If one word could sum up Nikki Haley’s ambivalent challenge to Donald Trump in the New Hampshire Republican primary, that word might be: if.
If as used by New Hampshire’s Republican Governor Chris Sununu, Haley’s most prominent supporter in the state, when he concluded his energetic introduction of her at a large rally in Manchester on Friday night. “If you think Donald Trump is a threat to democracy, don’t sit on your couch and not participate in democracy,” Sununu insisted. “You gotta go vote, right?”
In that formulation, if served as more shield than sword. By framing his argument that way, Sununu clearly intended to appeal to the voters who do consider Trump a threat to democracy, but without endorsing that sentiment himself.
That slight hesitation about fully confronting the GOP’s fearsome front-runner has been the consistent attitude of Haley’s campaign. Haley, the former South Carolina governor, has shown impressive political skills and steely discipline to outmaneuver a large field of men and emerge as the most viable remaining alternative to Trump. She has displayed fortitude in soldiering on against Trump as a procession of Republican elected officials has endorsed him for the nomination over the past few weeks. And beginning with her speech last Monday night after the Iowa caucus, Haley has turned up the volume on her own criticism of Trump, yoking him to Joe Biden as too old and divisive. “With me, you’ll get no drama, no vendettas, no vengeance,” she told the crowd on Friday night.
But in this possibly decisive week of the GOP race, Haley has made clear that she will go so far and no further in criticizing or challenging Trump, just as Sununu did with his telltale if. Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary realistically represents the last chance for Haley to stop, or even slow, the former president’s march to his third consecutive GOP nomination. If Trump wins, especially by a big margin, he will be on a glide path to becoming the nominee. Nothing Haley has done this week reflects the gravity of that moment. “She’s got to swing for the fences, and so far she’s just throwing out bunts,” Mark McKinnon, who served as the chief media adviser to George W. Bush’s two presidential campaigns, told me.
Many New Hampshire political leaders resistant to Trump fear that Haley has not done nearly enough to generate a surge of turnout among independent voters—known locally as “undeclared voters.” Mike Dennehy, a longtime GOP strategist in New Hampshire, says that Haley’s messaging to these undeclared voters has lacked enough urgency to generate the brushfire of excitement she needs among them. “In my opinion, she’s not doing what she needs to do to connect with independent voters,” Dennehy told me. Haley, he believes, should be framing the choice to New Hampshire voters much more starkly, telling them: “It’s the end of the road here; I’m your last chance to stop a Trump-Biden rematch.” Haley fleetingly raised that argument in her remarks following the Iowa caucus, but it has receded as she’s reverted toward her standard stump speech in New Hampshire.
McKinnon and Dennehy know something about New Hampshire presidential campaigns that catch fire among independents. Dennehy was the New Hampshire campaign manager for then–Senator John McCain when he stunned George W. Bush, McKinnon’s candidate, in the 2000 New Hampshire primary. Bush arrived after a big win in the kickoff Iowa caucus and held a commanding lead in national polls. On the day of that New Hampshire primary, I had lunch with McKinnon; Matthew Dowd, the campaign’s voter-targeting guru; and Karl Rove, Bush’s chief strategist. They were relaxed, confident, and starting to kick around ideas for how they would contest the general election, while I scribbled in a notebook. Then, halfway through the lunch, Rove took a call, abruptly left the table, and never came back. The reason for his sudden summons back to campaign headquarters became apparent a few hours later: McCain that night beat Bush among independent voters by three to one, exit polls found, and won the state overall by nearly 20 percentage points.
In retrospect, McKinnon said, the Bush campaign should have seen what was coming. “McCain was definitely on fire; you could feel it on the ground,” he told me. For months McCain had held lengthy town halls across the state, answering questions for hours and then driving to the next event on the “Straight Talk Express” campaign bus, taking questions from reporters for hours more. He was provocative, funny, unfiltered, and unafraid of challenging Republican orthodoxy. “He was entirely authentic, entirely accessible; he was campaigning like he was running for governor of New Hampshire, steely, granite-like,” McKinnon recalled.
Like McCain, Haley has burrowed into New Hampshire with months of grassroots events. But the similarities stop there. Haley’s town halls are much more structured and controlled; sometimes she doesn’t even take questions from the audience. Her interactions with reporters are limited and often stilted. And she made a choice this week to reject debates by ABC and CNN unless Trump also participated, which forced the sponsors to cancel the sessions. Some Republican strategists are sympathetic to her decision not to appear again with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, but more of the people I spoke with believe that by withdrawing, she forfeited the biggest platforms she would have had this week to drive a message to New Hampshire voters. “It’s about pulling as many independents out to vote as you can, and you can’t get to those independents if you don’t go on places like CNN and WMUR,” Dennehy said, referring to the powerful local New Hampshire television station that would have co-hosted one of the debates with ABC.
Haley is pushing a tougher message against Trump than she was before Iowa. When a reporter this weekend asked her what her closing message was to New Hampshire voters, Haley replied, “Americans deserve better than what the options are. You’ve got Biden and Trump both distracted with investigations, both distracted with other things that aren’t about how to make Americans’ lives safer and better.” She says flatly that Trump is lying about her record and that America should not have to choose between two roughly 80-year-old candidates. After Trump at a Friday-night rally confused Haley with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during an extended monologue about the January 6 riot, Haley on Saturday responded by questioning his mental acuity: “When you’re dealing with the pressures of a presidency, we can’t have someone else that we question whether they’re mentally fit to do this.” And she’s been willing to differentiate from Trump on issues where she can reaffirm positions that were considered conservative in the Ronald Reagan–era GOP. That includes criticizing Trump for running up the federal deficit, not taking a tough enough stand against China, and playing “footsy,” as she termed it, with dictators such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
But Haley has muffled her case against Trump by more often refusing to confront him or by even defending him. When asked by CNN’s Dana Bash last week about Trump being held liable for sexual abuse in the defamation case brought against him by writer E. Jean Carroll, Haley implausibly replied, “I haven’t paid attention to his cases.” Last Friday, reporters asked Haley whether she saw racism in Trump’s multiplying jabs at her immigrant ancestry, which included reposting an inaccurate “birther”-like claim that she was ineligible to run because her parents had not been U.S. citizens when she was born. Her response could not have been more tepid: “I’ll let people decide what he means by his attacks.”
Haley has also continued to insist that, if elected, she would pardon Trump should he be convicted in any of the cases against him. Hours before the Iowa caucuses last Monday, she told a Fox News anchor that she would vote for Trump over Biden “any day of the week.” She’s closing her New Hampshire campaign with an unusual three-minute ad centered on a testimonial to her compassion and commitment from the mother of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who died in North Korean captivity; but nowhere does the ad criticize Trump for his coziness with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. In Haley’s stump speech to New Hampshire voters, she still declares that chaos “follows” Trump “rightly or wrongly,” as he if is potentially just an innocent bystander to all the firestorms that he ignites with his words and actions. (Haley does Olympic-level contortions to avoid expressing any value judgments about Trump.) On Saturday, she even tempered her criticism of Trump’s confusion the night before when she reassuringly told a Fox interviewer, “I’m not saying that this is a Joe Biden situation.” To truly threaten a front-runner as commanding as Trump, “you’ve just got to throw caution to the wind,” McKinnon said. “And it’s the opposite with Haley: The wind throws caution to her.”
The evidence from Iowa suggests that Haley’s cautious approach has left her with a coalition too narrow to make a strong stand. With Trump bashing her in ads and his stump speech as “liberal” and “weak,” particularly on issues relating to immigration, Haley predictably ran poorly in Iowa among the most conservative voters, according to the entrance poll conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of media organizations.
But although she performed better among more moderate elements of the GOP coalition—particularly those with four-year college degrees—she failed to inspire enough of them to come out and vote on a cold night. In Iowa, Haley won her highest share of the vote in the most populous urban and suburban counties. But the total number of votes she won in the big counties was only a fraction of the total that had come out for Marco Rubio, a candidate who appealed to a similar coalition, in the 2016 GOP caucus. Max Rust, a data analyst at The Wall Street Journal, told me in an email that his unpublished analysis found that Iowa turnout fell more compared with 2016 in better educated and more affluent areas than in rural and blue-collar places. “I was really surprised how much Haley underperformed in the suburbs,” David Kochel, a longtime GOP strategist, told me.
With Trump holding a steady double-digit lead over her in the New Hampshire tracking polls, Haley faces the prospect of a similar squeeze in Tuesday’s primary. Trump’s ferocious attacks on her from the right leave her with little opportunity to crack his support among staunch conservatives. And her much more carefully nuanced criticism of him leaves her facing long odds of catalyzing the massive turnout among independent voters she’d need to generate any momentum moving forward. The Suffolk University/Boston Globe/NBC-10 tracking poll released Saturday showed Haley only running even with Trump among undeclared voters, signaling that she’s failing to draw into the primary the large center-left contingent most hostile to the former president. (At the same time, Trump continued to lead her in the survey by two-to-one among Republicans.)
“There’s always been this ambivalence that emanates from her about Trump,” Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire, told me. Scala, the author of Stormy Weather, a book about the New Hampshire primary, said that he understands that Haley must maneuver carefully, because “ultimately, if you want to win the nomination of this party, you are going to have to win over voters who like Trump.” But, Scala added, “I have to think [her] ambivalence rubs off on voters” and may discourage many of those most critical of Trump from bothering to turn out. (Sununu hasn’t helped that problem by publicly insisting that Haley may be hoping only for a strong second-place finish, and repeatedly declaring that he would vote for Trump if he wins the nomination.)
In my interactions with voters at a few Haley events here, she seems to inspire more respect than enthusiasm. Some are drawn to her contained and cerebral style, and to her message of generational change. “I was thinking if we give her a chance, we will get an opportunity to go in a new direction,” George Jobel, a marketing manager from Concord, told me after Haley’s Manchester rally. But for many others, Haley is simply the last option to register a vote of disapproval about Trump. Dan O’Donnell, a realtor and undeclared voter from Hollis, is planning to cast his ballot for the former South Carolina governor. But he told me that when friends ask him if he’s voting for Haley, “I tell them, ‘No, I’m going to vote against Trump.’” In the latest Suffolk tracking poll, most independent voters backing Haley likewise said that they were motivated primarily to vote against Trump, rather than for her.
In fairness to Haley, it’s not like anyone else this year—or, for that matter, in 2016—cracked the code of beating Trump in a Republican primary. DeSantis tried the opposite of her strategy, by running to Trump’s right and hoping that moderates would eventually consolidate around him if he was the only alternative remaining; that approach has left DeSantis in an even weaker position than Haley, barely surviving in the race. And toppling a front-runner is never easy: Even after McCain’s New Hampshire upset in 2000, he won only a few more states, and Bush recovered to resoundingly win the nomination.
But McCain at least went down swinging, indelibly imprinting a maverick image that allowed him to come back and win the GOP nomination eight years later. In his own way, even DeSantis seems liberated by the prospect of defeat, publicly declaring that Trump cares more about personal loyalty than the good of the country or even the party, and accurately complaining that Fox and other conservative media outlets function as a “Praetorian guard” suppressing criticism of the former president.
Haley, by contrast, still seems here to be weighing every word, as if she expects she will eventually need to defend it from the witness box in some Stalin-esque future MAGA-loyalty trial. If Haley thought she had a better chance to win, maybe she and her allies would dispense with the word if when describing Trump’s potential threat to American democracy. But her reluctance to fully confront Trump probably betrays what she really thinks about the odds that she can wrest control of the party from him this year. In this break-the-glass moment for Trump’s Republican opponents, Haley has made clear she will do no more than tap lightly on the window.