DES MOINES, IOWA – NOVEMBER 17: Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley attends the Thanksgiving Family Forum at the downtown Marriott on November 17, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa. The Christian faith based forum hosts three Republican Presidential candidates, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Former US Ambassador Nikki Haley to speak on political issues. (Photo by Jim Vondruska/Getty Images)
THERE is Trump, there are wannabe Trumps, and then there is Nikki Haley, the sole woman in the Republican presidential field and now on the cusp of consolidating second place after showing there may be another way than simply aping the main man.
Former president Donald Trump leads the US Republican primaries by dozens of percentage points, but should the scandal-embroiled populist’s campaign implode, experts increasingly believe Haley might be ready to pick up the pieces.
The only woman in the field, Haley has notched strong debate performances and attracted robust fundraising, all while sidestepping her male counterparts’ fixation on masculinity.
The former South Carolina governor has been “making her mark in a variety of ways that have steadily been pushing her to the front of the pack,” if only among “all the people not named Trump,” said David Barker, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.
What once seemed like a long-shot bid has been bolstered by recent primary polls in several early voting states – New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina – indicating Haley is neck and neck or even ahead of the next leading non-Trump candidate, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Trump, to be clear, is cruising to the Republican nomination. His far-right MAGA movement is dominant, and even Republican establishment figures who were once horrified at his behaviour have fallen in line. Yet, Trump faces serious criminal charges, including his attempts to overturn the 2020 election results. So, a last-minute reversal is not impossible.
For Alan Abramowitz, professor emeritus of political science at Emory University, this would be dependent on “what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire and also what happens with these trials. Haley would be well-positioned if Trump implodes.”
While the stars aligning for her nomination are not “highly likely,” Barker added, “it’s possible.”
Haley boasts a polished resume but has also won ground by leaning into her opponents’ attacks, including on gender. It’s a skill that could be useful given Trump’s propensity to belittle competitors along sexual or physical lines.
In an early November debate, when entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy called her “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels”, an allusion to an unpopular former vice president, Haley turned the insult on its head.
“I’d first like to say they’re five-inch heels,” she said, adding that “I wear heels. They’re not for a fashion statement, they’re for ammunition.”
As it happens, DeSantis, the oncepresumed heir to the Trump brand, has his own shoes drama – a much mocked accusation that he wears lifts in his cowboy boots.
At 51, Haley would have an immediate age advantage against Biden, and recent polling shows she would beat the Democratic incumbent more easily than any other Republican.
The child of Indian immigrants has bucked conventional wisdom that a Republican candidate must mimic Trump’s relentless hard line, instead wooing centrist voters with a somewhat softer approach.
However, on issues like abortion, her wavering has left political observers wondering what she really believes.
For example, during the third Republican debate, she struck a markedly less militant anti-abortion tone, saying, “As much as I’m pro-life, I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice, and I don’t want them to judge me for being pro-life.”
“Let’s find consensus,” she said – a term not much heard on the Republican campaign trail.
But a few weeks ago, when asked whether she would sign a controversial six-week abortion ban if still governor, Haley told a gathering of conservative Christians in Iowa: “Yes. Whatever the people decide.”
When Republicans debate a fourth time on Wednesday (6), it is possible only Haley, DeSantis and Ramaswamy will have qualified to participate, apart from Trump, who refuses to appear at the events.
According to a RealClearPolitics average of polls, Trump has 59 per cent of the vote while DeSantis has slipped to 14, Haley has climbed to 11, and Ramaswamy languishes at five.
Some analysts said Haley faces a massive uphill battle to take down the former president and gain the Republican presidential nomination – but the sooner the race can be whittled down to her and Trump, 77, the better her chances.
“I don’t think you can look at the numbers right now and see much of a path for anyone other than Trump,” said Kyle Kondik, an elections analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“There is a narrow path” to victory for Haley, said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
That path involves top tier finishes in both Iowa and New Hampshire and perhaps a victory in her home state of South Carolina, where she served as governor.
That would provide Haley with the things she would need most to have a chance against Trump: momentum, media coverage and money flowing in from anti-Trump donors.
From there, it would be a matter of trying to compete in the larger states later in the calendar such as California and Texas, which award large swaths of delegates.
“Momentum matters a tremendous amount in these things,” Ayres said. “So much of it depends on who does well in early states. That has a dramatic effect on later states.”
Opinion polls suggest winning South Carolina, her home state, will be a tall order. According to RealClearPolitics, which aggregates poll numbers, Trump has a 30-point edge over the field there with Haley in second place. Trump’s edge in Iowa is also about 30 points, where Haley is running third behind DeSantis, and has a 27-point edge over Haley in New Hampshire.
To have a chance, Haley needs the field to shrink so that, ultimately, it becomes a two-person race between her and Trump. It would allow her to try to knit together the anti-Trump factions within the party, while also stealing some of Trump’s voters.
In a memo by Haley’s team released earlier in November, campaign manager Betsy Ankney pointed to polling that showed Haley strengthening in Iowa and New Hampshire and Desantis weakening.
“The field has consolidated and will continue to consolidate in the coming weeks, and as the only candidate with momentum, Nikki is gaining the most from that,” said Olivia Perez-Cubas, a Haley spokesperson.
So far, Trump’s campaign has trained most of their fire on DeSantis. Should Haley’s rise continue, she would likely face a full onslaught of attacks from the Trump campaign, pro-Trump social media influencers, and related super PAC spending groups.
A Trump spokesperson did not respond to questions about whether the campaign would soon turn its attention to Haley.
Political analysts largely agree that Haley’s best chance against Trump would be facing him headon, without other rivals, but even that would require a significant and perhaps unprecedented swing in Republican voter opinion.
For all her non-Trumpian appeal, Haley still espouses a number of her former boss’s views.
Although she has criticised Trump’s false claims to have been the victim of voter fraud in the 2020 election, she says she is proud of serving in his administration and shares his dislike for the United Nations.
The former UN ambassador has promised to defund the world body “as much as possible” if elected. She has also aligned with many of Trump’s foreign policy decisions, including withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement.
“She’s certainly conservative enough for, I think, most Republican primary voters,” Abramowitz said, adding that many of her biggest differences with Trump are “more in style, I think, than in substance.”