Nikki Haley and the quest for ‘close’
NIKKI HALEY AND THE QUEST FOR ‘CLOSE.’ Epping, New Hampshire — On Sunday afternoon, Nikki Haley finally got what she wanted: a one-on-one race with former President Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. Throughout the day, there had been rumors going around the Haley campaign and the crowds at her events that Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) was going to drop out of the race. Nobody knew for sure. By the time of one of Haley’s last events of the day, at a place called Brown’s Lobster Pound in Seabrook, the news had become official.
“He ran a great race,” Haley said of DeSantis. “He’s been a good governor, and we wish him well.” With those 15 words, Haley dispensed with the man who once seemed the greatest hope for those who wanted to defeat Trump. Then she added: “Having said that, it’s now one fella and one lady left. … This comes down to: What do you want? Do you want more of the same, or do you want something new?”
That sounded like a normal sort of campaign line, but it was actually quite ambiguous. If by “more of the same” Haley meant more of President Joe Biden, then every single Republican in the house would say no, no, no, we want something new. But if by “more of the same” Haley meant Trump — well, a lot of Republicans would say yes, let’s have more of that.
At the stop before, a restaurant called the Beach Plum in Epping, Haley, as she has done lately, tried to make the case that Biden and Trump are both the same old, same old. “When we look at the choice that we have, more of the same like Joe Biden and Donald Trump, more of the same where 70% of Americans have said they don’t want a Trump-Biden rematch. More of the same in the fact that we do have two 80-year-olds running again and we need somebody ready to go for eight years,” she said.
Yes, Trump and Biden are both old, and yes, many voters don’t want a Trump-Biden rematch. Both have been presidents who spent trillions of dollars, and both have high unfavorable numbers, as Haley also mentioned. But it is probably an impossible task to convince many Republican voters that Trump and Biden are pretty much the same. No Republican would buy that. On the other hand, perhaps some independent voters, called “undeclared” in New Hampshire, might look at it that way, and Haley needs their votes.
There’s no doubt Haley was sprinting on Sunday, less than 48 hours before polls open in New Hampshire. A few days ago, there was a spate of reports that she was running an oddly low-energy race, not doing enough events for a candidate with everything on the line. On Sunday, she was going full tilt, so no one could say she didn’t sprint down the stretch.
In one way, Haley’s position is similar to the spot DeSantis occupied in Iowa. Given the amount of effort he had put into Iowa, there were expectations that DeSantis would have to do well — how could he make such a big deal of running in the state and then fall so far short? That led to DeSantis and some of his advisers casting doubt on the polls that showed him far, far behind Trump and even, in some polls, behind Haley. DeSantis took to calling the polls “fake,” and one of his top surrogates called them “psyops.” The candidate running behind often questions the polls that show him running behind.
Now the polls show Haley significantly behind Trump and, in some polls, losing ground. A new Washington Post-Monmouth University poll out Monday morning had Trump leading Haley 52% to 34%. It was of course taken while DeSantis was still in the race. He got 8%, and most observers think a lot of that support will migrate to Trump, whom DeSantis endorsed on the way out.
The Boston Globe and Suffolk University are publishing a tracking poll that has shown Trump’s support rising each day — from 50% to 52% to 53% to 55% to 57% Monday morning. In the same period, Haley’s support has risen from 34% to 36% to 38%. At the Beach Plum, a reporter asked Haley about “Trump’s lead only growing in this latest poll.” Haley quickly cut her off.
“That’s not true,” Haley said. “You’ve got one poll that just came out that showed us 2 points apart. You had another poll that came out that showed us 11 points apart. You had a poll that came out a couple of days ago that showed us even. The only thing that I care about is on Tuesday.”
The two polls that showed the race even and 2 points apart were done by an organization called American Research Group and are not thought to be reliable enough to be included in the major averages of polling. The poll that showed Haley 11 points back was by CNN and the University of New Hampshire. It is the only poll in the last dozen surveys included in the RealClearPolitics average of polls that shows Haley closer than 14 points.
Haley does not claim that she is going to win. “I have been consistent,” she told reporters Sunday. “In Iowa, I wanted to be strong. We did that. We started at 2%. We ended at 20%. In New Hampshire, I want to be even stronger than that. And in South Carolina, I want to be even stronger than that. We’ll find out what strong and stronger is on Election Day, but that’s always been the goal.” Haley has firmly refused to define “stronger” beyond saying we’ll know soon enough.
One adviser predicted Haley will finish “close” to Trump. But he declined to define “close.” That’s for the media to decide, the adviser said, knowing the media would decide no matter what Haley says anyway. Others supporting the campaign also said it would be important that Haley finish “close” to the winner, but they couldn’t put a number on what that meant.
For his part, Trump, sensing victory, conducted what could only be called a giant troll of Haley. At his rally in Manchester Saturday night, Trump brought to the stage Gov. Henry McMaster (R-SC), the lieutenant governor of South Carolina, the attorney general of South Carolina, the treasurer of South Carolina, and three members of the House from South Carolina, all of whom have endorsed Trump.
It was an impressive show of support from top Republican officials in Haley’s home state, the state where she won election as governor twice. And it didn’t even include the senior and junior U.S. senators from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, who have also endorsed Trump. Trump of course lavished praise on them all, in a classically Trumpian fashion. “We’re going to be there in three weeks,” he said, alluding to the state’s primary. “So you know what I’m doing? I’m kissing ass.”
Haley dismissed the endorsements as a bunch of home-state politicos trying to get back at her. Current and former state representatives in South Carolina want to get back at her, she told reporters, because she “pushed back on them” when she was governor, exposing a lot of self-dealing they wanted to keep secret. The members of Congress want to get back at her because she wants term limits. As for McMaster: “I’m not surprised by that. I ran against him and beat him when I ran for governor the first time.”
“So he can bring all those people up all they want,” Haley continued. “I won governor twice. I know the people of South Carolina. I respect them. They want to see hard work. They want to see you earn it. They want to see you fight for it. They don’t want to see you kissing ass. They don’t want to see you doing something that is not fighting for them. … The elected political class has never liked me, and they will never endorse me and I don’t want it.”
Haley’s explanation had a touch of underlying bitterness — after all, as governor, she appointed Scott to the Senate, and he can’t even stay neutral in the race? But the fact is, Trump appears to be very strong in South Carolina, although there’s nowhere near as much reliable polling there as there is in New Hampshire.
And New Hampshire comes first, now just hours away. Supporters who once dreamed of Haley defeating Trump in an epic showdown here have now adjusted their dreams downward. For Haley, it all depends on coming “close,” whatever that means.
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