Nikki Haley Has a Shot at Beating Donald Trump for the Republican Presidential Nomination
GOP primary voters aren’t indifferent that she can defeat Biden more easily than a political vandal like Trump
If Donald Trump were to become president again, it would take him only about a year to end American democracy as we know it. As I’ve explained in The Atlantic, he could suborn the military, weaponize law enforcement, purge the federal bureaucracy, neutralize congressional oversight, circumvent the Senate confirmation process, and openly defy court orders. Republicans would back him and shield him. The outrage of Democrats and the media would count for little. Trump and MAGA want to remake American governance on the model of Hungary, and they make no secret of it.
Can small-d democrats stop them? As of now, there are only three ways. One, of course, is for Trump to be defeated in the general election. But that is looking uncomfortably iffy right now. Should Trump be the nominee, polls put him neck-and-neck with President Biden. In any case, in anything short of landslide defeat, he and his followers would never accept losing, and their lies and mayhem could make 2021 look like a wedding rehearsal.
The second method is for the Supreme Court to declare Trump’s candidacy ineligible under Section 3 of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which bars any federal officer who has engaged in insurrection. Although the legal case for disqualifying Trump is compelling, and Colorado and Maine have disqualified him, it is unclear if the Supreme Court will follow suit.
Haley: The Third Way
The cleanest and politically by far the most desirable is the third method: Republicans might reject Trump as their 2024 candidate. As the Republican primaries kickoff in Iowa on Jan. 15, they might decide it’s time to turn the page and move on. Is that possible? The answer is yes. Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley can do it.
I’m not saying she will beat Trump. In the national polls, he is far ahead of Haley. As of Dec. 27, the odds at the sports-wager site BetCarolina gave him an advantage of more than 5-1. But I am saying that the polls do not tell the whole story. You’ll recall that 5-1 is about how Hillary Clinton’s margin looked to wagerers in October 2016. Polls are not always accurate predictors of actual behavior in the privacy of the voting booth. My hunch is that Haley’s odds are more like 40 percent, and the odds might shift in her favor quickly.
First, let’s agree that Haley has a shot, and that this distinguishes her from Trump’s other Republican opponents, whose liabilities are too obvious to recite here. To cash in on that distinction, she needs to do well in Iowa. “Well” doesn’t mean winning outright; that’s probably impossible in the heavily white, conservative, and evangelical Iowa caucuses. (But don’t rule out a surprise. Remember, the Republican caucuses in Iowa are by secret ballot.) “Well” means she comes in second, or possibly even third—but with enough buzz and momentum to storm into the next primary in New Hampshire and effectively knock Ron DeSantis out of the race if he hasn’t quit already.
She could do that. Trump’s polls are weaker in New Hampshire than elsewhere. In October polling, Haley jumped to second place there. Some more recent polls find Haley closing in on Trump. The state’s primary voters are famously contrarian. They’ve knocked off some major frontrunners, like President Lyndon Johnson and Senator Ed Muskie. They resuscitated Bill Clinton in 1992. They gave the finger to Bob Dole in 1996. This is what they do.
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A win in New Hampshire would change the perception of Haley’s odds, giving her a surge of momentum into her home state of South Carolina, where she was a popular and successful governor. But even a strong second-place finish in New Hampshire would establish the contest as a two-person race and dent Trump’s aura of inevitability. Trump would face a situation he has never had to confront: a one-on-one, head-to-head contest against a capable opponent.
Here’s where there is more room for an upset than slavish poll-watchers realize. Trump dominates in polls because his name recognition is much higher than other contenders’ and because Republicans are very protective of him. They resent the drumbeat of legal and media hits he takes, and they use the polls to show their defiance.
But his support is not as deep as it is wide. About a third of Republicans are die-hard Trump supporters and will walk on hot coals to vote for him. About another third, however, would prefer to start a new chapter, even if they won’t outright repudiate Trump. And the remaining third or so like Trump but are open to an alternative—especially if that alternative has a better shot at beating Joe Biden.
Trump is a lousy candidate who mobilizes as many voters against himself as for himself. Right now, he is nip-and-tuck against Biden in the polls, despite Biden’s bottom-scraping approval ratings. He lost to Biden once already. And that was before he was brought before four courts on 91 criminal charges, some of which will be tried before the general election. He might go into the general election as a convicted felon, which would turn off moderates and even Republicans in the general election. For Republicans, Trump is the very picture of a risky bet. He is possibly the only Republican Biden could beat.
Compare that with Haley. In all the polls I know of, she beats Biden—in some polls, with margins like 17 percent. A private poll I saw recently put Trump at minus 3 against Biden and Haley at plus 7, a 10-point swing. Even many Trumpy Republicans care about winning. If electability is an issue for primary voters—and it will be—a lot of them will say, “Thanks, President Trump. You’re a great American. But we’re moving on.”
Besides, in her own right, Haley gives Republicans a great story to tell: young, vigorous, next-gen, multicultural, new breed, seasoned, future-oriented ... and did I mention young? Also, lest we forget, not under multiple indictments. She is purpose-built to eat into core Democratic constituencies (college-educated women, young people, blacks, and Hispanics). She can generate excitement among voters who have no enthusiasm for Trump or Biden.
If Haley does well in South Carolina, Super Tuesday, coming only 10 days after, will be a challenge. In that short time, Haley would need to withstand a ferocious assault from Trump while maintaining momentum through several primaries and caucuses and quickly collecting money and endorsements in an environment Trump has dominated. Most Republican primaries give all delegates to the plurality or majority winner—provisions designed to help the presumed favorite (Trump) rack up a delegate lead quickly.
Haley’s Path: Tough But Not Insurmountable
So the path for Haley isn’t easy (and more gaffes like refusing to say the Civil War was about slavery wouldn't help). But the situation can suddenly turn a lot more fluid than it appears right now. If she gets through the early primaries and the race turns into a dogfight, Republican normies will rally to her. Money and earned media will pile in. Her poll numbers will soar. She’ll be the talk of the country. Standing next to her, Trump will look like yesterday’s news. If she racks up wins, the winner-take-all delegate rules might turn the tables in her favor.
And, in the big picture, there’s this: voters positively hate the idea of a Biden-Trump rematch. They do not understand why the parties would force them to choose between two unpopular old men. Whichever party breaks out of this box wins. In the end, it’s probably that simple.
Barring a presidential health crisis (God forbid), Democrats are stuck with Biden. Republicans aren’t stuck with Trump ... yet. In the privacy of the voting booth, they may see the opportunity that’s staring them in the face.
Obviously, I’d be an idiot to claim with any confidence that Donald Trump won’t be the nominee. I’d likewise have been an idiot to feel confident that Muhammad Ali would beat George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle, where Ali came in as the 4-1 underdog.
But Haley looks a lot like Ali. She’s smart, nimble, appealing, and has a strategy that can bring down her larger opponent if she can last beyond the opening rounds.
Polls, schmolls. This race isn’t over.
This piece has been adapted from a previously published entry in Benjamin Wittes’s Dog Shirt Daily.
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