Home » Nikki Haley Has Gotten a Lot Wrong. Here’s How She Could Still Win

Nikki Haley Has Gotten a Lot Wrong. Here’s How She Could Still Win

For Nikki Haley, the stakes couldn’t be higher than they are in New Hampshire. If she wins Tuesday night, her campaign continues, and she contests her home state of South Carolina. If she loses, it’s game over.

To be sure, it’s possible her campaign could continue in zombie form (just as Ron DeSantis might have continued after losing Iowa). But for all practical purposes, it all comes down to this. The end of the road. The whole ball of wax.

So, can Haley win? It depends on whether you believe in magic or polls. Back in 2008, everyone thought Barack Obama would defeat Hillary Clinton in the Granite State. He didn’t. That same year, Republican John McCain also surprised many by winning New Hampshire’s primary. Sometimes the so-called experts get egg on their collective faces.

And New Hampshire is the kind of place where the magic, occasionally, happens.

These flinty New Englanders are ornery, and they don’t like to rubber stamp Iowa’s results. They also tend to be more moderate—and much less evangelical—than other early GOP primary states. Throw in the fact that she has the endorsement of both Gov. Chris Sununu and the state’s top newspaper, and it’s possible to squint and see a path to victory.

On top of that, there is the influx of independent and unaffiliated voters (who are eligible to participate in this “first-in-the-nation” primary); they don’t just change the dynamic regarding which kinds of candidates can win a GOP primary in the state—they make it harder for pollsters to model turnout.

Now, I’m not saying a Haley win is likely—just that there’s a chance.

Truth be told, Haley has already won—in a sense. When she started this campaign, I didn’t give her much of a shot. But here she is, the last (wo)man standing against Donald Trump. That’s not nothing. She outlasted all her non-Trump rivals, an impressive outcome that may turn out to be something of a Pyrrhic victory (although Chris Christie’s exodus helped Haley, she would have benefitted from DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy splitting the MAGA vote).

However, if Haley had just played her cards slightly differently, she might be in a much better position to have a break-out moment in New Hampshire. Her biggest stumble was probably the town hall in late December, where she refused to say that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. As I noted at the time, not only was this a foolish answer, but it also reinforced some negative narratives that have plagued Haley for years.

For example, it suggested that she was afraid of offending MAGA voters (this simultaneously showed weakness to Trumpers and alienated moderates). It made her look inauthentic and calculating—in other words, like a politician. These critiques all cut against today’s Republican Party and New Hampshire ethos, specifically.

Next came the final Republican debate, where she squared off one-on-one with DeSantis. She needed a knockout, but DeSantis arguably won on points (but neither candidate showed any personality or likability).

Then came the Iowa caucuses, where Haley finished in third place behind Trump and DeSantis. Then she headed to New Hampshire, where CNN’s Dana Bash asked her a question that she should have hit out of the park: “You’re the only woman in this race. How do you feel about your party’s frontrunner being held liable for sexual abuse?”

“First of all, I haven’t paid attention to his cases,” Haley responded, “and I’m not a lawyer. All I know is he’s innocent until proven guilty…”

This response was not, shall we say, reassuring.

She failed the New Hampshire test of ‘Me and you against the world’…

Mike Murphy

“She operates from a place of complete fear,” veteran political strategist Mike Murphy told me on Saturday.

Another probable mistake Haley made was refusing to debate in New Hampshire, unless Trump joined her and DeSantis.

Now, it’s possible that the debate wouldn’t have happened anyway; DeSantis might have dropped out before it took place. But Haley needed drama and attention. What is more, Granite Staters have a cultural affinity for scrappers who are anxious to show up at every event and take every question.

“She failed the New Hampshire test of ‘Me and you against the world,’” Murphy—who worked for John McCain’s presidential campaign—told me.

So how can Haley put it together and have a chance to pull off a win?

Nikki Haley and New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu greet diners during a campaign stop at T-Bones ahead of the New Hampshire primary election in Concord, New Hampshire, January 22, 2024.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

With time running out, her best chance to garner media attention, buzz, and excitement is to unleash some crisp zingers that hit Trump hard. This will undermine the sense that she is weak and afraid, while simultaneously exciting those much-needed independents, and also driving news attention.

In recent days, Haley has attempted to tightened her message and sharpened her attacks against Trump, including hitting him on his age and for recently confusing Haley with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. That was a good start. But to pull off a miracle, she will need to punch harder than that.

What kind of lines might come in handy?

As luck would have it, in the last few days, I have had conversations with a couple of the smartest political minds I know.

David Frum, a staff writer for The Atlantic and former White House speechwriter for President George W. Bush suggested the following line: “What’s the difference between you and your opponent? On election day, my opponent is likely to be in prison because he tried to overthrow an election…”

Murphy suggested Haley play up the electability issue, saying of a Trump vs. Biden rematch, “that’ll be a nail biter; I’ll give you a landslide.”

Will contrarian Granite Staters and independents keep hope alive? I wouldn’t bet on Haley, but if I lived in New Hampshire, I would assuredly vote for her.

Murphy also suggested Haley go further by attacking Trump as a “coward.” Regarding Trump’s refusal to debate Haley, Murphy suggests saying: “You won’t show up. [If] you don’t have the guts to [debate], you don’t have the guts to be president. You’re a coward, Donald. And tonight—thinking of you—we’re going to my favorite restaurant, Wontons, here in Wakefield, New Hampshire…and I’m going to order orange chicken.”

Now, one can go too far with this (we all remember Marco Rubio’s brief attempt to out-Trump Trump). But I don’t think there’s much danger of Haley going there.

Will contrarian Granite Staters and independents keep hope alive? I wouldn’t bet on Haley, but if I lived in New Hampshire, I would assuredly vote for her.

It strikes me that Haley should go after Trump’s mental fitness, character, electability—not to mention the likelihood that he will soon become a convicted criminal. Would it be enough for her to replicate John McCain or Hillary Clinton’s impressive comebacks? There’s only one way to find out.

Whatever else, Haley should stop pulling her punches, and throw some elbows, too, while she’s at it. It’s the only chance she has to work a miracle—and maybe, just maybe, benefit from some of that elusive New Hampshire magic.


January 2024