that February–and he did it in one of the worst possible ways: In a Twitter “space” with the site’s fascist owner Elon Musk, shutting out the mainstream media and relying on a glitchy platform that didn’t work for more than 20 minutes. It was humiliating; he never recovered.

There was more. He made himself ludicrous: Remember the white rain boots, as well as the cowboy boots concealing height-boosters. He made himself dislikeable, picking fights with young Floridians wearing Covid masks, and of course with one of Florida’s largest employers, Disney. His wacky education advisors edged aside books about dim sum and Roberto Clemente, and recommended teaching that slavery provided “personal benefits” to at least some of the enslaved. And poor Ron: he never seemed to like people, but he was forced to ask people for their votes.

Also: his campaign was a mess, its official arm and its “Never Back Down” PAC alike. It was like a pirate ship but on a bus, riven with deadly internal feuds and hatreds. The Bulwark reported in February that DeSantis used to hide in the back of Never Back Down’s campaign bus because he was afraid its staffers were spying on him. Poor Ron, indeed!

But even had DeSantis been a better campaigner, the turning point in the primary season, Republicans and former Republicans told me, came when Trump started winning head to head polls against Biden, nationally and in the swing states. “Before that it could be a head vs. heart experiment–you could love Trump, but if your head told you he can’t win,” you’d consider other candidates, says GOP consultant Matt Gorman, who supported Tim Scott before Scott dropped out. When polls made it clear Trump could conceivably beat Joe Biden this time around, panicking even some Democrats, a lot of Trump critics and opponents peeled off to back him. 

After dropping out, Tim Scott did just that, even though as governor, Haley appointed him the state’s first Black senator in 2012. So did Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who Trump nicknamed “Liddle Marco” in their 2016 primary battle. 

Rubio’s decision, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, clearly dissed his home state governor, DeSantis. But it seemed the most cruel to Haley, who’d been an early supporter and energetic surrogate in the Floridian’s 2016 campaign.  

There was never a real case for Nikki Haley, even though she stayed in the race the longest, Miller insists.

“The base got a whiff of her, and decided she smelled like George W. Bush and Karl Rove and Dick Cheney – and they were right!” he chortles. “She’d fit right into the party of compassionate conservatives, of neocons – but that party doesn’t exist anymore.” Indeed, even as Haley surged a bit after New Hampshire, her hawkishness became an issue as Trump backers attacked her saber-rattling on Iran and the Israel-Gaza war. “No new wars!” a pro-Trump protester chanted at a Haley campaign stop at the end of January. 

Miller knows his old party better than I do, but he might be underselling Haley a bit. She can exude an appealing optimism, a welcoming contrast with Trump’s apocalyptic darkness and self-pity. South Carolina State Senator Tom Davis was one of his state’s few prominent Republicans to back Haley. “Our country was founded on individual liberty and individual freedom and solutions,” Davis told me. “And that’s what her campaign is about. She stands for what I’ve always supported.” But Davis worries that his party now belongs to the amoral former Democrat from New York.

“There’s no doubt he has a hold on the GOP. Some people are surprised. This is about what kind of party we are. Are we still the party of Ronald Reagan? Of low taxes? Individual freedom? It seems a lot of GOP voters want to be something else.”

A devout, Christian professional woman I know well, who supported Haley in the primary,  says, “It’s been shocking and disappointing to see Trump winning again.

“I never believed Trump was a Christian. It’s cultlike,” she adds. “You would never accept a pastor who treats people the way he treats people.”

A persistent line of Haley criticism was that she failed to distinguish herself from Trump by going easy on him until the very end of her campaign. To former Republican Joe Walsh, this is a flawed argument. Of all the candidates, Walsh says, “I see all the anchors on MSNBC asking: ‘Why haven’t they attacked him? Because that was mission impossible! It’s Trump’s party! The base is with him!” Former Republican Tom Nichols, an Atlantic writer, agrees. “OK take your counterfactual: Everybody comes out swinging at Trump.” It wouldn’t work. “At least 40 percent of the voters in this primary are seething, they don’t believe they’re the minority in this country. They don’t believe they lost. They want the 2020 rematch.”

Although Walsh, no relation, is a persistent critic not only of the ex-president but his spineless enablers, he doesn’t see a moment when even a strong candidate might have broken out by taking on Trump. “Even if you start at Trump’s weakest point, after the midterms: What can you do?” All but Chris Christie ran premised on mollifying Trump, he says–and Christie knew he never had a prayer. “None of these people have been running to beat him. They’re waiting to be the alternative.” Once Haley was the last one standing, “that’s her only play to be viable,” but it failed.

In the weeks after her stronger-than-expected second place finish in New Hampshire, Haley tested Walsh’s and Nichols’ wisdom, at least a little. Trump seemed rattled, railing against her with sexist and racist insults, calling her “birdbrain” and “Nimrada” (her first name is Nimarata but she’s gone by her middle name, Nikki, since childhood) and said if Republicans gave her money they’d be “permanently barred” from MAGA world. A newly plucky Haley slapped back at Trump’s slurs, calling him “totally unhinged” and “toxic”). (Her campaign mailed donors a “Barred. Permanently” t-shirt.)  She mocked his campaign speech slip-ups, such as claiming she was in charge of Capitol security on Jan. 6 (he confused her with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) and that he defeated Barack Obama (he never ran against him). “He has declined, that’s a fact,” she told CBS at the end of January.

Her first genuinely sharp jab came around the same time. She had repeatedly refused to comment on the four criminal cases against Trump, or journalist E. Jean Carroll’s civil suits against him, pleading ignorance about the details–even after a jury found Trump liable for sexually assaulting Carroll last year. But when a second jury awarded Carroll $83.3 million in damages, finding that Trump defamed her by denying he even knew her and labeling her “wacko,” Haley finally took the gloves off.  “I absolutely trust the jury,” she told “Meet The Press,” adding: “I think that they made their decision based on the evidence.” 

Haley had her best fundraising month in January, raising $16.5 million, $11 million from grassroots donors. But while she was a favorite of big corporate donors, their support was too little, too late and too inconsistent. A November endorsement from Americans For Prosperity Action helped, but other donors dropped her after her third place Iowa finish (some like Home Depot founder Ken Langone came back into the fold after her decent New Hampshire showing, throwing several fundraisers for her). But AFP Action “paused” its funding to Haley after her disappointing South Carolina loss. When the history of 2024 is written, the chapter on “Which Megadonors Showed Real Courage Standing Up To Trump” will be…very short. GOP super PACS who backed candidates other than Trump spent a combined total of 2 percent of their revenue into fighting Trump this cycle.

In the end, though, Haley’s toughest opponent may have been Haley. On paper, she’s a compelling figure: the child of wealthy Sikh Indian immigrants, born and raised in tiny Bamberg, South Carolina in the 1970s. As an accomplished woman of color, she could have been the perfect foil for the misogynist and racist-in-chief. But she wasn’t, because she didn’t want to be. Maybe this sounds like fan fiction from a Democrat. I’m not saying running on her race and gender would have gotten her the nomination. But Haley’s weird, incomplete public reckoning with her own identity prevented her from countering Trump effectively, in whatever way might be possible.

“Nikki is a terrible modern tragedy,” says former Republican Stuart Stevens, who ran Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign and admired the South Carolina governor back then. “If she stayed who she was…” Stevens trails off. He agrees it’s now Trump’s party. “Nikki had a choice to fight for what she believed. She didn’t. She hoped the price she’d pay wouldn’t be exorbitant. But it was.” Stevens wrote a prescient take on Haley’s presidential campaign in The New York Times when she announced it last year, concluding sadly with this great line: “There is a great future behind Nikki Haley.” 

Stevens, from Mississippi, understands Haley’s racial dodges better than most people. She talks and writes, sometimes movingly, about the discrimination her family faced, as “brown” people in South Carolina, neither Black nor white. Yet in mid-January she told Fox News the U.S. is “not a racist country” and has “never been a racist country.” How to square those things? And what about slavery, which Haley omitted from her answer about the causes of the Civil War?  

It may be that charting a course around the racism she faced as she grew up left Haley unable to see it. But a less charitable interpretation is that denying racism is her way to appeal to a Republican party dominated by racist white men when she began her career– in the first state to secede from the union back in 1861–and which is controlled by them nationally now. Stevens sees her “as in a Virginia Slims commercial, so dated” is her 1970s Bamberg, South Carolina approach to race.

In her two memoirs, when she writes about what she calls “discrimination”–again, not racism–against her family, they become the victims of South Carolina’s color line, not so much the Black people on the bottom of that barely post-Jim Crow society. Haley recounts that her father, who taught at a historically Black college, had a hard time finding a home for his family in the 1970s. When he was able to buy a house, he had to agree not to entertain Black people there, and if he wanted to leave, to sell it back to the original owners, presumably to avoid selling it to Black buyers. Haley writes about this as a clear injustice–yet focuses on the injustice to her father, rather than to the Black South Carolinians those restrictions targeted. 

In another story that she sometimes plays for sympathy (at other times she blasts the media for retelling it), her mother enters her and her older sister in the local “Little Miss Bamberg” pageant. Five-year-old Nikki sings “This Land Is Your Land,” perhaps unaware to this day that socialist Woody Guthrie wrote it.

Again, young Nikki is thwarted by Bamberg’s racial divide: the town crowns a Black pageant winner and a white one, but there’s no category for the Randhawas; the sisters are disqualified. As a consolation prize, she gets a beach ball, and at age five, she doesn’t feel aggrieved. When she later realizes what happened, again she tells the story as though the injustice was to her, not to the Black girls shunted off to compete to be “Little Miss (Black) Bamberg.” 

In middle school, though, Haley scores a victory over the racial divide. Excluded from a dodgeball game because the teams are split into Black and white; she’s told to choose a side. Instead she grabs the ball and runs away with it. Soon racial barriers are broken and everyone’s having a good time. It’s one of her metaphors for how to fix “discrimination:” Ignore it! Grab the ball and run away from it! You too can be governor! Maybe president! Well, maybe not.

Throughout her campaign, Haley remained unsure how to handle what many people, especially Democrats, consider her finest moment – presiding over the belated removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol, after white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine praying Black people at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel African American Episcopal Church in June, 2015. Stuart Stevens calls it “her defining action as governor.” For a while, she talked widely about it, but in her campaign launch video last February, she didn’t mention it. She did reference the Charleston massacre, but not as the result of racism, merely “evil” that South Carolina, under her leadership, transcended.

In her second memoir, Haley wrote about the Charleston nightmare poignantly and with obvious pain. She attended the funerals of all nine victims and grieved with their families in their homes. She lost 20 pounds and couldn’t sleep, and found herself breaking into tears – though crying, she tells us often, makes her feel like a female stereotype and a failure. A doctor diagnosed her with PTSD and she saw a therapist for several months. Yes, she centers herself, in a way, amid this horrific violent attack on Black South Carolinians–but to be fair, it’s her memoir and I felt genuinely moved by her account.

On the other hand, her denial of racism, and her petulant belief that she has the answer for whatever division, or “evil,” may exist, mars her story of those devastating days. Haley criticizes President Obama, as well as much of the media, for implying there was something unique to South Carolina that created Dylann Roof. It’s obviously not unique to South Carolina – we’ve seen the same murderous racism in Buffalo, in El Paso, in Jacksonville just last year. But it is delusional to insist that nothing about South Carolina culture created that violent young white supremacist.

And while she ultimately came down in favor of removing the Confederate flag after the murders, at first she first got angry that the issue came up at all. When photos emerged of Roof with the flag, she writes that she didn’t want to let the murderer “hijack” the flag’s meaning. When reporters discovered his white supremacist manifesto, she fumes that “the media [was] going to do all it could to brand my state with its hateful contents.” 

To get elected in South Carolina, Haley had long insisted the flag was a symbol of “heritage” and not hate, and she continued with that nonsense even after the massacre. Still, she acted decisively when it mattered. But somehow that steely resolve is not part of her campaign pitch. Instead, in January she described the Civil War as essentially about “states’ rights” –about who was going to “run the freedoms” of Americans–without mentioning slavery. Then she did a patented Haley dodge: She insisted it went without saying that slavery was a cause of the Civil War! Everybody knows that!

Bless her heart.

Haley’s campaign was also flummoxed by how to deal with one of her chief political assets: Being a woman running against the ogre found liable for sexual assault in the E. Jean Carroll trial, and credibly accused of it by at least a dozen CK other women. Polls show Trump won men overwhelmingly in New Hampshire and Haley narrowly won women. But as with racism, Haley tries to deny or downplay sexism. She likes to say her campaign is historic, but adds, “I’m not talking about history of a female president. I’m talking about history saying we are going to finally right the ship in America. We’re finally going to get it right.”

Haley thought she can get suburban women while downplaying her historic campaign to be the first female president; Kamala Harris is going out and targeting those suburban women in person, all over the country, talking about reproductive rights (which Haley tries to play every which way) and highlighting the historic nature of her stature as a Black/Indian American woman, and of this race, which could be the last for our democracy, given Trump and his party’s autocratic bent. When Haley spoke to women-heavy crowds, she made no appeal to her historic crusade. Keeping trans kids out of women’s sports is one of her top women’s rights issues. And while Haley said she “believed” the jury in E. Jean Carroll’s two civil cases, she didn’t hit Trump, specifically, on his legal troubles surrounding his 2020 election loss denial and fomenting the January 6 insurrection. Instead she lumps his legal woes together.

“We have got a country in disarray and a world on fire,” she told CNN in early February. “We need a president that’s going to give us eight years of focus and discipline, not one that’s going to be sitting there ranting about how he’s a victim and how this isn’t right and how this isn’t just.”

As the race came down to Haley vs. Trump, and tension between them ratcheted up, fewer people bothered mentioning her as a Trump VP pick. The almost-always-wrong pollster Mark Penn told Politico she’d be a great pick. “Trump has a problem, which is the Nikki Haley voters. … A large percentage of them are never Trump. … Does Trump have a way of consolidating them? It seems to me that Trump almost has to pick her as vice president. … She would get that women’s Republican vote in the suburbs overwhelmingly. And that would be the end of the election.”

It might well be the end of the election – because MAGAts hate her.

“Nikki Haley as VP would be an establishment neocon fantasy and a MAGA nightmare,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) told Politico after DeSantis dropped out. “On Day One she would convert the Naval Observatory into an anti-Trump, resistance headquarters, undermining him at every step.” 

But if Haley’s hit Trump too hard to be his vice presidential nominee, she didn’t win the kinds of endorsements or plaudits that would set her up to be a frontrunner in 2028. At 52 she’s still young by DC standards, but she doesn’t have an obvious next act.

“Absent Trump, she could have been the first woman president of the U.S.,” Nichols says. “But Trump has obliterated the next bunch in the GOP.” Nichols doesn’t know where the post-Trump leadership will come from, but he doesn’t see it coming from Haley.

One of the most moving and influential primary season elegies I read came from conservative Never-Trump New York Times columnist David French. Unlike most of the paper’s conservative hires, French is smart and honest and always worth reading. He concluded what some of my other sources told me about this benighted primary season: It could not have been otherwise. 

While resistance Democrats have mobilized effective counter offenses to Trumpism, Never-Trump Republicans never did. “It’s now clear to me that we never had a chance. And the reason is equally clear: We did not truly understand our own party.”

Specifically, French writes, “The salient characteristic of the Republican Party wasn’t ideology or integrity, let alone both. Rather, it was animosity. And nobody models animosity better than Donald Trump.” Like my friend who’s supporting Haley, French recognized immediately “The man wasn’t a ‘real’ conservative,” or a Christian. He, like my friend, believed “an argument about character would pull believers away from Trump’s grasp.” It did not, in 2016, 2020 or 2024. 

What worries French more than the always-Trumpers, he told me, is the group that’s almost as big, Republican voters with doubts about Trump, who often drift back to him given their actual choices of candidates. A New York Times poll of Republican primary voters last summer found that “MAGA base” voters and “persuadables” each pulled 37 percent of GOP voters (a quarter said they were never-Trump, and we salute you).

But in his experience, French writes, those “persuadables” aren’t. They’re “people who might be willing to consider someone else [but] at the end of the day come home to Trump in part because they see in his rage a mirror of their own.” 

Tim Miller told me something similar. On Iowa caucus day, he saw a Republican grandfather interviewed. “And he was talking about caucusing for Trump to ‘own the libs.’ Iowa grandpas talk like that now? ‘Own the libs?’”  He paused. “They really hate us.”

Tom Nichols sees the same thing: “He’s the candidate for the guy, you feel you’ve made it, and yet you feel less respected than some graduate student.”

“Do you feel the culture respects you?” Nichols continues.  “Then you’re not a Trump voter. If these people were happy? They wouldn’t be amenable to his appeal. They want to see the anger on the faces of other people.”

Given what’s happened to the GOP, while Nikki Haley didn’t run a perfect campaign, she never stood a chance.

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