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Nikki Haley’s lopsided balancing act

The brand of politics Haley represents likely can’t win a real majority in the modern GOP.
Circle cutouts against a red background of GOP 2024 Presidential Candidate Nikki Haley
Leila Register / NBC News; Getty Images

The first GOP primary debate features 8 candidates — and one Trump-sized elephant in the room. Are any of the hopefuls fit to be president? Read this installment of MSNBC’s 2024 profile series and find out.

Nikki Haley has worn a lot of hats during her career. She’s been a businesswoman, a state representative, the governor of South Carolina, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and now a candidate for the 2024 Republican nomination for president. The question is: Will the next role she plays be “first woman to lead the GOP ticket”?

If we’re being kind, we could say her odds seem better than others who have tried in recent campaign cycles, such as former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. If we’re being honest, though, the answer is “probably not.” If we’re being brutally honest, the answer is closer to “absolutely not; the politics Haley represents can’t win a real majority in the modern GOP.”

If we’re being brutally honest, the answer is closer to “absolutely not; the politics Haley represents can’t win a real majority in the modern GOP.”

To her credit, Haley has done better than many of her peers when it comes to weaving together the mainstream Republican ideals she embraced when she first rose to prominence with those of the chaotic MAGA wing that’s risen alongside former President Donald Trump. Haley grew up in South Carolina as the beneficiary of a change in federal law that lifted the quota that once capped immigration from South Asia; her father was a professor at a local historically Black college, and her mother founded a clothing boutique, Exotica International, which grew into a multimillion-dollar business.

Haley early on in her political career leaned on her experience as a businesswoman, having served as Exotica’s chief financial officer during its expansion and as president of the local chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners. She ran for a seat in the South Carolina Legislature in 2005 and managed to parlay her three terms into what was originally a long-shot bid to become the state’s governor. In 2010, she managed to go from fourth in the polls to winning the governorship and, in 2014, winning re-election.

It was a surprise to many when she was tapped to become Trump’s first U.N. ambassador before her second term had ended. She was a latecomer to his orbit, having backed two other rivals in 2016, at one point calling Trump “everything a governor doesn’t want in a president.” She spent just shy of two years in that role, her political experience standing in sharp contrast to the motley band of outsiders who made up the Cabinet, before resigning in October 2018 because, well, reasons. At least Haley could say she left on her own terms, unlike so many of her colleagues who learned via tweet that they had been fired.

Her tenure at the U.N. was as smooth as you could expect under Trump; her office in New York was at times a relative oasis from the madness in Washington. As my colleague Zeeshan Aleem noted at Vox back in 2017, she managed to stake out positions at the U.N. that were much closer to the GOP establishment than to Trump’s relatively incoherent foreign policy. And she successfully campaigned for her position to remain at the Cabinet level despite Trump’s long-standing ambivalence toward the United Nations. From that perch, she was able to portray herself as having a higher degree of influence in the administration and at the U.N. than she might otherwise have had.

She has tried to capitalize on those credentials during her presidential run, including in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute in June focused on China. America’s competition with Beijing is a topic she leaned on heavily again during a recent appearance in Iowa alongside other candidates. (I can’t tell you the last time foreign policy was a deciding factor for primary voters, though, and I say that as a foreign policy wonk.)

Mostly, though, Haley has been busy trying to carve out a lane of her own somewhere on the spectrum between the Trumpian side of the field, which includes pretenders like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and her party’s moderate wing, represented by the likes of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. That balancing act has included speaking openly about abortion and calling for a “national compromise” on that front, while also being very clear that she thinks transgender kids are a threat to the American way of life.

She’s tried to play up her experience as a uniter, citing her leadership as governor after the shooting at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. In light of the shooter’s white supremacist views, she eventually supported the removal of the Confederate flag from the Statehouse, while also defending the flag as a symbol of “service and sacrifice and heritage.” Meanwhile, she has the misfortune of being one of two nonwhite Republicans from South Carolina who are competing to be the eventual vice presidential nominee, and Sen. Tim Scott is the one getting a closer look from major GOP donors these days.

This “a woman for all seasons” attempt to appeal to everyone hasn’t gotten Haley very far in these early days ahead of the primaries. As of early August, she has been polling at around 4% nationally, which is far ahead of some of her competitors but also not exactly ideal for her. It leaves open the question of how willing she is to attack Trump at his perch as front-runner. She’s been more willing to speak out about her former boss’s indictments recently, but also praised him heavily back in 2021 when he was most vulnerable.

Drawing on her past campaigns’ underdog mindset, Haley insists that she sees a path to the nomination, even as others are skeptical. She’s barnstorming the early states in small, town hall meetings to convince voters that she’s got what it takes. From where I’m sitting, as long as she doesn’t pull any desperate stunts (a la the Ted Cruz-Carly Fiorina “ticket” of 2016), she could make it through the early phases without truly embarrassing herself — and that may be the best outcome she can hope to achieve.

Read the rest of our GOP profile series here: