Nikki Haley’s puzzling end game

Nikki Haley, like Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott, and most of the other people who started out vying for the Republican presidential nomination, seemed to have decided early on in their campaigns that they needed to avoid attacking serial sex abuser Donald Trump (SSAT) and alienating his MAGA cult followers as much as possible and so refrained from mentioning him except in the mildest and vaguest terms. Many observers wrote about the incompetence of SSAT’s challengers and the fact that although they raised quite a bit of money, they did not spend it on attacking SSAT.

This strategy of not going after the front-runner never made much sense if they wanted to win the nomination and so it was assumed that they were merely auditioning for the vice-presidential slot. And that seemed a valid theory as they dropped out and embraced SSAT. But their strategy of treating SSAT with kid gloves in order to ingratiate themselves with him did not make much sense either since SSAT hates anyone who does not completely kowtow to him and so he began attacking them, especially DeSantis and Haley, since they were the ones who had the best shot by the time the caucuses and primaries actually had their contests. As this dawned on the two of them, they started going after SSAT, mildly at first but more pointedly later.

Lately, Haley seems to have started making even harsher attacks on SSAT, although it was slow at first and sthis hesitancy suggested to some observers that she was hedging her bets by using passive language because she was still hoping for a VP invitation.

FOR THE PAST YEAR, Haley has finessed the Trump problem—how to consolidate the non-Trump vote without alienating Trump’s supporters—through strategic ambiguity. “Rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him,” she tells crowds. That line appeals to voters who blame Trump for his impeachments and indictments. But note that she leaves an opening (“wrongly”) for those who think he’s innocent.

In reality, Haley is already paving the way to endorse Trump.

THE TRUTH IS THAT THERE IS NO NEW Nikki Haley. For months, she acknowledged the chaos around Trump but refused to say whether it was his fault. Now she admits that he’s volcanic and vengeful, but she refuses to say whether that’s a fatal moral defect or just a manageable political problem. She knows that there are voters on both sides of these questions, and she’s looking for a way to signal that no matter which side you’re on, she’s with you. That’s the core of Nikki Haley. That’s who she is.

But even as she seems ever more certain to lose after failing to win in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, rather than bow out, she seems to be ramping up her campaign. She seems to be deliberately baiting SSAT with repeated attacks on his mental competence, even calling him “totally unhinged”. She even said that she absolutely trusts the jury that awarded E. Jean Carroll a whopping $83.3 million in damages, which seems guaranteed to infuriate SSAT and the MAGA crowd because of their insistence that the whole system is rigged against him. She has also attacked SSAT and Joe Biden on the age issue, saying both are too old, annoying SSAT who only wants the focus to be on Biden’s age. She even went on Saturday Night Live, widely seen as having a liberal bent and thus an enemy to MAGA and Republicans, to troll SSAT.

As Joe Perticone writes, Haley is finally running a real campaign. This persistence of Haley staying in the race is clearly frustrating SSAT who has been trying get the Republican party to pressure her to drop out.

Instead, she seems to be going for broke, burning many bridges in the process.

Nikki Haley has entered her YOLO stage.

The last of Donald Trump’s rivals in the GOP primary, Haley is unloading on the former president — proceeding without any real caution for the first time in her campaign.

She’s taking repeated, pointed, shots at an “unhinged” Trump’s mental fitness and legal problems. She’s taunting him to debate her: “Show me what you got.” In recent days, her campaign responded to an 815-word memo from Trump’s advisers — a document arguing Haley is toast — with a “Why are you so obsessed with us?” meme from “Mean Girls.”

Few, if any, believe it will work. And Haley’s let-’er-rip approach comes with serious risk. Attacking Trump so frontally could create a long-term branding problem for her. Already, the MAGA-dominated GOP has accused her of treachery. Trump allies say she’s effectively burned her career in Republican politics.

But Haley seems to have concluded that freedom is just another word for trailing by 20-plus points.

“It’s very clear she’s got to differentiate. It’s deliberate,” said Vikram Mansharamani, who co-chaired Haley’s campaign in New Hampshire. “It’s sort of a requirement at this stage.”

And in a primary largely sapped of serious competition — and for months, any sense of excitement — Haley, at least, appears to be having a good time.

So what might her plan be? Maybe she is hoping that something will cause SSAT’s campaign to flame out spectacularly and that she, as the last rival standing, will be able to claim the mantle of the party nominee. The odds of that succeeding are not that great. Maybe she is merely seeking maximum name recognition and thinks that come 2028, people will forget her attacks on SSAT and see her as a familiar figure and choose her as the party nominee.

Or maybe her campaign will end the same way that nearly all the other rivals to SSAT ended theirs, with her bending the knee and kissing SSAT’s ring and seeking forgiveness for her sins.


  1. says

    She figures she doesn’t have a chance this time around, but next election Trump will be dead, in prison, or will shit the hot tub in the white house. She’s going to be the candidate of “I told you so.”

    I think that either the republicans will take over government entirely, or be politically marginalized after this coming election. She probably does, too. So she’ll keep her options open because Trump could well implode.

  2. JM says

    Haley probably also has an element of money grabbing. As long as she keeps fighting she can keep fundraising. She is pulling in all of the anti-Trump money now and there is more then it seems. A lot of corporate money is quietly going to her because they oppose another Trump administration but they don’t want their name attached.
    There are a bunch of companies willing to drop in a million here and there because it’s small money in the hopes of blocking Trump. These companies likely realize that Haley doesn’t have a chance of winning directly unless Trump fails somehow. They are hoping to trip Trump up because he is having trouble with his campaign funds. He is spending a fortune out of his campaign money paying for lawyers. By forcing him to keep running against Haley they hope to drain his money to the point he has trouble running against Biden.

  3. Deepak Shetty says

    @Marcus Ranum
    It has to be this election. If she goes after Trump , then irrespective of what happens the MAGA crowd wont vote for her. She’s almost guaranteed to win against Biden. So shes hoping that Trump drops dead or gets convicted and somehow the Republican party magically grows a spine and disqualifies him or something. The behavior thats mystifying is why go after him now instead of staying in the race and continuing wishy washy criticism.

  4. birgerjohansson says

    Marcus Ranum @ 1
    Yes. If the MAGA hats include many who would not vote ordinarily, they may just stay away the second-next election, in which case their disapproval is not so damaging for her.

  5. says

    I was definitely caught off guard by Haley’s attacks on Trump. I commented on an earlier post just before the New Hampshire primary that I didn’t believe she would go any harder on Trump than alluding to him being old. The thoughts I and a friend of mine had as to why she would suddenly change course go to your suggestion: She’s hoping Trump gets disqualified and the RNC makes her the emergency candidate.
    And maybe this was her plan all along? Perhaps she was waiting for DeSantis’s campaign to finish imploding before she went all in against Trump? I am doubtful she would be so strategic. Her failing to suggest “slavery” as the cause of the Civil War suggests to me that her strategy was to play to the MAGA base all along and that it took Trump attacking her for her to grow a spine, so to speak, and fight back. (Perhaps she also realized Trump wasn’t going to be rewarding her with a nice position in his administration anyway? Assuming that was her goal in running in the first place.)
    If her strategy is more towards what Marcus is suggesting @1, then I don’t see that working out for her. She’s dealing with a base that doesn’t like to be told they were wrong by anyone, let alone a woman of color!
    To JM’s point @2, it does seem there is money to be had for a non-MAGA Republican candidate because big money interests don’t care if a trans woman plays in women’s sports or not…or other “culture war” issues. They just want their f—ing tax breaks! And they’re definitely concerned about Democrats winning office due to MAGA Republicans being too focused on culture wars. Of course, Nikki loves participating in the culture wars, too. She’s just not about them 24/7 like a lot of other candidates were.

  6. Dennis K says

    @3 Deepak Shetty -- If she is almost guaranteed to win against Biden, we might as well hang it up now and go home. If any twonk, non-Trump Republican would smoke Biden (who’s done pretty well considering the disaster he stepped into), the country is already toast. Which of course may be the case, much like the impending climate disaster.

  7. JM says

    @5 Leo Buzalsky: It goes beyond the corporate money not caring about culture war stuff. The corporate powers particularly don’t like Trump because he is erratic, untrustworthy, cowardly and a poor manager. Trump constantly wants paid for his favors and then doesn’t carry through with his part. He doesn’t have the courage to fire people in person, the idea of him dealing with international politics is out of the question. His first term says he doesn’t have the organizational skills or bureaucratic skills for the job. As president he can’t be the detached CEO who just says “make a wall happen” and goes back to his golf game. He has to run the show himself and Trump can’t organize a lunch trip to pick up food from McDonalds.

  8. flex says

    I agree with Marcus, she’s starting her 2028 campaign. Trump has locked up the 2024 nomination, and while there is a chance that Trump collapses before the vote in November those odds are getting longer every day.

    But let’s look through some scenarios.

    1. Trump gets the nomination in 2024. Loses to Biden (again). MAGA candidates are further discredited, and there is growing discontent among a lot of independents and even some republicans with the clown show in the house (now threatening to expand to the senate). The MAGA movement is shrinking, and the more it shrinks the less effectual it will be. The less effectual it is, the more it will shrink. Despots and their movements deflate a lot more rapidly than they inflate. In 2028 most of the remaining MAGAt’s will stay home, disheartened that their grievances have been ignored by everyone. Haley, as a moderate (snicker) republican who attacked Trump and pointed out how toxic his brand is to most voters will be well positioned to get the nomination in 2028. Well positioned to win the election too, depending on who the democrats field, if the democrats run an old white man again….

    2. Trump gets the nomination in 2024, but dies before the election. Haley is the only standing candidate, and is on the ballot. The MAGAt’s stay home mourning their loss, waiting for the second coming of their savior, and they don’t vote at all. A chunk of independents vote for Haley, and possibly even some democrats. If she loses she can blame Trump and try again with better recognition in 2028. If she wins, she wins. It would be a lot closer race if it was between Haley and Biden.

    3. Trump gets the nomination in 2024, and wins the presidency. If you believe in conspiracy theories Trump will run again in 2028 (unopposed), if you don’t believe in conspiracies then the democrats could run a dead mule as their candidate and win the presidency. If any MAGA republican wins in 2024, the democrats will win in 2028.

    What is Haley risking? Being picked for vice-president by Trump? I think that ship has already sailed.

  9. Deepak Shetty says

    we might as well hang it up now and go home.

    There has been a concentrated effort to harp on Bidens age and that is having some effect as far as I can tell (anecdotal conversations with non maga folks) -- How many Democrats do you know, who would have wanted Biden to take a second term or are enthusiastic about him -- its more no way in hell will I vote for a Republican type of situation?.
    The other issue is that prices are high , . everyone says their grocery bills are double to what they remember (under Trump)- and like it or not Bidens going to get the blame for it (this more than anything will be a primary cause)
    Other issues are even educated middle class people are going “The economy isn’t doing well ” and If I ask , what numbers indicate that the answer I usually get is well the stock market was doing gangbusters under Trump. People have been brainwashed to believe that the stock market is an indicator of economy.
    So much of it is perception rather than reality. Bidens done an ok job (imo).
    Biden just has to lose a few states to lose anyway and I expect any white candidate who is not as toxic as Trump and with a non punchable face (so not Cruz,De Santis) to beat Biden. If its Haley , my only hope would be that Republican misogyny makes them not vote for her to balance the independents and Democrats who will switch to her.

  10. Deepak Shetty says

    @Dennis K @6
    Oops posted too soon.

    the country is already toast

    It does feel that way. I realized this when Trump increased the raw number of votes he got in 2020. I mean people looked at what he brought to the table and thought ooh we want more! I knew 2 well educated Trump supporters in 2020 (in my pool of friends) one of whom point blank asked me “For your kids sake , Would you rather have Trump or a Democrat in power” -- I just had to remind him that his kids and mine both are brown skinned and so no way in hell do I want a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer anywhere near power and it made no difference. Now I know 6 well educated Trump supporters (in the same pool). I remind them if they forgot how Trump handled covid but they say Economy, taxes, inflation, Bidens age.

  11. John Morales says


    There has been a concentrated effort to harp on Bidens age and that is having some effect as far as I can tell […]

    True. Thing is, there has not yet been a concentrated effort to harp on Trump being but 3 years younger. 🙂

    As Mano wrote: “She has also attacked SSAT and Joe Biden on the age issue, saying both are too old, annoying SSAT who only wants the focus to be on Biden’s age.”

    (That’s not yet a concentration, but hey)

  12. Deepak Shetty says

    @John Morales

    being but 3 years younger.

    Sure. But even if enough ink was spent on Trumps age, hypocrisy is worn as a badge of honor in todays American conservatives. Trump could have been a decade older than Biden and it would have been framed as “Biden so old”, and look at superhuman Trump , he can do everything even when he is so old , its a feature of his greatness.

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