“Can you hear that sound?” a jubilant Nikki Haley asked a jazzed-up crowd as she strode onstage Sunday night.
“That’s the sound of a two-person race.”
The former South Carolina governor had just got what she wanted for months – a one-on-one clash with Donald Trump for the Republican nomination.
But she must still prove she can make a head-to-head duel with the ex-president last through Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary and beyond, after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suddenly shelved his White House bid.
Trump’s critics have long argued that if he ever faced a one-on-one fight for the Republican nomination against a single candidate who united all the party’s opposition against him, he’d lose.
The theory is about to be put to its ultimate test.
Haley will never have a better chance than in New Hampshire, among an electorate in which moderate and independent voters play a crucial role, to beat Trump in a single contest and to prove she can mount a nationwide challenge against him. A victory, or very close runner-up spot, will be vital to the former South Carolina governor’s capacity to run through her home state’s primary next month and into the Super Tuesday major-state primaries at the beginning of March.
“There’s two people in this race. That’s what we wanted all along,” Haley told CNN’s Dana Bash on the trail Sunday, moments after DeSantis quit the campaign.
But Haley faces an existential question for her own campaign Tuesday. Is the front-running ex-president, who is hugely popular among GOP base voters after turning his unprecedented legal morass into a rallying call, simply too strong at this point for anyone in the party to beat him? And if there is a consolidation of the Republican pack, it seems to be around Trump, not her, as three of the ex-president’s defeated rivals – DeSantis, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy – have endorsed him in the last week. “They’re all all coming with us,” Trump noted with satisfaction at a rally in Rochester, New Hampshire, on Sunday night.
But the chief proponent of the idea that a head-to-head contest could imperil Trump and open the way for a prolonged duel for delegates has been New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu. The popular Republican seemed ecstatic that his preferred scenario had come true as he rallied for Haley in Exeter on Sunday night.
“A little while ago, there were 13 candidates in the race, and now there are only two,” he roared to the crowd. “They said that couldn’t be done, but then Nikki Haley came along and wiped them all out. For years we have been waiting for something where the Republicans could galvanize together.” Sununu’s remarks underscored how Haley’s race has become part of a long battle for the soul of the GOP, even if she has trodden carefully in criticizing Trump for fear of alienating party voters who like him. Still, Sununu has also been downplaying expectations for Haley in recent days, arguing she only needs to start winning states on Super Tuesday.
Practically, the DeSantis departure came late for Haley – giving her only one full day to make her case that she’s a genuine contender in an one-on-one battle with Trump before voters go to the polls in New Hampshire. But she quickly tried to capitalize on her new status, presenting herself as the antidote to Trump’s “chaos” – her code word for his criminal problems, impeachments and tumultuous first term – and as a far surer bet to beat President Joe Biden in November’s general election.
The news sent a jolt of energy through Haley and her crowd. She’s had a rocky few days, despite the withdrawal of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whom her team had feared would split the anti-Trump vote in New Hampshire. She came third in the Iowa caucuses last week, a showing that dented a narrative of momentum surrounding her campaign. And in a CNN poll released Sunday, Trump led Haley by 11 points in the state. If anything, she might have benefited from DeSantis staying in until Wednesday. When his small slice of the vote in the CNN poll was reallocated based on voters’ second preferences, Trump led by 13 points since the Florida governor’s voters are likely a better fit for his coalition.
Yet the signature unpredictability and fabled history of the New Hampshire primary means there’s a chance that the late-in-the race narrowing of the GOP field could justify Sununu’s euphoria and give Haley the shock win she needs.
While most polls show a solid Trump lead, a complication in New Hampshire is that no one can be sure how many undeclared voters – the name for independents in the Granite State – will show up on Election Day to vote in the GOP primary. An unexpectedly high turnout of undeclared voters powered late Arizona Sen. John McCain to a shock victory in the 2000 GOP primary against George W. Bush. The state has also sprung shocks on the other side of the aisle: In 2008, Democrat Hillary Clinton won New Hampshire days after losing the Iowa caucuses to Barack Obama, in a result that turned his march to the nomination into a monthslong slog.
“The New Hampshire polling is all over the place – one reason – and that is the proportion of the undeclared voters that can vote in the Republican primary,” Republican pollster Whit Ayers said in a Brookings Institution briefing last week. “It is very difficult to anticipate what proportion they will make of the final turnout.”
Trump has long had to endure arguments that his shock capture of the Republican nomination in 2016 was only possible since party heavyweights such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush all vainly believed they were the only candidate who could beat him – and thus divided the anti-Trump vote among them.
There is some truth to this version of history. Bush only quit in February 2016 after a fourth place in the South Carolina primary proved what Trump was saying – that his campaign was a “low energy” failure. Rubio, whose soaring vision of 21st century Reaganism was destroyed by Trump, only pulled out in March of that year after losing his home state to the future president. Cruz survived as the last opponent standing and stayed in the race until May, but by then, Trump was too far ahead. Had the Texas senator been the lone challenger from New Hampshire onward, perhaps the outcome may have been different.
In many of the races in the last competitive GOP nominating season, Trump benefited from a fractured opposition, and the first-past-the-post rules of many contests meant he was able to harvest all the delegates on offer even without a majority of votes. In the South Carolina primary, for instance, Trump won 32.5%, ahead of Rubio with 22.5%, Cruz with 22.3% and Bush with 7.8%. Had there been a single unified anti-Trump Republican challenge, the future president would almost certainly have lost the race. Instead, he walked away with all the state’s 50 bound convention delegates. Even in New Hampshire last time, Trump won a relatively close race in a packed field with only 35% of the vote but won all 11 delegates.
Eight years later, Trump has changed the Republican Party beyond recognition. He’s remade it in his populist, nationalist image. This time last year, the former president looked vulnerable after his attempts to push his favored candidates in the midterm elections may have cost the GOP the Senate. But he successfully leveraged his 91 criminal charges, including over his attempt to overturn democracy to stay in power after losing the 2020 reelection, into a foundation for a revived campaign. Millions of Americans now believe his falsehoods about a stolen election. His expected appearance in a New York courtroom Monday in a civil defamation case is another example of how he has used his legal dramas to fuel his campaign. And Trump has driven out Republican lawmakers who still oppose him – such as former Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who lost a primary in 2022, and 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who is not running for a second term as a Utah senator.
That transformation of the GOP – and Trump’s extraordinary bond with voters – has often been reflected in polls of this race, which have shown Trump with greater popularity in key states than all of his rivals combined. This was borne out in Iowa last week when Trump got just over 50% of the vote in the widest victory in the GOP contest in the state’s history. While the magnitude of that result is unlikely to be repeated in New Hampshire, given the state’s demographic makeup, Haley’s path becomes far more complicated going forward even if she notches a win in the Granite state.
Take South Carolina. While she twice won gubernatorial battles, Haley hasn’t been on the ballot there in a decade. And now, the state is one of the most fervent pro-Trump bastions, a point the ex-president tried to make by inviting Gov. Henry McMaster, Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette and other top state Republicans who have endorsed him to join him on stage in New Hampshire on Saturday night. Scott delivered another blow to Haley on Friday by endorsing the former president, and argued on CNN on Sunday that Trump would be a much stronger commander in chief than Haley.
In Exeter, Haley pitched a vision of a deeply conservative presidency on issues including immigration reform, deficit reduction and foreign policy. But her demeanor and plans also offered a promise of a return to calm, steady governance instead of Trump’s tumult and the “retribution” he’s promising for a second term. There’s no suggestion, even from Democrats, that Haley would threaten democracy from the Oval Office or turn decades of US foreign policy values upside down. Hypothetical matchup polls showing Haley defeating Biden in many cases suggest that’s a campaign many Americans could get behind.
But Haley’s problem is that most Republican voters may not want what she’s offering.
“Republicans set all the issues aside,” CNN commentator and Republican consultant Scott Jennings said Sunday. “(They said) the only way for us to get euphoric vindication for all the wrongs that have been done to Donald Trump is to nominate him again, and I think that’s what they are going to do.”
In this race, being the last candidate standing against “the fellas,” as Haley calls her rivals, may not mean much or last very long. It might simply be a passport to be the last candidate who gets rolled over by Trump.