Advertisement

Can Nikki Haley actually beat Trump?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

Presidential candidate Nikki Haley addresses the Republican Jewish Coalition's annual leadership summit.
Presidential candidate Nikki Haley addresses the Republican Jewish Coalition's annual leadership summit on Oct. 28 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

What’s happening

When the political arm of the powerful — and very deep-pocketed — Koch network formally endorsed Nikki Haley’s presidential campaign Tuesday, it reinforced the emerging consensus among close observers of the 2024 Republican primary contest.

Haley, a former South Carolina governor, is the only Donald Trump challenger with any real momentum — and perhaps any real chance, however slim, of toppling her party’s presumptive frontrunner.

The numbers don’t lie. On the back of three strong debate performances, Haley has more than doubled her support in national GOP primary surveys (from an average of about 4.5% to 10%), while the rest of Trump’s rivals have seen their support slip.

More importantly, Haley now polls second behind the former president in the initial primary states of New Hampshire and South Carolina, with about twice the backing of her next-closest competitor, and she has nearly caught up to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa, where he has staked the future of his campaign.

The comparison with DeSantis is telling. For much of 2023, the Floridian was the GOP’s leading Trump alternative; at one point, he was actually ahead of the former president in a head-to-head matchup.

But a series of stumbles — and a strategy that relied on peeling away Trump’s hard-core MAGA supporters rather than courting voters who opposed Trump or were at least open to someone else — has left DeSantis at just 13% nationally and hanging by a thread in the early states.

Big donors have noticed. In addition to the Koch network — which has raised more than $70 million for political races as of this summer and commands an extensive outreach operation — “a group of CEOs, hedge fund investors and corporate deal-makers from both parties have begun gravitating toward Haley,” according to the New York Times.

The question now is whether their investment could actually pay off.

Why there’s debate

To be clear, Trump is still clobbering the rest of the GOP field — Haley included. He is averaging about 59% nationally and about 45% to 49% across the early states. If the primary election were held today, he would win.

But the primary election won’t be held today — or, in fact, on any one day. Instead, it will be spread across a series of state-by-state contests that start Jan. 15, 2024, in Iowa, peak with Super Tuesday on March 5 and then continue through June — a period that will coincide with Trump facing 91 criminal charges across four separate jurisdictions.

The theory has been that Trump will breeze past a divided opposition the way he did in 2016 — but that if anti-Trump forces were to consolidate around a single challenger, and if events inside or outside the courtroom were to cooperate, then that challenger might have a shot.

The fact that Trump is still under 50% in the early primary states — and that even 41% of Trump supporters say they’d be open to supporting a more electable alternative — suggests that such a theory isn’t totally implausible.

Former Vice President Mike Pence and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott both ended their candidacies recently; the field is finally winnowing. But will that winnowing ultimately benefit Haley? Or is this all too little, too late?

What’s next

The fourth and final GOP primary debate, scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 6, in Alabama, will give Haley one last opportunity to cement her status as this cycle’s strongest Trump alternative.

After that, there’s little more than a month until Iowa, where Haley’s super-PAC has spent $3.5 million on ads and other expenditures attacking DeSantis in hopes of striking a knockout blow — and where she has announced plans to spend millions more.

Perspectives

Haley has already won the ‘Not Trump’ primary.

“An increasing number of GOP strategists … see the race as more with a 35-40 percent firm MAGA base and then another two-thirds of the party that range from MAGA-curious to Never Trump. [So] by trying to be Trump lite, DeSantis has found himself to be not Trump enough for the voters who want Trump and too Trumpy for those who want an alternative. … In the campaign for the estimated 60-70 percent of Not Trump voters, Haley has clearly emerged as the winner.” — David Freedlander, New York

Now she needs ‘impressive showings’ in Iowa and New Hampshire — and a pitch-perfect message.

“Any path for Haley would depend … on consolidating the anti-Trump vote within the GOP and using impressive showings in both Iowa and New Hampshire — two states where Trump’s lead is relatively weaker, and where Haley has surged in recent weeks — to convince the roughly two-thirds (66%) of Trump supporters who are open to another candidate that she is that candidate. [But] attempting to strike the balance between appealing to never-Trump Republicans, moderates, independents and suburban women in particular, without alienating Trump’s diehard supporters, is incredibly difficult, and it is unclear whether Haley can do this for the long term.” — Doug Schoen, The Messenger

But even winnowing the field might not be enough.

“She is not polling anywhere close to the highs DeSantis hit during his stint as the Trump slayer, and [polls show] her own voters would mostly go to DeSantis if she were to drop out — but if DeSantis were to drop out, a lot of his voters would go to Trump. As long as that’s the case, Haley might be able to consolidate 30 or 35 percent of the party, but the path to actually winning would be closed.” — Ross Douthat, New York Times

Especially because Trump still holds a big head-to-head lead over Haley.

“Along with his growing lead in national polls, Trump has also grown his leads in potential head-to-head matchups in recent months — substantially. … [Haley’s] average deficit [against Trump] in three polls conducted since last month is 44 points. In no poll does she get even half of Trump’s support. In some, she’s actually stuck with less than one-third of it.” — Aaron Blake, Washington Post

Still, momentum means a lot — and dynamics can change in a one-on-one contest.

“Campaigns aren’t simply a game of math. If candidates drop out and Haley picks up most of their votes, it’s not ‘15 percent plus 5 percent equals 20,’ it’s ‘Oh, crap, Nikki Haley has momentum and looks more like a winner.’ This draws more media attention and votes: The more you look like a winner, the more likely people will reward you for doing so.” — Christian Schneider, National Review

And who knows what will happen with Trump next year.

“By my lights, there are three possible ways someone other than Trump could score the Republican nomination in 2024: 1. Trump dies or is otherwise incapacitated. 2. Trump goes to jail or some new revelation serves as a tipping point where his spell over the GOP is finally broken. 3. Haley wins the early (and idiosyncratic) states of Iowa and New Hampshire. … Sure, the smart money is still on Trump winning the Republican nomination. That is precisely why the real action is in determining who will be the last person standing in case something happens to Trump.” — Matt Lewis, Daily Beast

If Haley can survive until Super Tuesday, maybe she could cut a deal for the nomination.

“The number of delegates on offer in the opening primaries is trivial. Super Tuesday is when Trump would expect to lock down the prize. If he emerged from that big contest without having done so, he would be badly wounded. At which point Haley would remind Republicans that she would beat Biden by a clear margin. … [Haley] has scope to offer Trump a deal in which he would pull out of the race in exchange for a pardon. That, in short, is her path to the big prize.” — Edward Luce, Financial Times