What’s the point of Nikki Haley?

The New Hampshire primary has exposed the decay of the old Republican establishment.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics Politics USA

Last night, by winning the New Hampshire primary, Donald Trump took another big step towards becoming the Republican nominee for president. And with that, the US has moved closer to the Trump-Biden rematch that most Americans are dreading.

Trump’s win over his opponent, Nikki Haley, was clear-cut. With about 90 per cent of the votes counted, Trump has won by more than 10 points, with 54 per cent to 43 per cent. Haley performed better than pre-voting polls suggested, and the race was closer than many expected. But she benefitted from New Hampshire’s rules allowing independents to vote. Among registered Republicans, the result was far more lopsided, with Trump taking more than three-quarters of voters.

Trump had hoped a win in New Hampshire would seal the nomination, but that hasn’t happened. Haley has been encouraged by gaining the support of a majority of independents and by improving on the 19 per cent of the vote she won in Iowa last week. And so she has vowed to fight on to late February’s primary in South Carolina, her home state, where she once served as governor.

But despite her home-state advantage, Haley’s prospects don’t look good in South Carolina. In the polls, she currently trails Trump by about 30 percentage points. Plus, leading Republican figures in the state, including Senator Tim Scott, have publicly endorsed Trump.

There’s no doubt that Trump, following wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, is steamrolling ahead. He and his acolytes are claiming the nomination race is essentially over. Indeed, it is hard to see Haley picking up sufficient momentum among Republicans to make this a true contest. It wouldn’t be a great shock if she decided to quit the race before South Carolina, as a big win for Trump there would be deeply embarrassing for her.

In a way, the New Hampshire primary was a referendum on Trump, rather than a contest between Trump and Haley. As a CNN exit poll showed, nearly four in 10 Haley voters cast their votes because they disliked her opponent. Only a third said they went for Haley because they strongly favoured her. In contrast, 77 per cent of Trump voters strongly favoured their man. It is hard to see Haley prevailing within the Republican Party if so much of her support is essentially an anti-Trump protest vote.

While Trump is almost certain to secure the nomination, it would be an overstatement to claim that the Republicans are now a thoroughly MAGA party. Significant divisions still exist. Roughly speaking, Trump represents the more populist strand within the party, while Haley has become the standard-bearer of the more moderate, pre-Trump Republicans. We have to say roughly, because Haley would not have been considered an ‘establishment’ figure only a few years ago. After all, she was in the Trump administration as the US ambassador to the United Nations, and she still shares some policy stances with Trump. Similarly, Trump is more of a pantomime populist. He makes lots of noise, but he did very little to advance a populist agenda in office. In practice, he often followed standard Republican policies like tax cuts and deregulation.

Trump’s wing is clearly in the majority now. But the traditional Republicans still represent a sizeable cohort. If New Hampshire is any indication, anywhere from 25 to 45 per cent of Republicans are not on the Trump bandwagon. And that division could be a serious vulnerability for Trump in the presidential election. It is far from clear that these anti-Trumpers will come home to the party in November, as they did in 2016 and 2020. They were never wild about Trump when he was in office, and they now likely think even less of him, following his post-2020 shenanigans – from his riling up of the ‘January 6’ rioters to his attempts to overturn the 2020 election to the 91 criminal charges he faces.

To give just one indication of the potential threat of anti-Trump defectors, 31 per cent of Republican voters in Iowa say he is unfit for office. These are voters Trump will desperately need if he is to beat Joe Biden, especially in swing states. Still, it is testament to the weakness of the traditional Republicans that in the eight years since Trump first secured the party nomination, they have been incapable of fielding a viable alternative.

Over the past year, polls have consistently shown that most Americans don’t want a rematch between Trump and Biden. It’s easy to understand why. After all, both are deeply unpopular, they both face legal troubles (even if Trump’s are much more serious), and both are well past retirement age. A Biden-Trump presidential rematch would mean rehashing the past rather than moving forward. Trump still insists he won the 2020 election, while Biden never misses an opportunity to remind America about the Capitol riots in 2021.

So, given most Americans don’t want a Trump-Biden rematch, why does it look like we’ll be getting one? The answer is mainly to do with the hollowing out of the two-party system, and the fact that the parties are no longer representative of the people at large. Over time, Americans have left the two main parties in droves. Today, only 27 per cent of Americans consider themselves Republican, and not all of them vote in the primaries. So when Trump gloats about winning over a majority of Republicans, that’s a majority of a minority.

The Democrats have also shed popular support, with just 27 per cent of Americans identifying with the party. And this year, their nomination of Biden is more of a coronation, as he faces no significant opposition.

Many Republicans seem to recognise that Trump is generally unpopular outside their party, but they don’t think it matters, because they believe that Biden and the Democrats are even more disliked. Yes, it’s true that Biden’s record in the White House – especially on the economy, immigration and crime – makes him a very weak candidate. But following Iowa and New Hampshire, Republican voters are on a path to nominate the one political figure who is capable of losing to Biden. Conversely, in nominating Biden, the Democrats have selected the one man who is capable of losing to Trump.

A lot could change in the next 10 months, but 2024 is fast shaping up to be another contest between two widely unpopular candidates. Americans deserve so much better.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics USA


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