Nikki Haley Could Surprise Us

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Written By Pinang Driod

On Monday, Iowa voters will choose their Republican nominee for president while the rest of us wait. Repeated polls have shown that Donald Trump has an “overwhelming lead” in the Iowa caucus, despite the fact that he will be in and out of court facing various civil and criminal charges in the weeks leading up to the vote. But he is not the sure winner. Between Iowa and the following handful of primaries, there is still a narrow window to change the course of the election, although that window is open for only about a month more.

In this episode of Radio Atlantic, I talk to Atlantic staff writers Elaine Godfrey, who is headed to Iowa (and whose parents live there), and Mark Leibovich, who is reporting on Nikki Haley. Haley, so far, has either dodged questions about Trump or gently criticized him, a strategy Leibovich describes as like “trying to talk about the Civil War without mentioning slavery.” Haley could just be hedging her bets so she can be the vice-presidential pick. But for the next two weeks at least, she still has a chance.

While it’s true that political reporters love the drama of a surprise, it’s also true that there is a genuine possibility of something surprising happening in Iowa and in the Republican primaries ahead. We discuss the path—or as Godfrey calls it, the “deer trail”—for Haley to win the nomination. And we talk about how Trump might react if she did.

Listen to the conversation here:

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The following is a transcript of the episode:

Hanna Rosin: The Iowa caucuses are on Monday, just a few days away. Republicans in the state will make their choice for the nominee.

And the rest of us will be a little closer to knowing what our next four years will be like.

The realistic choices right now are Donald Trump—long gap—Nikki Haley, and Ron DeSantis. Donald Trump is way ahead. But there is still a chance for surprises. Or is that just a fiction I am telling myself?

I’m Hanna Rosin. This is Radio Atlantic.

There is one final moment for things to go differently. That moment is now, in the next month or so: a narrow path for a different candidate—probably Nikki Haley—to win the nomination, and for Republicans to get out from under Trump.

Trust me. Or trust the Atlantic political writers who are tracking the elections more closely.

Mark Leibovich, who’s been reporting on Nikki Haley. Hi, Mark.

Mark Leibovich: Hi, Hanna.

Rosin: And Elaine Godfrey, who is on her way to Iowa this week.

Elaine Godfrey: Hi, Hanna.

Rosin: Okay. Elaine, you’re going to Iowa. What drama are you excited to track there?

Godfrey: I am going to Iowa. I’m probably going to be tracking the DeSantis campaign pretty closely while I’m there. I’m excited to see if reality reflects the polls. I mean, right now, Trump is up, depending on the poll, 20, 30, 36 points ahead of the second-place candidate, which is DeSantis.

So it’ll be exciting to see if I can find any people in the wild who like DeSantis and who like Nikki Haley. And, you know, who do voters actually turn out for on caucus night? All those things, I’m looking for. And I know there are a lot of undecided Iowans still, based on the reporting I’ve done so far.

Rosin: Mark, I was remembering that you had a theory that DeSantis was great on paper, but not so much up close. Do you feel vindicated now?

Leibovich: Yes, I do. I mean, there was this rap on DeSantis that, Hey, no one knows him, so will he actually meet the promise of the on-paper being? He’s a popular governor. He’s very Trumpy. He’s very popular in Florida, and so forth. And I was wondering if the classic Will reality match the hype? question would be answered in a good way, and it has been answered in a terrible way. He’s been a colossal dud of a candidate, and I’m going to guess he’s not going to win.

Rosin: Elaine, when you say [you’re] tracking DeSantis, do you mean you’re tracking if this is the end of DeSantis?

Godfrey: Yeah. I mean, it could be. The people that I’ve talked to have said if he doesn’t get within 10 or so points of Trump in this caucus, it’s really kind of over for him. He’s put all of his eggs in this basket. He’s moved like a third of his staff there. They live in Iowa. He spent almost all of his time there.

And it’s worked out in terms of endorsements. Like, he has a lot of state lawmakers. He has the governor’s endorsement. Kim Reynolds endorsed him in November. Bob Vander Plaats, who’s this big social conservative leader in western Iowa, loves DeSantis. So, like, again, on paper, yeah, he has all these great things going for him, but the voters of Iowa have not shown in the polls that they like DeSantis. So this will be the test for his campaign. I really think it’s over for him if he does as poorly as the polls are predicting he will.

Rosin: Right. I didn’t think of it that starkly, because on paper he was like the palatable Trump.

He was a successful governor. He has the support of the right state leaders in Iowa. So everything is lined up for success. And if you can’t succeed in that circumstance, then what’s the point?

Godfrey: Exactly. And then the next state is New Hampshire, and Haley is doing much better than he is in New Hampshire. It just doesn’t seem promising for DeSantis if he can’t pick this up in Iowa.

Rosin: So I want to talk about Nikki Haley. Let’s assume Trump wins Iowa, DeSantis does not have a respectable second, but Nikki Haley does. Then what happens?

Leibovich: Well, so Nikki Haley, her main focus has been New Hampshire, where she has clearly gained some momentum. She seems a very good fit for the kind of suburban, educated, more moderate voters in the New Hampshire primary. But Iowa could be really important for her because it could give her some momentum if she overperforms into New Hampshire, which would then take her into South Carolina, where she would go head-to-head with Trump, and South Carolina is her home state.

So, propelled by the momentum from New Hampshire, she could, you know, run the table a little bit, and next thing you know, DeSantis drops out, Ramaswamy drops out, and it’s just Nikki and Donald, head-to-head. And, you know, she could conceivably consolidate the non-Trump vote and make it pretty interesting. I think one question I would have—and, actually, I’ll pose it to Elaine—as far as Nikki Haley in Iowa, are the caucuses open only to registered Republicans, or can Democrats and independents vote?

Because, if that is the case, Democrats have nothing to do that night—what’s stopping them from going to a Republican caucus and saying, Hey, Nikki Haley (1) is much more palatable to me than Trump, and (2) she could potentially beat Trump, so I got nothing else to do. I’m going to go vote for her. I mean, could that be done?

Godfrey: You’re channeling my mother right now.


Leibovich: Woah.

Godfrey: My mother’s doing this. This is a thing a lot of Democrats—

Leibovich: For Nikki Haley?

Godfrey: I don’t know if she’s decided yet. She likes Nikki. I don’t think she wants Nikki to be president. But my mom is a Democrat. And it is just for registered Republicans, but Iowa has same-day registration changing.

Leibovich: Got it.

Godfrey: So anyone in theory, yes, can do it.

Leibovich: So you need to make some effort. You need to announce yourself both as a Republican and then as a voter of the specific candidate you want to vote for, right?

Godfrey: Right. It’s not like New Hampshire, which is partially open. Independents can vote in New Hampshire, unaffiliated voters. But no, in Iowa, you will have to brave the cold, find your precinct, stand in line to wait to change your registration.

But after that you can go in, you can do whatever. And so I think a lot of people are doing that. It’s a real calculation. My mom, for example—and we can have this discussion—thinks that Nikki Haley would beat Joe Biden in a heartbeat if that was the head-to-head matchup.

I know Mark has some qualms with that notion. So she was thinking maybe she wouldn’t vote for Nikki at the caucus, because she wants Joe Biden to win.

Rosin: That’s a complicated calculation, because if you’re a Democrat and made the calculation that Trump is definitely going to win, then you kind of sacrifice any Democratic presidency and say, Well, I’d rather have Nikki Haley.

But these are all predictions, predictions, predictions.

Godfrey: And this is the thing. Iowans always find themselves in the business of thinking eight moves ahead. In 2020, it wasn’t Which candidate do I like? It was Who was electable?

Rosin: Right, like playing political chess.

Godfrey: Yeah.

Rosin: What would a good Nikki Haley outcome look like? Like, you guys, as political observers, what would surprise you? What would be a surprising Nikki Haley outcome in Iowa?

Leibovich: Anything ahead of DeSantis, which would be, I think, a major victory for her, provided it’s not, like, she’s a 12 and he’s a 10, and Trump’s at, like, 60.

So, I mean, anything that makes it a bad night for DeSantis and potentially nudges him out of the race in time for her to make her more important stand in New Hampshire.

Rosin: Elaine, how did she become this person? Like, how did she become the one?

Godfrey: I think a lot of people really took notice of Nikki Haley in the August debate, when she came out and sort of seemed like the adult in the room when Vivek Ramaswamy was coming off like a real jerk, like a real debate bro.

She sort of seemed reasonable and she clapped back at him a few times and she had some moments, especially on, I think, abortion, where she talked about, I’m not in the business of judging women for their choices; I’m pro-life. And you can say that she’s all talk and that that’s not genuine, but that definitely spoke to people.

I think a lot of people respected her for that. If you’re looking for an alternative to Trump, she looks great. The problem is that I think a lot of people are not looking for an alternative to Trump. So I think as she has made that clearly her lane—that I’m for the people who are tired of Trump, for whatever reason—people have sort of come to her side as they’ve realized, Okay, that’s the most viable alternative here. But I still think that means she’s got a ceiling on her support.

Rosin: Mark, you have been tracking Nikki Haley lately. What is the most interesting thing that you’ve uncovered about her as a candidate?

Leibovich: What’s interesting about Nikki Haley is she presents extremely well, as Elaine just said. And in the debates, we’ve all seen she’s a very professional candidate. She can deliver soundbites. She’s very good with voters. She’s very attentive. It’s as professional and as commanding an operation as you will see. Other than Trump, who sort of has its own category.

But her main critique of Trump, which is pretty lame, what she says is, “Rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him.”

It’s perfect passivity achieved there. She’s very hesitant to mention Trump, to lay a glove on Trump. And I’m going to make this parallel: Trying to talk about the Civil War without mentioning slavery, which she did, is like trying to run for the Republican nomination without mentioning Donald Trump. I mean, it’s the same kind of tiptoeing around the elephant in the room, but at some point, you gotta wonder, is she gonna take on Trump in a way that could actually, you know, move the needle for her beyond the respectable second place?

Rosin: I feel like the way she’s walked that line is actually incredibly impressive. Like, “Chaos follows him.” What else did she say? I think she said, “President Trump was the right president at the right time.” You seem critical of it morally, because you’re someone who criticized, who has long followed Republicans for not taking on Trump. But it feels strategically like she’s done it really well.

Leibovich: Yes, absolutely. I mean, you could say, Why can’t you say how you really feel, like Chris Christie does? And she would say, Well, Chris Christie was not going to win.

And she would be 100 percent right. So, you are 100 percent right, Hanna. However, I would say this: Her looking impressive and sort of hedging her bets, which, you know, everyone sort of understands what she’s doing, she does have an ability to say things that two seconds later, after she’s zoomed forward, you just sort of scratch your head about.

Rosin: You mean you can’t pin down what her beliefs are? Because I don’t see what other option a candidate running against Trump has right now. Like, to me, she’s walking this in the best possible way that one could, both with abortion and with talking about Trump.

Leibovich: I think it’s good and, obviously, delivered much more deftly than DeSantis.

I’m not convinced it couldn’t be better. I think that at some point, there needs to be a real critique from her about Trump that goes beyond chaos. I mean, she has material to work with. He could be in jail. He is quite literally—I mean, she never talks about that. She just sort of does the, you know, Chaos follows him, and These cases are politicized. Done.

So, you know, anything embedded in these 91 counts in these four indictments, I mean, she just leaves out. At some point you do wonder, I mean, can you fashion a tougher argument about him, going forward, if you get a clean one-on-one shot with him?

Rosin: To please whom? Like, if you’re dealing with someone who’s so far ahead in polls, what could possibly be the advantage of taking him on directly?

Leibovich: He might not be that far ahead if she overperforms in the early states, (1) because she’ll have more momentum and (2) the others will drop out.

And it’ll be one-on-one. And look, Donald Trump has rock-solid support among maybe 50 percent of the Republican Party, but she might have the rest of that 50 percent potentially to herself if everyone else gets out.

Rosin: So a slow roll of taking him on?

Godfrey: Maybe that’s what she’s doing.

Rosin: I mean, I’m saying what she’s done to date right now seems really smart to me. And then, if you see his support eroding, eroding, eroding, then you can just kind of slip into that space.

Godfrey: She has gotten closer. Like, maybe she is sort of approaching it on tiptoes. She talked about pardoning Trump, like, I would pardon him if he was found guilty, because who wants to see an 80-year-old in prison?

Rosin: It makes no sense.

Godfrey: No sense.

Rosin: But it glides across the brain as like, Oh, she’s saying some—. If you just listen to the first sentence, you’re like, Oh, she’s fine with Trump. She would pardon Trump.

Godfrey: But the second part is like, Wait, that’s kind of passive-aggressive.

Leibovich: It’s always the second part, but it’s also what she said, Yeah, okay, I can just pardon him, and then we never have to talk or think about him again.

I’m like, Wait. Why is him sitting in jail [going to] make him any more or less likely for anyone to talk about him? Like, Why is that a criminal-justice component from, like, federal indictments and so forth?

Rosin: I know. Nikki Haley’s attitude towards him is like an exasperated mom-figure type—like, Ugh, eye roll-y, kind of.

Godfrey: It does, which has been her role through this whole campaign. She’s just rolling her eyes a little bit more every month.

Leibovich: So Trump kind of attacked her with some bogus claim about how she was for a gas tax in South Carolina. So she said, Well, he is attacking me and he’s lying about me. And then her smooth soundbite is, If he’s going to start lying about me, I’m going to start telling the truth about Donald Trump.

So, it’s like, Oh, yeah. Okay. [Applause line.] But then you think, Wait a minute. So she’s just saying she will now stop lying about Donald Trump, because she has not been telling the truth about Donald Trump all to this point, which we suspected. But now she is actually saying, ‘Okay, I will now tell the hard truths.’

Godfrey: And then what followed that? Did any hard truths follow that statement?

Leibovich: “Chaos follows him.”

Rosin: But that seems amazing to me. To say I will tell the truths about Donald Trump means you’re signaling that you’re playing a game. It’s like you’re winking at everyone, I know what’s up, but I’m not saying it out loud. But I’m not one of these lackeys, exactly. I’m just a smooth operator.

Leibovich: Yes, I agree, and I agree that it’s smart. And I think the surge she has is real, and I think it speaks to her smart strategy. I also think it speaks to a level of disrespect or just a low opinion she has of a lot of voters out there to actually put two and two together.

Rosin: So that’s your problem with it. You’re just frustrated—

Leibovich: It’s cynical.

Rosin: I see.

Leibovich: Here’s an example: I was talking to Mike Murphy, who is this Republican consultant, and he basically said, “It’s the Nikki Haley dilemma.” And this was in a text. And, basically, he has deep loathing for Trump and would love to see him lose, but he also has little use for Haley and finds her cynicism depressing, and her willingness to pander depressing.

And then he said, “Still, compared to Trump, she’s Gandhi.”

And he thinks she does have a real chance to beat Trump in New Hampshire, where Murphy was one of the main architects of John McCain’s upset of George W. Bush in 2000: “If I lived in New Hampshire, I’d vote for Haley in a heartbeat.”

So basically, he finds her cringeworthy, he finds her very frustrating, he sees what she’s up to. But you know what? As Biden always says, “Don’t compare me to the almighty. Compare me to the alternative.”


Rosin: After the break, I ask Elaine if this notion of a path for Nikki Haley is just more magical thinking. Stay with us.


Rosin: Okay. Elaine, I’m actually speaking to your mother here, but I’m going to ask you this question.

Godfrey: I’ll try to channel her.

Rosin: Do you think, in your heart of hearts, there is a path? Because we always want this to be not what it is, like, not what’s inevitably happening before us, which is a replay of a Trump-Biden showdown. Do you actually think that Haley has a path? Mark laid it out quickly earlier, but, you know, through Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, like, is there a path that you can see that’s realistic?

Godfrey: I think there exists a path. I think it is very, very narrow. It’s a little deer trail. It’s a deer trail. She’s losing to Trump in the polls right now. I mean, polls are polls, but she is behind in her home state, in the state she has lived her whole life and was the governor of, South Carolina. She’s losing to him by, like, 20 points, last time I checked. I mean, let’s say she does well in Iowa and she comes within a few points of Trump in New Hampshire.

Leibovich: Or beats him.

Godfrey: Or beats him, which could happen. I mean, New Hampshire is a weird place.

Rosin: So now we’re on the deer trail. We’re passing through.

Godfrey: We’re passing through. The trail’s becoming more substantial now, because now if that happens, you’re gonna have people drop out. If they direct their supporters to her, then it becomes a race. Then it becomes a clear choice. I think it’s still very likely she is not the choice and that Trump wins.

Rosin: Right now, everyone’s just shrugging. Like, Trump is in Iowa saying, Hey, don’t think this is inevitable. Go out and vote, everyone. Don’t just sit around and think this is inevitable.

Anything could shift to change that. Like, people just don’t come out, because it’s snowing and freezing in Iowa. And so the gap is a little bit smaller, and then Nikki Haley starts to look viable, and then momentum builds on itself. It feels possible, especially because it’s snowing in Iowa.

Godfrey: I think that’s right. Weather is always a thing, and weather will be a thing in New Hampshire. This is the worst time of the year to have these contests. So there’s a lot of wiggle room for anyone to change the way this race goes.

So yeah, I think she has a path. I just think it’s a deer trail.

Leibovich: Is deer trail the lowest grade of trail?

Rosin: No, that would be like—

Leibovich: A chipmunk trail, or something?

Godfrey: Like a little snake-tail path.

Rosin: Rabbit.

Leibovich: A Rabbit. I mean, I would say no one else has a path, though, at all. Like, she has a path. I mean, DeSantis maybe, but she does.

Godfrey: She does, yeah.

Rosin: I’m really just trying to make your lives interesting for the next couple of weeks.

Godfrey: Yeah, well—

Rosin: I want you to have something to be excited about, you know.

Godfrey: Me too.

Leibovich: I’m trying to do that too with, like, this path.

Godfrey: Mark’s focused on the mammals. (Laughs.)

Rosin: (Laughs.) I know. We’re working a little hard here.

Godfrey: Like having a little competition. Competition’s good. It’d be good for Trump.

Leibovich: Yes. And look, a lot of people find him to be a foundational threat to the country. And, if this thing were to end immediately—like, he romps in Iowa, romps in New Hampshire, it’s not a race at all—I mean, it would tell you everything you need to know about where the Republican Party is. And this ongoing wait for the quote “post-Trump Republican Party” is, once again, nowhere near where we are right now. And, look, Republicans are one of our two major parties, so that makes it extremely relevant, potentially, to our lives.

Rosin: I guess what it also means is the death of the wishful-thinking era that we’ve been in, or that many people have been in, including many Republican strategists, who I’m sure you both talked to for a long, long time.

Like, by the time we get through Iowa, New Hampshire, and a couple more, the wishful-thinking era is over, except that there are still indictments.

Godfrey: But those are the most wishful of the wishful thinkers, I think—that those indictments, that those trials would have some sort of real impact.

I mean, I don’t know. This is the very last chance that anti-Trump Republicans have to pick someone else. These next few weeks are it. We’re on the precipice of this again.

Leibovich: Right. I mean, what’s interesting, though, is how closely this mimics 2016. I mean, Mark Sanford, the [former] governor of South Carolina, was telling me that what we’re seeing now is exactly the same.

In 2016, no one was really attacking him, because they thought something or someone would magically come along, and he wouldn’t be there at the end, and they would be positioned to step in.

So Nikki Haley is now basically trying to keep her viability, you know, not only because maybe she’ll catch lightning in a bottle and beat Trump but also there’s the possibility that something happens to him—like he’s indicted, you know, the Supreme Court rules unfavorably against him and he’s not on these ballots. So, again, it’s basically an act of God. It’s waiting for someone or something else to take care of the problem.

Rosin: Right. But this is the last real chance, what you’re saying, versus the act-of-God thinking. This is the actual—moving through our regular electoral system—this is the last shot the Republicans have to say, We are not the party of Trump.

Godfrey: That’s right. If people want to take action instead of waiting for some judge to make a decision, then I think this is it. This is the moment.

Rosin: Right. So we have a few more weeks.

Okay, say Nikki Haley wins the nomination, polls do have her beating Biden in a head-to-head matchup. Mark, you seem to not think that’s true. Why?

Leibovich: Because, yes, I mean, she does very well in head-to-head polls against Biden. This Wall Street Journal poll from last month, which she cites all the time, has her ahead of Biden by 17 points, compared to four points for Trump ahead of Biden.

But that’s predicated on Trump graciously conceding the nomination to her, urging his supporters to go out and support the person he calls “bird brain” now (that is, Nikki Haley).

And, look, Donald Trump is not going to go away graciously. He’s going to either start a third party—but no one thinks that he would be denied the Republican nomination and then gracefully sort of step away without trying to burn the whole thing down, which would effectively splinter the GOP and make it impossible for Nikki Haley to win a general election.

Godfrey: But I think on the flip side of that—I mean, that is valid. That is a chunk of the Republican Party that may not be supporting Nikki Haley. But there’s all these independents, there’s all these moderate Democrats who think Biden is ancient and we’ve got to move on, and a lot of them don’t mind Nikki Haley.

She’s a Republican, still, and I think a lot of them haven’t really considered the fact that just because she isn’t Trump and isn’t as unhinged as Trump in many ways, it doesn’t mean she’s not a Republican.

So I think they’d have to grapple with that. But I think it would be a real choice for a lot of people on the flip side, sort of balancing that lack of support from Trump Republicans.

Leibovich: I think you’re unquestionably right. I think there are swing voters, especially suburban swing voters, who, as that Wall Street Journal poll I think partly reflects, would definitely prefer her to Biden.

But, in a 50-50 election, if you subtract, say, 25 percent from her off the top, that’s a lot of swing voters that you would have to get.

Godfrey: It’s a lot.

Rosin: Okay, so say the polls are right and she loses, Does Trump pick her for VP, despite calling her “bird brain”?

Leibovich: She hasn’t ruled it out. I mean, her big, Nikki Haley–like answer is, “I’m not running for second.”

Good. She nods it. She says it with authority. Everyone applauds. Great. And it’s like, Oh, okay. So she basically didn’t rule it out. And Chris Christie, who’s sort of been the id, or kind of like the conscience of everything, the translator of everything, said, Yeah, well, I’m ruling it out. I wouldn’t be his number two. DeSantis says he wouldn’t be Trump’s running mate. So when she’s not ruling it out, she’s ruling it in. That’s how politics works. So, that’s what you should take from that. And he’s 100 percent right.

Rosin: That’s like an SNL skit—like the Obama anger translator.

Leibovich: Exactly.

Rosin: Nikki Haley says the sentence, Chris Christie is, like, the floating angel and spews the truth.

Leibovich: That is 100 percent it. Kind of like that Shakespeare ghost character who comes out and tells everyone what’s really going on. I could be wrong, because I don’t know the first thing about what I’m talking about in that regard.

Godfrey: Yeah, like you could sort of imagine, like, him narrating the actual thoughts that Nikki Haley might be having, but that’s not what she’s saying.

Parts of Trump’s world are very concerned about that possibility. They hate Nikki Haley. They think she represents the establishment, the Bush era of politics, the neocons.

I talked to Steve Bannon about this recently because he went on a tangent, on his podcast, about Nikki Haley. He thinks there will be a concerted effort by anti-Trump Republicans and more establishment types—McConnell, etcetera—to get her on the ticket.

And he’s sort of urging Trump to resist, because that might be sort of appealing for Trump to pick Nikki Haley, regardless of the things she said about him, they said about each other. He might like that. He might want, you know, a good-looking woman who’s established, who has some experience, on the ticket with him. I don’t know. It’s hard to get into his lizard brain.

Rosin: But that’s a future thing to look to.

Rosin: Well, Elaine, you’re flying to Iowa tomorrow. I hope you have warm boots. And, Mark, thank you for joining us.

Leibovich: See you guys on the campaign trail, if not the deer trail.

Godfrey: See you on the deer trail.


Rosin: This episode of Radio Atlantic was produced by Kevin Townsend and edited by Claudine Ebeid. It was engineered by Rob Smierciak and fact-checked by Isabel Cristo. Claudine Ebeid is the executive producer for Atlantic Audio. Andrea Valdez is our managing editor. I’m Hanna Rosin. Thank you for listening.


Leibovich: I have a T-shirt from the Cedar Rapids airport that says, “Iowa rocks. 20 million hogs can’t be wrong.” And then there’s a picture of a little hog.

Rosin: (Laughs.) Okay, Mark, can you send that to us? Because that has to be the art for this.

Godfrey: (Laughs.)


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