Nikki Haley’s Failure to Launch
Her 2024 presidential campaign is brought to you by the 2013 RNC “autopsy”
Since this is Nikki Haley Campaign Launch Day, I decided to post my second item of the week a little early. (As with Monday’s post, the paywall today comes at the very end, blocking only the audio version of the post that’s available exclusively to paying subscribers.) You’ll next hear from me on Friday. For more, check out my appearance on The Bulwark Podcast with Charlie Sykes, where we talk about Haley as well as several of my recent Substack posts.
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Former South Carolina Governor and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley released a presidential campaign announcement video on Tuesday morning, making her the first person after former president Donald Trump to jump into the race for the Republican nomination in 2024.
The very first thing she talks about is race—growing up in the segregated South as the child of immigrants from South Asia who didn’t belong on either side of America’s racial divide. Over a soundtrack of generic piano noodling, she expresses what sounds like genuine pride in the country, about the nobility of our founding principles, about the need for strength to confront evil around the world, about the importance of bringing the country together, and about how the Republican Party has lost the popular vote in seven out of the past eight presidential elections. Haley intends to change that.
Will she? I very much doubt it.
The Present as Past
As I suggested in a recent post about several Republican presidential hopefuls not named Trump or DeSantis, Haley’s campaign is tailor made for an alternative-reality version of 2016—the race following Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012 and the Republican National Committee’s notorious “autopsy” the following year.
That document was very clear: The GOP lost to Barack Obama because the party was out of step with modern America. It was too white, too male, and too beholden to the religious right. To win going forward, Republicans would need to try appealing to brown-skinned voters. They’d need to sound less scary, less misogynistic, and less fixated on turning back the clock on social and cultural progress over the previous decades.
Haley was the perfect vehicle for this party-approved shift in strategy, but for some reason she didn’t run in 2016. Instead, Jeb! did—and he famously tanked, chewed up and spit out good and early by the one candidate who made a full-frontal point of rejecting every single thing the RNC autopsy advocated. Trump launched his campaign by denouncing Mexican rapists. He proudly treated women like sexual playthings to be used and discarded by powerful men at will. And he vowed to rack up more wins for the religious right than his more pious but less potent Republican predecessors.
The result? Trump not only came out on top in the GOP nomination contest that year. He also (barely) won the general election, not by appealing to non-white voters and soft-peddling social conservatism but by inspiring evangelical Christians to show up on Election Day, and by activating heretofore “hidden” white voters throughout the upper Midwest. There was no new “autopsy” after the 2016 election—because it looked like the party was doing just fine, by doing the diametric opposite of what the 2013 autopsy proposed.
Of course, by the 2020 election, things had gotten more complicated. On the down side, Trump lost his bid for re-election. The size of the loss in the popular vote—7 million—appeared to provide retroactive vindication for the 2013 autopsy. Yet the narrowness of the loss in the Electoral College (even narrower than Trump’s Electoral College victory four years earlier), along with Trump’s gain of 11 million votes from 2016, including a surge in support from Hispanic voters, muddied the waters.
Even this early in the race to challenge Joe Biden’s bid for re-election in 2024, the various “lanes” are defined to a remarkable extent by how the different candidates or would-be candidates have processed the 2020 outcome.
Trump’s response is to deny he even lost—and to imply that this time he won’t let them steal the election from him. (???)
DeSantis’s response is to become a Better Trump: More competent, somewhat less scary, and therefore a lot more capable of winning back the votes the 45th president lost in the suburbs while also holding onto Trump’s base.
And Haley? Other than a brief mention of the need to secure the border, there’s nothing in her launch video that wouldn’t have fit in the early stages of the 2016 race—the aspiration toward national unity, the call for toughness in foreign policy, the expressions of multicultural patriotism. And despite the fact that she worked for Trump, her video makes no mention of him and/or his administration’s accomplishments. As I noted above, she clearly implies that Trump was a loser, not just once (in 2020) but twice (by falling 2.9 million votes short in 2016).
The message is subtle but clear: Trump represented a wrong turn for the GOP, and Haley is the perfect candidate to get it back on track.
Haley’s Modest Future
Will it work? Unless the Republican electorate through the past four election cycles has suddenly vanished and been replaced by the base imagined by the authors of the 2013 autopsy, I don’t see how. If Haley could snap her fingers and magically become the GOP nominee, she might do quite well in the general election (though her message would do much better against a more divisive Democrat than Joe Biden).
But of course, Haley can’t just snap her fingers and magically become the GOP nominee. She has to win the most delegates in the primary contest a year from now, and I can’t imagine she’ll come anywhere close to doing that. Republican voters aren’t interested in being told the candidates they love the most can’t win against halfway decent Democratic alternatives.
That leaves open the possibility of Haley’s campaign serving as an audition to be someone else’s VP. Unless she backpedals a lot from her launch video, I don’t see Trump agreeing to run with her. Would DeSantis would tap her? Maybe. But there will be an awful lot of competition. In Haley’s own state, Sen. Tim Scott looks ready to launch his own presidential campaign. Picking a black man as his running mate would give DeSantis some multicultural cred without having to revert to 2013 on everything. And then there’s Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, who isn’t multicultural but might have some of the feminine-populist-starbursting magic that Sarah Palin brought to John McCain’s (losing) 2008 campaign without the Alaska governor’s cluelessness on policy.
Put it all together and I’m left shrugging my shoulders about Nikki Haley’s future. She might boost her speaking fees and increase what she can earn as a consultant. But she’s not going to be president. And she’s unlikely to revive an approach to Republican politicking that her former boss left dead in a ditch the better part of a decade ago.
Republican voters know what they want. And Nikki Haley isn’t it.
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