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Taking a Second Look at Nikki Haley

(Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley speaking with attendees at the Republican Jewish Coalition's 2023 Annual Leadership Summit at the Venetian Convention & Expo Center in Las Vegas, Nevada/Gage Skidmore)

“It is true that one of the most important rules in politics is that ‘You can’t lose your base,’ but it is also true that in order to win competitive elections, broadening one’s base is essential, and Ambassador Haley might be able to accomplish that.”

In December of 2019, well before the 2020 presidential election and a few weeks before then-President Donald Trump achieved his highest Gallup net approval rating of his presidency following his 2020 State of the Union Address and acquittal at his first Senate impeachment trial, I authored a media criticism column titled “The Next Media Darling of Presidential Politics: Nikki Haley,” anticipating a future Haley presidential candidacy accompanied by relatively warm media coverage, even from the generally left-of-center national press. It was obvious that the former Ambassador to the United Nations and former Governor of South Carolina “harbored,” as they say, presidential ambitions. That much was clear. But somewhat more surprisingly, a national press typically quite hostile to Republican candidates held its fire—not quite embracing her, of course, but refraining from the degree of character assassination typically aimed at Republican officeholders with national aspirations. (1)

To her critics from the Right, this treatment on the part of the press is proof of her deep-seated left-leaning sympathies and a potential future reality that should she be elected President of the United States, she would behave as a Republican-lite, a member of the alleged “uniparty political establishment” that dominates Washington, D.C. and prevents conservative principles promised on the campaign trail from becoming policy. Former President Donald Trump, according to most of those holding this view, is the only person capable of bridging this divide; even Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, arguably the most effective chief executive in recent memory, falls short. (I have heard from certain hardcore backers of President Trump’s that Governor DeSantis is secretly a Democrat, a plant, and the like.) A vote for Ambassador Haley is a vote for the deep state and for war, we are told.

Now, there is little doubt in my mind that former President Trump would be more effective when it comes to implementing prized policy commitments favored by conservatives, particularly of the America First variety, than would Ambassador Haley. And, so there is no confusion, I favored actions such as President Trump withdrawing from the World Health Organization, playing hardball with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states, and reconsidering aspects of American trade policy, moves that a President Haley would be unlikely to favor. (Differing from some of his detractors on the Right, I consider President Trump to have been a reasonably effective President of the United States, especially considering the fact that he was under relentless investigations, impeachment proceedings, and the like throughout his entire presidency.)

But the reality is that Democrats are salivating at the prospect of running against former President Trump, a person who is widely disdained in countless quarters, particularly among high-propensity, college-educated voters who could not imagine abstaining from voting in an election no matter what—and especially not if former President Trump is on the ballot. (2) Many of these people, admittedly, are unlikely to vote for Ambassador Haley; despite their dissatisfaction with most of the policies of the Biden administration, from immigration to his approaches to fiscal policy that proved inflationary, their loyalty is to their social circles, and to vote for a Republican—any Republican—is heresy in those settings. But some of these people will, and politics, after all, is about margins, and making inroads into the share of suburban voters supporting Democrats might be enough to tip the election away from the incumbent, who, according to Gallup, is the most unpopular president in modern history to seek re-election.

Among hardcore conservatives, Ambassador Haley is, of course, reviled. She is criticized for supporting the removal of the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina State House; her membership on corporate boards, including Boeing, something brought up by Megyn Kelly (quite effectively) at the December 6th Republican primary debate and harped on again and again by Vivek Ramaswamy; her unfortunate invocation of identity politics; and the perception (perhaps warranted) that she is not sufficiently focused on addressing mass immigration. (Mass immigration and border security, I believe, are the most important current challenges facing the United States.) My own aforementioned media criticism column certainly did not present her favorably, and I do not necessarily disagree with at least some of these charges against her.

But the reality is that the hardcore Right does not make up the majority of the electorate—anything but. And with respect to sentiments such as “If you think that compromise, a mild manner, and dispassionate dialogue are the only ways to effect massive change on a cultural level then you clearly have never studied any history at all. That is not how it has ever worked. Ever. Anywhere…” sometimes a more conciliatory tone does win elections, and then one can govern as he sees fit. George H.W. Bush’s election to the presidency offered us Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and the late Senator Johnny Isakson, the gentleman from Georgia, routinely voted in a manner that conservatives found acceptable, voting, for instance, with President Trump 92% of the time. (3) The first rule of politics is to win, and, to do that, one needs to present himself or herself in a manner that is—at the very least—palatable to the majority of (or plurality of) voters. (4)

I am sympathetic to those in the Republican base who feel as though they have—time and again—been misled by the candidates they support only to have them once in office support policies they strongly oppose, whether on immigration, spending, or on Fourth Amendment concerns. And there is a chance that a President Haley would take a page from the administration of President George W. Bush and support policies, particularly as they pertain to foreign affairs, that are out of step with the current Republican base. And if that should happen, that would be altogether unfortunate. But what this criticism tends to forget is that ours is an age in which the base controls the candidate or the President. Look no further than President Joe Biden, a man who pitched himself as a moderate and variously supported every political position under the sun during his long life in public office, but now does the bidding almost exclusively of the left-wing base of his party. 

Just as Ambassador Haley has been forced to the Right on issues such as abortion, likely against her natural inclinations, the pro-Trump Republican base would be likely to push her in a more conservative direction on a host of other issues, including on immigration. (President Trump himself would criticize her incessantly on social media should she deviate from the desires of the base.)

Now it is true that a potential Haley administration could find itself staffed by appointees insensitive to (or outright opposed to) the policy positions favored by the Republican base or that President Trump would still seek to find a path toward ballot access as an Independent candidate if Ambassador Haley secures the nomination, but the reality, as I see it, is that Ambassador Haley has a fighting chance of defeating President Biden. Although President Trump does retain a lead in many national polls over President Biden, that lead is likely to evaporate as the entire firepower of the corporate world, the press, social media companies, and donor dollars are committed at a level never previously seen to ensure his defeat, a degree of firepower that is unlikely to be able to be mustered against a candidate Haley.

In a different media criticism column in 2020, I reaffirmed the dangers of pundits and commentators seeking constantly to predict the future, and this is as true about election results as nearly anything else. The future is always unknown, but one thing is for sure: Ambassador Haley is not as reviled among high-propensity voters and independents as is former President Trump. She might also be able to carry swing states such as New Hampshire that President Trump is almost certain to lose. (Ambassador Haley currently even leads President Biden in blue-leaning Virginia, according to a recent Virginia Commonwealth University poll, while President Trump—needless to say—trails; she leads President Biden by an average of 5.3 points in Pennsylvania (as compared to President Trump trailing President Biden by 0.6); and, in Michigan, Ambassador Haley leads President Biden by an average of 10.8 points as compared to President Trump’s average lead of 5.3 points.) Nearly any Republican candidate is strongly preferable to President Biden and though this primary does admittedly seem effectively over, one really ought to consider electability more when choosing between Ambassador Haley and President Trump. An unrestrained President Biden for another four years, coupled by likely efforts to secure voting rights for those who have crossed the border illegally during his presidency, should make one, first, shudder and then prioritize a victory in November over other considerations such as unconditional loyalty to the former President. It is true that one of the most important rules in politics is that “You can’t lose your base,” but it is also true that in order to win competitive elections, broadening one’s base is essential, and Ambassador Haley might be able to accomplish that.

Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief of Merion West.


  1. I do not discount the possibility that certain individuals in the press were treating Ambassador Haley favorably for the time being due to preferring her to other would-be Republican nominees such as President Trump but then would attack her relentlessly should she become the Republican Party’s general election candidate.
  2. According to the RealClearPolitics favorability average, President Trump’s net favorability sits at -12.3%, and President Biden is even more unpopular at -15.7%. Ambassador Haley’s net favorability is at -4.5%, though the most recent poll included, one from Harvard-Harris, records her favorability at +6, as compared to President Trump breaking even and President Biden registering at -14. 
  3. I have heard extremely partisan Democrats in Georgia make comments when Senator Isakson was alive to the effect of, “I hate Republicans. [Pause] Except maybe for Johnny Isakson.” 
  4. In fairness, there are some officeholders in American history who survived their own unpopularity by, as was often said of the late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, being just a hair less unpopular than whomever he was running against every six years. 

Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief at Merion West. With a background in journalism and media criticism, he has contributed to newspapers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The News & Observer, as well as online outlets including Quillette and The Hill. Erich has also spoken at conferences and events on issues related to gangs, crime, and policing. He studied political science at Yale University.

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