Things fell apart fast for Nikki Haley in 2024. Entering the year, the former South Carolina governor had something no other Republican presidential candidate could have possibly imagined: A path to beat presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump.
Well, maybe not an actual path … but certainly the makings of one.
A wing and a prayer, so to speak.
Haley’s insider bid – backed by wealthy, left-of-center special interests and Bush-era neoconservative warmongers – was surging in early-voting Iowa and New Hampshire, putting her in position to pose a fare more credible threat to Trump’s coronation than anyone had anticipated.
The following dominos were in place: If Trump’s former United Nations ambassador could pull off a stronger-than-expected showing in Iowa (say a second place finish above 25 percent), momentum from that performance could conceivably carry her to a potential upset win in New Hampshire – where polls in early January had her pulling within single digits of Trump.
If Haley could catch Trump in the Granite State, all of a sudden South Carolina would be “high noon” – with its former governor riding triumphantly into her home state with all the momentum.
It was all right there … right in front of her.
Clearly, things didn’t shake out that way. None of the dominos fell as they needed to for Haley. But … why?
Where and when, precisely, did Haley’s path to the White House collapse? Or to put it more accurately, where and when did it cease to exist as an electoral exercise and veer instead into the dystopian realm of deep state puppeteering?
Plotting the decline of the Haley for president campaign over the past three-and-a-half weeks reminds me of a famous quote from Ernest Hemingway.
How did it happen?
“Gradually, and then suddenly,” Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises.
I trace the origins of Haley’s demise as a potentially viable GOP nominee to the evening of January 3, 2024 in Milford, New Hampshire. In an address to supporters there, the 52-year-old Bamberg, S.C. native cracked a joke about early-voting Iowa.
“You know how to do this,” Haley told the crowd. “You know Iowa starts it. You know that you correct it … and then my sweet state of South Carolina brings it home.”
Haley clearly made the comment in jest – but she should’ve known Iowans wouldn’t take it that way. And she sure as hell should’ve known her opponents would pounce on it.
Haley’s top Iowa rival, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, also made Haley eat the joke – referring to it as “incredibly disrespectful” to the state’s GOP caucus-goers.
The gaffe took place at a critical moment in the race. Haley had just overtaken DeSantis nationally in the polls – and was on the verge of overtaking him in Iowa. All of a sudden, all of her momentum in the Hawkeye State stopped on a dime.
The following week, things went from bad to worse for Haley when a moment that should have given her a significant boost in Iowa and New Hampshire (especially in New Hampshire) wound up having precisely the opposite effect.
On the afternoon of January 10, 2024, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie dropped out of the presidential race. At the time of his exit, Christie was polling at roughly four percent in Iowa and eleven percent in New Hampshire. Given his status as a devout #NeverTrumper – and the most left-of-center GOP candidate in the race – it stood to reason Christie would endorse Haley’s bid and provide her with a bump in the polls in both early-voting states.
That didn’t happen. Moments before suspending his candidacy, Christie was conversing with a local supporter in Windham, New Hampshire when a “hot mic” captured him sharing his unvarnished view of the former Palmetto State governor.
(Click to view)
“She’s gonna get smoked,” Christie said of Haley. “She’s not up to this.”
Was Christie really unaware his remarks were being recorded? And being broadcast on his own platform?
The “hot mic” moment didn’t occur in a vacuum, either. It took place as Haley delivered a second consecutive uninspiring debate performance in Iowa – and, more importantly, as several of Trump’s top backers were ramping up their attacks on her in the hopes of dissuading him from choosing her as his running mate.
Most importantly, it didn’t take place in a meteorological vacuum. As Christie was trash-talking Haley in New Hampshire (thus torpedoing his ability to endorse her), the first waves of a massive upper-level low pressure system were beginning to descend upon Iowa – depositing up to fifteen inches of snow in some portions of the state.
This brutal arctic blast continued through the weekend, with sub-zero temperatures and penetrating wind gusts as high as fifty miles per hour freezing broad swaths of the state and making numerous of its roads impassable.
“Whiteout conditions developed on roadways, as blowing and drifting snow made travel nearly impossible for much of Friday and Saturday,” the National Weather Service noted. “These poor travel conditions resulted in multiple road closures, including stretches of I-80, with many more roads deemed impassable by the Iowa Department of Transportation.”
As a result, projections of record-setting caucus turnout – which would likely have accrued to Haley’s benefit – were buried beneath the blizzard. In the end, only 110,298 Iowans cast ballots – well below party leaders’ projections (and well behind the record of 186,932 caucus-goers set on February 1, 2016).
(Click to view)
When the ballots were counted in Iowa, Haley significantly underperformed her polling – finishing 32 percentage points behind Trump (and two percentage points behind DeSantis).
With her first domino thus failing to fall, Haley’s hopes of a New Hampshire surge – and subsequent South Carolina showdown – evaporated. True, she outperformed her polling in the Granite State. But having amalgamated the actual and aspirational, she delivered a hollow “strong second.” For her candidacy to have been viable moving forward, the measuring stick in the “First in the Nation” primary was never how close she could get to the former president – it was whether she could beat him.
She couldn’t even avoid losing by double digits, as it happened.
Compounding Haley’s New Hampshire loss were the unexpected pre-primary endorsements of two prominent Palmetto State politicians – U.S. senator Tim Scott and first district congresswoman Nancy Mace. Scott campaigned against Trump for the GOP nomination, while the former president previously endorsed a rival against Mace in her last primary fight.
Both Scott and Mace had close ties to Haley – and were seen as potential paradigm-shifting supporters of her candidacy – but both backed Trump prior to the Granite State vote.
Trump already had a formidable South Carolina firewall in place, but Scott and Mace lending their imprimaturs suddenly made it feel like a MAGA monolith. Palmetto polling has followed suit, with one pro-Trump survey showing the former president ahead of Haley by forty percentage points … again, in her own backyard.
Some of you considering this analysis might take issue with its omission of the “other” coverage that has contributed to Haley’s early-state collapse – coverage which directly involves yours truly. And perhaps that issue has played a role. A revival in reporting on Haley’s various marital extracurriculars – including new accounts detailing her dishonesty in addressing them – has probably not done her any favors, but most observers would concur this chatter has remained on the periphery of the race’s tectonics.
Frankly, that is where it belongs – and where I hope it stays.
As I’ve often noted, given my personal history with Haley I’ve done my level best not to unfairly criticize her since she announced her candidacy for the American presidency. In fact, this media outlet has even praised her for staking out some important ideological ground on certain issues (while unapologetically calling her out on others).
Other outlets should try that approach … hit hard, but hit substantively.
Ultimately, though, whatever confluence of circumstances conspired to unravel her early state momentum, Haley’s glimmer of hope against Trump faded as soon as it appeared … which is why her only path to the presidency now lies in going against the expressed will of the GOP electorate.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina and before that he was a bass guitarist and dive bar bouncer. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven (soon to be eight) children.
WANNA SOUND OFF?
Got something you’d like to say in response to one of our articles? Or an issue you’d like to proactively address? We have an open microphone policy here at FITSNews! Submit your letter to the editor (or guest column) via email HERE. Got a tip for a story? CLICK HERE. Got a technical question or a glitch to report? CLICK HERE.