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Darling Nikki

Nikki Haley as a potential challenger to Donald Trump in the 2024 Republican primary. She's developed an ability to attract donors and media attention, but how long can the Haley Bubble really last? Rick Wilson has answers.
Published:November 30, 2023

By Rick Wilson

(Sorry, as a Prince fan from the way back, I couldn’t resist.)

Desperate donors, desperate anti-Trump Republicans, desperate operatives, and a desperate media are all conspiring to give us the Nikki Bubble no one asked for. Yes, folks, if you haven’t already noticed, Nikki is the Golden Child. The Inevitable. The one challenger who can finally, really, truly beat Trump.

Weird. I feel as if I’ve seen this movie before. She’s suddenly the Tracy Flick of 2024.

A Resume In Search of An Office

Nikki Haley served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Trump from January 2017 to December 2018. While she was in that role, there were instances where she expressed views that were not always in perfect alignment with the regime.
In 2017, Haley stated North Korea was "begging for war" when it seemed Trump was begging for Kim Jong Un to roleplay Brokeback Mount Paektu. She was far to Trump’s right on both Russia and Syria and hit Trump surprisingly hard for not calling the Charlottesville racists…well, racists.

Haley has all the rising star boxes checked in the minds of her team, but there’s always been a sense, as one South Carolina friend told me, that Nikki is a resume looking for an office. With the path to the Senate blocked by the immortal Lady Lindsay and Tim Scott, this was her only play.

The Media Needs This Fight

The media needs this story. They keep crashing into the rocks of the “Biden is a failure” story, with the President inconveniently proving them wrong on domestic policyforeign policy, and the economy over and over again.

The Trump legal peril stories are now all noise and little signal, and they’ve realized that Trump gains strength in the GOP primary the more Republican voters know about his endless criminality.

Ron DeSantis was the hot number for a while, but his campaign is swirling around the drain; a poisonous slurry of political ineptitude, a staff of eager young alt-reich trolls, and overweening arrogance make for boring coverage. For a shining moment last year, reporters were camping out in Tallahassee. No longer. Christie is a one-trick pony headed for the glue factory. Vivek wore out his welcome weeks ago. The rest are lost carnies, unaware the circus passed them by.

No, the media needs a single challenger to Trump, the one person they can elevate, illuminate, and, in the end, defenestrate when Trump’s team dumps their oppo load on her in early January.

Reporters have to cover American politics, and there’s some excellent reporting out of this year’s campaign, but let’s be very clear: the story of the Indian-American woman challenger in the GOP primary to Donald Trump is a train wreck on the top of Dumpster Fire Mountain for the press. It’s going to be loud, ugly, and eminently watchable.

Donor Delusion

Watching the GOP donor class flail and panic over Trump’s return has been all too predictableThey’re prepping for their inevitable, painful return to Trump, but not before one more quixotic money bonfire. After the DeSantis disaster, there’s a growing sense Nikki is the last possible date to the prom, and she’s suddenly flush with cash, promises, and new best friends from Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

Just like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz had their sugar daddies in 2016, Nikki will likely end the quarter with a mindblowing haul of SuperPAC money to juice her chances in Iowa and New Hampshire.

It’ll pay for cable and digital advertising, and the cable networks will coo admiringly at her ad work. It still won’t be enough to win, but it will keep reporters on the horserace money story distracted and amused through the New Year.

Even if the cash came in at a massive rate, spending it on advertising only gets her a fraction of what she needs. Donors can write checks but can’t organize state operations, roll out significant canvassing efforts, or organize massive statewide endorsement campaigns with only 48 days before Iowa.

Money moves fast, but building multiple state campaign organizations to win is more challenging than buying ads alone.

The money matters, but at this point…not so much as you think.

She Can’t Consolidate the Anti-Trump Vote

The narrowest path for Nikki Haley that could make her competitive with Trump is also the least likely: convincing every other major candidate to drop out and endorse her.

Good luck.

She’s at 14% in Iowa18.7% in New Hampshire, and 18.8% in her home state of South Carolina. Let’s play it out and imagine that Chris Christie, Ron DeSantis, and Asa Hutchinson all dropped out of the race and endorsed Haley. Now presume (and I know the air is getting a bit thin now) that 100% of their voters moved to Haley.

That would bring her within striking distance of Trump in Iowa, right? Well, not exactly. With DeSantis at 17%, Christie at 4%, and Asa at 0.5% added to her tally, it becomes a 47%-46% race, but that’s where reality kicks in.

First, none of them are ready to drop out. DeSantis is too much of a stubborn ass, and Lady DeSantis can’t imagine the end of those sweet private jet rides. Christie is having fun and living off the land. Next, their votes are not transferrable to her at even a 50% support level, much less 100%.

Even if she wins a shocker in New Hampshire with this same bank shot, long-bowl, gedankenexperiment, Trump then sails into Super Tuesday with a massive advantage. On that day alone, he’ll accumulate nearly 30% of the delegates needed to win the nomination. He’ll win Florida and Ohio on March 19th, and that’s the ball game.

A unified Not Trump vote is a lovely idea, but it’s castles in Spain, not a real strategy.

The Upside of the Nikki Bubble

There’s a bit of good news in the Nikki Bubble story.

First, she vexes Trump like none of the other candidates in the GOP field. Long ago, he wrote off all the lower-tier mooks. He sees DeSantis as a spent force, an angry imp with a controlling wife, and lifts in his sexy man boots.

Next, Trump’s aura of inevitability and invincibility means more to him politically than he lets on. It’s an old trick from every authoritarian leader in history: look strong, destroy all opposition, cut off the heads of challengers like daisies under a rusty scythe. He hates her presumption.

Dangerously, Trump sees at least some strength and talent in Haley. Not at his level as a performer, but he watches these candidates' speeches and debate performances like a gouty orange hawk, and in her, he sees something he fears: a showman.

Again, she’s nowhere near his level under the lights, but she’s improving. He sees the better suits, the better hair and makeup, and the thin frame from too much campaign stress and wonders to himself…will they betray me? Never underestimate how much Trump focuses on his “central casting” rule that looks come first when it comes to television, and for him, politics is just a derivation of TV.

Nikki is increasingly looking and, more importantly, acting the part of a real challenger.

It may not be rational, but Trump rarely is. It may be sexist as hell, but have you met Donald Trump? Watch his attacks ramp dramatically as she rises in media coverage and donor attention. As Trump wins ugly against her, here’s hoping a few more old-model Republicans will see that their party is lost, and even a candidate like Haley can’t win in the era of Trump.

Nikki Haley would be a formidable GOP frontrunner in another world, sans Trump. She’s fluent enough in the boardroom, on the campaign trail, and on the debate stage to make the other flotsam in this year’s campaign season look like hopeless edge cases.

It’ll be fun to watch Trump lose his mind as the Nikki Haley bubble inflates and inflates, as breathless, pointless media coverage elevates her into the political stratosphere before her destruction, but don’t let it distract you.

The GOP primary race is still firmly in Donald Trump’s little paws, and Nikki Haley or not, he’s not letting it go.