It seems increasingly likely that Nikki Haley is going to make some trouble for Donald Trump. Not necessarily threaten to beat him out for the nomination — that depends on factors I can’t foresee at this point — but cause him real problems that he and his campaign seem ill-equipped to handle.
Haley’s quick emergence as the Trump alternative, while nowhere near a sure bet, looks like at least a reasonable wager. Polls suggest that she’s closing on Ron DeSantis for second in Iowa, her weak state of the first three contests. If she does finish second there on January 15, she will be the top political story of the week heading into New Hampshire, where she’s already polling a solid second — and where a sizable anti-Trump contingent could easily hold him below 50%.
A reasonably close second in the January 23 Granite State primary — let alone the first place predicted by Haley’s new BFF, Governor Chris Sununu — should pretty much finish off the DeSantis and Chris Christie campaigns, whether they actually drop out or not, along with those of Vivek Ramaswamy and Asa Hutchinson. Haley can then pretty much skip the Nevada caucuses and head to her home state of South Carolina, which votes on February 24.
That’s a month for the media to make hay of having something that looks plausibly like the real, live Presidential nomination contest it was being denied this cycle.
I suspect that, barring other major developments, Trump will continue to hold a substantial lead nationally. But don’t underestimate the appetite for a competitive Presidential nomination contest, once there’s a taste for it. Remember how long the 2004 John Edwards campaign was propped up as viable? No, you probably don’t, but I do, and it was a looooong time. Ted Cruz in 2016 too.
My point is, in the increasingly likely scenario outlined above, expect a lot of attention on the Trump-Haley showdown. There will be tremendous pressure for Trump to debate her. There will be great attention to any polls that lend credence to her surge. She and her supporting PACs will raise a lot of money; they will also spend a lot of money. People, both within and outside Republican voting circles, will become very familiar with her.
Nikki Haley, for whatever you might think of her, can make an awfully good impression on a lot of the public. She’s got a great first-generation American story, she’s got a politically stellar family, she’s a smart and amiable campaigner, her resume is top-notch, and — crucially — she’s a woman.
An awful lot of Americans are likely to be gathering this solid impression of her, right around the time that they also get their first look at Trump calling her “birdbrain.” Which he does all the time, just usually not with ordinary people paying attention.
Eight years ago, perhaps he could have stopped himself from crudely belittling her. Maybe. Maybe his communications team back then would have restrained themselves against a woman in the primary. I don’t think his current spokesperson, Steven Cheung, has any setting other than ‘Vile Insult’ to switch to.
I think Trump will do himself damage insulting Haley. I think if he debates her, it will go badly for him; and if he doesn’t debate her, that will go badly.
I’d wager that he will claim that she is constitutionally ineligible to be President — a theory already circulating among some of his supporters. (They allege that her parents were not American citizens when she was born, and that she is thus somehow not a “natural born citizen.”) If not that particular theory, then perhaps he’ll repeat one even more offensive. If Stephen Miller can’t find a way to get the term “anchor baby” into Trump’s speeches I’ll be pleasantly surprised.
I don’t know how much all of this would, if it comes to pass, damage Trump’s general election prospects. After all, Haley’s viability probably can’t last beyond the March 5 Super Tuesday primaries, and then everything pivots to the expected tug-of-war between focusing on the ills of the current or the former unpopular incumbent.