Analysis: Nikki Haley’s campaign message and the struggle of challenging Trump

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley talks with students during a campaign stop at the Polaris Charter School in Manchester on Friday.

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley talks with students during a campaign stop at the Polaris Charter School in Manchester on Friday. Charles Krupa / AP

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley listens to students during a campaign stop at the Polaris Charter School, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley listens to students during a campaign stop at the Polaris Charter School, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley talks to students, parents and educators during a campaign stop at the Polaris Charter School on Friday.

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley talks to students, parents and educators during a campaign stop at the Polaris Charter School on Friday. Charles Krupa / AP

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley talks with students during a campaign stop at the Polaris Charter School, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley talks with students during a campaign stop at the Polaris Charter School, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, center, poses for a selfie with guests during a campaign stop at Mary Ann's Diner, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024, in Amherst, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, center, poses for a selfie with guests during a campaign stop at Mary Ann's Diner, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024, in Amherst, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, center, chats with guests during a campaign stop at Mary Ann's Diner, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024, in Amherst, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, center, chats with guests during a campaign stop at Mary Ann's Diner, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024, in Amherst, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley waves to guests during a campaign stop at Mary Ann's Diner, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024, in Amherst, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley waves to guests during a campaign stop at Mary Ann's Diner, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024, in Amherst, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, third from right, poses for a selfie with guests during a campaign stop at Mary Ann's Diner, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024, in Amherst, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, third from right, poses for a selfie with guests during a campaign stop at Mary Ann's Diner, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024, in Amherst, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 01-19-2024 5:19 PM

Modified: 01-20-2024 2:42 PM


Donald Trump, Nikki Haley frequently says, was the right person at the right time. Now, it’s time for a change.

“Rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him,” she said of Trump during a CNN town hall at New England College in Henniker Thursday night ahead of Tuesday’s primary. “We can’t continue down this path and go through four more years of chaos. We won’t survive it. You don’t fix Democrat chaos with Republican chaos.”

She expanded on this idea in a column in the Des Moines Register on Jan. 12.

“It worked for a time,” she wrote of Trump’s brand of politics. “In 2016, we needed a president who broke things. But eight years later, everything is still broken, and it won’t be long before it’s beyond repair.”

She continues, saying her approach is simple: “No drama. No vendettas. No whining. No fanning the flames of anger and resentment. No turning Americans against each other,” she wrote.

She has painted herself as an alternative to Trump, yet she does little to specifically explain why she’s better equipped for the job.

“It’s a weird thing for a candidate to say about a president from their own party,” said Chris Galdieri, a professor at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. “But second, there’s no story behind it.”

It’s not like Haley doesn’t have a story to tell — and she does touch on parts of it throughout her stump speeches. She’s the daughter of Indian immigrants who grew up in Bamberg, South Carolina, a town of roughly 2,500. Their landlord told her family they could rent the home only if they would not host Black guests. In her first foray into politics, she took down a state representative who’d served for three decades. As governor of South Carolina, she ordered the Confederate flag to be taken down from the state capitol following the massacre of nine Black members of the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Her husband, Michael, is currently deployed overseas.

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As the New Hampshire Primary looms on Tuesday, some polls have Haley close to even with Trump, but others still have him with a double-digit lead. FiveThirtyEight’s polling average for the state has Trump at 48% and Haley at 34% as of Friday. She’s still an underdog entering Tuesday’s race, and she doesn’t have much more time to shift the dynamics.

Political observers say the former ambassador to the United Nations could better tackle Trump by doing a better job introducing herself to voters here and explaining more clearly their policy differences.

“It’s not even touch football,” Galdieri said of her approach to Trump.

“Most folks, by the time they get to be in a position to credibly run for president, they stand for something,” he continued. “They’ve got some ideas about policy, about what they want to do with power if they get it. … I don’t really see that with Haley. It’s really rooted in her as a person but in the absence of telling a really compelling story about herself.”

Trump’s continued grip on the Republican Party has almost certainly played a major role in that strategy.

“Winning the nomination is really challenging, and when you’re facing off against a central figure, a towering figure like Trump, what she’s trying to do is tiptoe and try to be as inoffensive as possible and as acceptable as possible to every single faction of the Republican Party,” said Dante Scala, professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. “I think when that’s your plan, you do best to stay out of specifics.”

‘The flag needed to go’

Haley missed an opportunity to tell a story of leadership at a town hall in Berlin on Dec. 27 when she was asked a question about the cause of the Civil War.

After a long response that touched on her belief in government protecting the freedoms of its people, the attendee stated flatly: “In the year 2023, it’s astonishing to me that you answered that question without mentioning the word slavery.”

“What do you want me to say about slavery?” she replied.

She clarified her position the next day.

“Of course, the Civil War was about slavery,” she told a different audience in North Conway.

“We always want to remember the lesson of what it means to be a free individual and that everyone deserves to be a free individual,” she continued. “So we stand by that. I say that as a Southerner. I say that as a Southern governor who removed the Confederate flag off the statehouse grounds.”

But she missed a prime opportunity to dive further, not only to provide a simple answer but to connect it to that story of when she was governor of the state where the Civil War began and ordered the Confederate flag to come down in 2015.

“Haley was not, at first, keen on tackling a controversy that had cost one of her predecessors his job,” journalist Tim Alberta wrote of the Confederate flag debate in an in-depth profile about Haley for Politico Magazine in 2021. “But when photos surfaced of the assassin posing with a Confederate flag and boasting of his efforts to start a race war, Haley decided — without input from a single adviser, colleague or friend — the flag needed to go.”

When given the opportunity to tell that story about leadership and navigating the tension between the country’s scarred history and its present challenges, Haley missed the chance.

“Unlike a number of other Republican politicians, she really had to deal with that question of race directly in a way that perhaps other Republicans from other states had not,” Scala said. “And yet, what I’m struck by with Haley is just this inherent sense of caution.”

Added Galdieri: “Haley almost seems to be taking it for granted that people know who she is, know what her story is, and that’s the basis for her running. It’s kind of odd, and I don’t remember another candidate getting quite so far without really defining their story for voters.”

Still, Haley’s polling average has increased roughly eight points since December.

‘Don’t know how itwould translate’

Missed opportunity or not, presenting herself as a more even-handed candidate than Trump has drawn support, especially from those in the middle.

Appealing to independent voters in particular is what spurred Frank Laukien and Jonathan Bush to co-found the “Independents Moving the Needle” Super PAC, which is unaffiliated with Haley’s campaign.

Laukien, a billionaire businessman and scientist, and Bush, a tech entrepreneur who’s worked in healthcare and is a cousin of George W. Bush, were intrigued by the solutions she’s presented on the campaign trail.

“It was very, very impressive in how issue after issue, she really had a clear understanding, a rational approach to it and an attitude of wanting to solve the many issues that we do have as a country,” Laukien said. “We became really very, very enthusiastic about Nikki, and we actually think that she could be the not only next generation leader, but perhaps a transformational leader who could work across the aisle, be a conservative, but not be an ideological conservative.”

Their organization is targeting the roughly 200,000 or so independent voters who they think could be swayed to support Haley and prevent a rematch of the 2020 election.

Laukien also added that he doesn’t take issue with Haley spending less time on the campaign trail talking about her personal background.

“I’m kind of glad she’s not playing it up too, too much because I’m not a big fan of identity politics,” he said. “But the fact that she would be the first woman president and first president who would be … from Asian descent, I think it’s wonderful. It shows that we’re a big melting pot, and immigrants have as much of a chance in this country as people whose family has been here for generations.”

Whatever it is that draws voters to Haley, Independents Moving the Needle hopes there are enough to deny Trump a win in New Hampshire on Tuesday.

Scala, though, noted the limit of the Haley campaign’s strategy in pinning its hopes on a strong turnout among independents. Even in John McCain’s 2000 New Hampshire primary win, often touted as the gold standard performance with independents, he still won 44% of Republican voters over Bush’s 36%, in addition to the 61% he received from independents.

“The percentage of independents who show up and vote is really going to have to be extraordinary,” Scala said. “And it would be a great New Hampshire story if it happened, but I just don’t know how that would translate — even if she pulled it off — to other primaries in other states where you don’t have the mix that you do here.”

Haley’s path to the nomination, while never a particularly wide one, grows infinitesimally small if she doesn’t perform well on Tuesday. Her home state of South Carolina holds the next notable primary on Feb. 24, but emerging from New Hampshire without a boost from voters only enhances her challenge moving forward in a state where Trump leads her by roughly 30 points.

“There are all sorts of folks who’ve come through over the years who’ve had great biographies, great resumes, perfect experience, but for whatever reason just didn’t click,” Galdieri said. “I think Haley’s gotten really far, but it might just be the case that she’s hit her ceiling already.”