Published November 29, 2023
Charles Koch thinks Haley can attract never-Trumpers. But there just aren’t enough of them to secure a nomination
Charles Koch has a reputation as a Republican kingmaker. That makes Tuesday’s endorsement of Nikki Haley by the jewel in his crown, the Americans for Prosperity, potentially big news. There’s just one problem: it won’t get her much closer to winning the GOP nomination.
Americans for Prosperity is a big deal. It houses a nationwide network of grassroots activists that can knock on doors to persuade voters and move them to the polls. Its endorsement gives Haley something her campaign has sorely lacked: an effective ground game to complement her television ads.
That’s an important element to add, especially in states that will select delegates via low-turnout caucuses rather than primaries. That network, though, can only deliver a message to voters; it can’t make up for a message that lacks appeal. But that is exactly what Haley’s problem is.
It seems strange to say that as she continues a steady climb in the polls. But any large electorate is comprised of factions, just as any molecule consists of discrete elements and atomic particles. Haley’s climb is real, and a tribute to her discipline and focus.
All she’s done, though, is make herself the best liked candidate for the faction looking to avoid MAGA politics altogether. That’s why polls always show her doing best with self-described moderates and independents and worst among those who say they are very conservative Republicans. It’s a group that’s large enough to get her attention, but not big enough to deliver the nomination.
Haley would need to get the lion’s share of the voters who back other candidates to switch to her to have a shot. That’s likely to happen with people who back Chris Christie. He’s strongest in New Hampshire, which is also her strongest state currently, because he also draws from moderate independents who dislike Donald Trump. But her stumbling block is wooing backers of Ron DeSantis.
Polls have repeatedly shown that many DeSantis voters choose Trump over Haley as their second choice. Even AFP’s own polling memo that they released in support of their endorsement shows this obstacle.
The memo shows Haley 27 points behind Trump in Iowa, and trailing by 15 points in New Hampshire. Yet, it also shows that only 38 per cent of DeSantis’ Iowa backers choose Haley as a second choice; 35 per cent would back Trump. Do the math and Haley would barely nick Trump’s huge margin with DeSantis out of the race.
It’s not much better for her in New Hampshire. The memo says only 34 per cent of DeSantis’ voters would switch to Haley if he dropped out. Twenty-nine per cent would prefer Trump instead. Again, Haley barely gains on Trump even with her major competitor out of the race.
It’s easy to see why that’s the case. Haley does not essentially differ from the pre-Trump Republican consensus on any issue. She’s the most aggressively hawkish candidate, fully backing military aid to Ukraine. She also is soft-peddling her pro-life bona fides, refusing to endorse a nationwide fifteen-week ban on abortion. Both stances are music to the ears of the type of voter who would reluctantly prefer Joe Biden to Donald Trump. It’s grating for many conservative Republicans whose overriding passion to move away from what they call “the uniparty” in favor of aggressively populist conservatism.
Haley’s best hope rests in mobilizing millions of moderate and less conservative independents who don’t usually vote in Republican primaries. She could give them a choice, not a MAGA echo. Those voters wouldn’t be captured in current polls, which presumably are modeling a more traditional electorate. That’s not impossible, but it’s hard to see how a grassroots entity dedicated to backing libertarian-leaning policies can help.
Nikki Haley has made herself into a serious contender for the nomination, and she won’t look Mr. Koch’s gift horse in the mouth. If she knows what the real barrier is to her victory, though, she’ll quickly move on to focus on energizing a constituency that AFP doesn’t know much about.
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how America’s political order is being upended by populist challenges, from the left and the right. He also studies populism’s impact in other democracies in the developed world.