The Fourteenth Amendment won’t stop it. Juries reaching guilty verdicts won’t do it. Increasingly, it appears that there is only one thing standing between Donald Trump and the Republican nomination for President. Can Nikki Haley pull it off?
Its origins can be traced back to Notre Dame’s legendary Four Horsemen backfield. It entered the vernacular for good when Roger Staubach of the Cowboys threw a game winning pass against Vikings, explaining that he “closed his eyes and said a Hail Mary.” Perhaps it is most associated with Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie, who in 1984 took a snap with six seconds on the clock, scrambled, eluded tacklers, and heaved a pass from his own 40-yard line that was miraculously caught in the end zone as time expired to beat the University of Miami.
It is the “Hail Mary”… the last-gasp, last-ditch, last-stand, heave-ho, give-it-a-go, hope-springs-eternal, whaddya-got-to-lose final-seconds desperation pass into the end zone that snatches victory against all odds.
Welcome to 2024 and the Republican primary season, folks. The question on everyone’s mind is simple: does Nikki Haley have even the slightest, gossamer-thin strand of a chance to wrest the Republican nomination from Donald Trump?
Can the anti-Trump faction of the Republican party scramble against the oncoming Trump Blitzkrieg (uh, yeah, reference fully intended) and heave their own Haley Mary?
The “Haley Mary” has become the liberal fantasy, the dream of cable news execs in search of ratings, and yet remains pretty much an unexamined scenario. If you actually take the time to map what she would have to accomplish against the actual primary timeline, you begin to realize that Haley’s comet is almost certain to flame out. The die is already almost fully cast.
And, oh yeah, lefty – before you get too excited about the “Haley Mary” – there is the sequential question… if Haley wins the nomination, would she have a better chance of beating Joe Biden than Donald Trump? The polling numbers on this question are not conclusive now, but who knows where Trump’s numbers will be after months of bruising trials. And if Haley became the world-beater who defeated Trump, she may well become the far tougher candidate for Biden to beat.
Our commentary today is most certainly not a prediction. Our purpose is to spell out what would have to happen for her to win. It involves speculation, hypothesis, imagination, and guesswork… but there is a path.
That path is very complicated. It depends on factors that can be extremely difficult to quantify and predict… things like messaging strategy, “beating expectations,” momentum, endorsements, donor enthusiasm, the quirks of “local” politics as the primaries move from state to state, the willingness of Haley’s rivals to stand down and let her singularly carry the “anti-Trump” lane, and – above all – Nikki Haley accepting that she must start throwing punches directly at Donald Trump’s most glaring liabilities. Then there is the entire morass of Donald Trump’s legal issues, how they are interpreted by voters, and the timing of the trials.
Can it be done? Sure, Haley can throw the touchdown pass. But, boy, it will be hard, and everything will have to break perfectly for Haley.
Let’s start with the fact that Donald Trump has, hands-down, some of the biggest leads ever recorded at comparable points going into the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Trump’s 30-point lead in December’s NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll was the biggest in its more than 30 year history. He has an even more imposing lead in South Carolina – and that is Nikki Haley’s home state.
Part of Trump’s enormous advantage is that Republicans view him to be the incumbent President. Now you may not think he is the incumbent President, but Republicans do. A recent Washington Post poll finds that 67% of Republican view Joe Biden to be an “illegitimate” President. They believe Trump’s Big Lie, think that the 2020 election was stolen from its rightful winner, and act as if Donald Trump is the legitimate President of the United States.
Being the “incumbent” is a very big deal in primary season. Very, very few incumbent Presidents ever have to endure a primary challenge en route to their nomination for a second term. It happened when Teddy Kennedy took on Jimmy Carter, and when Pat Buchanan challenged George H. W. Bush -- that is, only twice since 1980 -- and both challengers lost badly. The power of the presidency is robust… and Trump brings that enormous advantage to the primary season.
And, against that backdrop, where is Nikki Haley today?
Well, until she accidentally forgot to mention that little tidbit about how the institution of slavery might have had some tiny causal link to the United States Civil War, Nikki Haley’s comet had been enjoying an impressive ascent. At this point, it does not appear that her Gerald Ford-grade gaffe will seriously impact her candidacy. Hey, given today’s GOP, you never know… mind-numbingly colossal insensitivity to minorities and massive ignorance of history may actually be viewed as positive attributes.
She’s been gaining very substantial ground in New Hampshire, where she is the clear number two choice. She enjoyed a surge in Iowa between May and October, nearly closing a substantial gap behind Ron DeSantis, but for the past three months has been stuck a couple of points behind DeSantis for the number two spot. And, yes, during the past three months – while ducking all those debates – Donald Trump actually expanded his lead in Iowa.
Given the Matterhorn-grade ascent she must very quickly make to seriously challenge Trump, how can she get the job done?
Here’s the “Haley Mary,” in five steps.
1. Beat expectations – and Ron DeSantis – in Iowa.
Ron DeSantis has been running a clinic in how to blow a nomination. Back in 2022, when DeSantis torched his Democratic gubernatorial opponent by 20 points, he was the GOP’s brightest spot in the otherwise underwhelming election cycle. With Trump bruised by the miserable performance of his hand-picked candidates, it was widely believed that DeSantis would cruise to his party’s 2024 nomination. Bad messaging strategy, weak grassroots fundraising, and astonishingly wooden campaign performances sapped DeSantis of momentum, and ultimately forced him to put all his chips on Iowa. Desperate for a strong early performance, DeSantis traveled to all 99 counties in the state that historically rewards candidates who show up and eat every last corn dog.
Win Iowa? Ha. Now, Ron DeSantis desperately needs a second-place finish in Iowa, and the odds currently seem with him. After his initial stumbles, he stabilized his support in by July in the 17-19% range. However, his initial margin over Haley -- a 2 to 1 advantage in May -- is now has a relatively thin and surmountable two to three points. Haley, however, made no further inroads in December polling.
If Haley does surge and beats DeSantis in Iowa, and then beats him again in New Hampshire, where she already holds a significantly edge, DeSantis must fold up his tent and retreat to his goofy little anti-Disney kingdom of book banning, terrorizing “woke,” and trying to spin the upsides of slavery.
Make no mistake: a final Haley surge is very possible. The Haley campaign is about to blow DeSantis out of the media water with a $4.6 million advertising buy in the final two weeks. The one-on-one debate with DeSantis on Wednesday night couldn’t be more perfectly timed for Haley.
Another interesting fact about current Iowa polls? At this moment, Donald Trump has roughly 50% support. If he were to fall lower than 50% by caucus day, it would be a messaging lift for the “anti-Trump” lane: they would argue that more than half of the party wants someone other than Donald Trump.
The best news of all for Haley is in the “expectations game.” Where DeSantis labelled Iowa as “do or die” and could flame out with a third-place finish, Haley was never expected to finish second in Iowa, so a third-place finish would not the disaster it would be for the Florida governor. But let’s say for the purpose of this analysis that Nikki Haley sprints to the finish and finishes one tiny percentage point ahead of DeSantis in Iowa. That one tiny percentage point is a game-changer.
2. Mount a Real Challenge to Trump in New Hampshire… and then hope that competitors drop out.
With Haley’s second place finish in Iowa, and Trump caucusing below 50%, expect a Time cover and frothy stories about storming into New Hampshire with what George Bush the Elder once famously called “the big mo’”—the momentum of the campaign.
The winds in New Hampshire are already at Haley’s back. As of this writing, Trump is out in front, but his roughly 42% -45% of the vote is well below his national polling. Haley has risen sharply in polling, from about 5% in August to roughly 30% now, within 15 points of Trump. That’s a big gain.
A brand new CNN poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire released just this morning (January 9), showed that Haley had narrowed Trump's lead to single digits, and is now a 39 to 32 margin. That's a jump of 12 points since this particular poll was taken in November.
Receiving the endorsement of popular New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu was a big win. And if she “exceeds expectations” in Iowa, expect another bump.
The wild card in New Hampshire is Chris Christie. If he drops out of the race after Iowa and most of his roughly 10% support jumps to Haley, you’ve suddenly got a very close race between Trump and Haley for the win in New Hampshire. There is already a ton of pressure on Christie to do exactly that.
Here’s a shrewd move Haley could make after Iowa: aggressively challenge Trump to a one-on-one debate before the New Hampshire primary. It’s a win/win for Haley, who will be in peak form after six intense debates. But in the more likely scenario that Trump refuses, Haley could milk his refusal for gold, labeling him as frightened and weak. Who knows? Chris Christie’s “Donald Duck” joke might finally stick.
Yet a third possible “New Hampshire surprise” is Democratic crossover vote. New Hampshire allows “undeclared” voters – those with no party affiliation – to vote in either party’s primary. With no challenger to Joe Biden, New Hampshire Democrats might believe that they will exert important influence on the Presidential race if they switch their party affiliation to “undeclared” in order to vote in the Republican Primary – for Haley, against Trump.
Let’s say New Hampshire is extremely close but goes to Trump. Once again, the lead story is that Nikki Haley “exceeded expectations,” and a slim win for Trump smells a lot like a loss.
The “next morning” in New Hampshire is the reckoning: it is when Haley needs her competitors to clear the deck and hand her the ball. Dropping out of the race after New Hampshire would be a hard pill for any of Christie, DeSantis, or Ramaswamy to swallow, but it is difficult to imagine Haley seriously contesting Trump unless the field is thoroughly winnowed.
If Christie doesn’t bail after Iowa, he’ll bow out after New Hampshire. He feels such an intense, burning desire to see Trump lose that he will not only back out, he will likely endorse Haley -- and begin angling for Attorney General, where he can preside over the ongoing prosecution of Trump.
Vivek Ramaswamy continues to evaporate into a puddle of smarmy self-involvement and may think staying in the race would please Trump if he bleeds support away from Haley. Trump, however, may view Ramaswamy’s nutty conspiracy rants as a lure to his own supporters. If so, expect Trump to tell Ramaswamy to vote himself off Sycofantasy Island.
Which brings us to Ron DeSantis. If DeSantis loses both Iowa and New Hampshire, he has no path, no donors, and only his future to consider. He would be crazy to stay in the race and allow himself to get beaten yet again by Haley in her home state. DeSantis must drop out.
A critical question: where would supporters of DeSantis and Ramaswamy go if those candidates exited? DeSantis and Ramaswamy are more ideologically aligned with MAGA than the more moderate Haley, but if these voters abandoned Trump because they view him to be a toxic loser, they could easily drift to Haley.
3. February: Nevada Caucuses and the South Carolina Primary
The Nevada caucuses will be held on February 8, and Haley will no doubt throw some tv money towards its 26 delegates. But she will realize that the primary in her home state of South Carolina on February 24 will make or break her campaign. If the field clears and Nikki Haley is Donald Trump’s only opponent in her home state, she will suddenly face her own existential moment: if Haley can’t win her own state, where can she win? Nikki Haley will focus 100% of her energy in South Carolina.
Not only are her Presidential hopes shattered by a bad loss in her home state – a loss and her perceived disloyalty to Trump could also spell the end of her hopes to be Trump’s running mate. Let’s be real: there are three reasons that the Republican candidates other than Christie have so assiduously avoided criticizing Trump in the debates and on the campaign trail… (1) they are terrified of alienating Trump, (2) sooner or later they will need his base, and (3) they are all open to the idea of being his VP. Nikki Haley has never ruled out accepting the VP slot on a ticket with Trump.
It will be in South Carolina that Nikki Haley realizes that she cannot preserve both a shot at the Presidency and a chance at the VP slot. She has to choose. She either has to slay Trump and go for the Presidency or continue her nerf-ball messaging strategy and lose badly.
In the history of presidential campaigns, there is much talk of a candidate and the “moment.” A young and marginally experienced Barack Obama somehow mysteriously understood that 2008 was his “moment,” and he seized it. A less certain Chris Christie had his “moment” in 2012, and ducked… thinking he’d get another chance. He never did.
Haley realizes that her time is now.
To win the nomination, Nikki Haley realizes that she must finally – finally -- turn her biggest messaging guns directly on Donald Trump.
The campaign in South Carolina will be amazing. Haley knows that she cannot afford to alienate the MAGA Republicans by raising January 6… but Christie will be given that job.
Nikki Haley will campaign aggressively on the idea that you can’t beat an 81-year-old President with a 78-year-old candidate who is stuck in the past and completely preoccupied with defending himself against felonies.
Haley’s SuperPac will take dead aim at Donald Trump. Savage ads will appear that highlight Trump’s echo of Nazi rhetoric. More ads will focus on Trump’s recklessness, instability, memory lapses, ineffectiveness in his first term, and his paranoid, dystopian call for “retribution.” The SuperPac will embark on a search and destroy mission in South Carolina, if only to determine whether Donald Trump has indeed become too big to fail.
The cannons of Fort Sumter will roar again, this time triggering an internecine war within the GOP. It will be ugly. The gap between the New Hampshire primary and the South Carolina primary is 31 days… which is actually a very long time for two candidates to be ripping each other to pieces in a small state.
Lots of crazy things can happen in a campaign. Here’s a reasonable speculation: Donald Trump will finally realize that he cannot dodge yet another debate and agrees to go one-on-one against Haley on FOX in front of a nationally televised audience. But when he does, he will suddenly understand the penalty for not debating this cycle -- just as Barack Obama did against Mitt Romney in 2012. If you’ve been absent from the debate stage and your opponent has been debating non-stop for six months, you are going to get clobbered.
Those who remember Trump’s infamous “POTUS Interruptus” debate against Joe Biden in 2020 know that he is actually an atrocious debater. Now, in South Carolina, going up against a candidate who has honed her debating skills, Donald Trump could well be at his worst. He is likely to meander, threaten, yell, interrupt, and lose track of questions. He could make misogynist comments about Haley and/or a female FOX moderator. Angry at a direct question from a tougher FOX moderator (think Brett Baier) about his role in January 6, Trump might be goaded into full-throated support for the insurrection he fomented. As the debate degrades, it’s easy to imagine Donald Trump storming off the debate set with forty-five minutes of time remaining.
It's hardly an unlikely scenario. Such an unhinged meltdown on FOX, the GOP’s private Pravda, would be a catastrophic demonstration of the degradation of his mental faculties and his emotional instability… all played out in real time, directly to the Republican faithful. Again: campaigns are unpredictable, and a single disastrous event can create a run at the bank.
The polls that currently show Trump far ahead in South Carolina are meaningless. They will be dramatically affected by Iowa, New Hampshire, and by the likely departure of DeSantis, Ramaswamy, and Christie. Coming out of a strong showing in New Hampshire and going into a two-person race in her home state, Haley could be within striking distance of Trump from the opening bell.
Re-energized as the charismatic voice of a new generation, let’s guess that Haley pulls off a 51/49 squeaker in South Carolina.
In winning, she destroys Donald Trump’s aura of invincibility and inevitability, and becomes a media frenzy, the “lion-killer.” She roars toward Super Tuesday, and indisputably has “the Big Mo.”
4. Super Tuesday: The Seismic Shift
On March 5, 2024, fifteen states and one territory will vote on the biggest single day of the primary season. Think of it this way: for all the time, attention and money thrown at the early primaries, they account for a mere 142 of the total 2,429 delegates to the GOP convention. Then, less than two weeks after South Carolina, 1,215 delegates will be selected in a single day.
Making this even more daunting for Haley is the fact that most of these states operate on a “winner take all” awarding of delegates. (Each state has it own rules, and many have "thresholds" for being awarded any delegate, or require 50% of the vote to be awarded the full slate of delegates. But in a two person race, the odds are high that one of the two candidates will meet the threshold for "winner take all.") Haley may have been able to make strong headway in South Carolina because she was a well-known, likeable former governor, and she had a full month to make her case. But on Super Tuesday, “close enough” no longer matters. She must win the vote in a cluster to states to have the slightest chance at the nomination.
Again, this article is about what it would take for Haley to win the nomination, not what any sane person thinks is likely to happen. So the scenario we are about to describe is a very long shot.
But think about this: Haley is doing far better in “purplish” New Hampshire than in “deep red” Iowa. Does that mean that she would generally do better in the primaries in blue states, and less well in red states?
Consider this hypothesis:
Donald Trump wins the “redder” of the Super Tuesday states… Alabama, Alaska, American Samoa, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah.
Nikki Haley, on the other hand, ekes out wins in the more moderate states: California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, and Virginia.
In that scenario, Donald Trump wins Super Tuesday by 430 to 370 delegates.
But there is one more state to count: North Carolina.
If Nikki Haley can win North Carolina and its 74 delegates, she wins Super Tuesday, 444 to 430.
This exercise shows just how daunting it is for Haley to beat Trump. It is extremely difficult to imagine Haley having the money, messaging, and ground game to actually beat Trump in eight states.
But campaign momentum is a crazy, unpredictable, mercurial, mysterious thing. If Nikki Haley appears to have slayed the giant (or at least decisively slayed expectations) in South Carolina, it is possible that a groundswell to her campaign morphs into a stampede. Joe Biden himself finished fourth in Iowa in 2020, but after winning South Carolina, he conquered on Super Tuesday. Crazy things can happen.
If the scenario outlined above were to happen, then all bets are off.
5. The sprint to the Convention
If Donald Trump’s aura of invincibility is shattered by Super Tuesday, he will have to work hard for the remaining states just as his court obligations begin to kick in. Trump has always relied on rallies to reach his base, but now cannot spend enough time on the road in rallies because of court obligations.
As the primaries move forward, a curious phenomenon happens: Democrats, who have no contested primaries, begin registering in droves as Republicans so they can vote in the GOP primaries.
On April 2, blue states witness a last-minute surge in GOP primary voters, who push races in New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Wisconsin into Haley’s column, handing Haley 195 delegates. Suddenly, Haley is up 100 delegates with only 500 delegates left to be chosen.
By mid-April, Nikki Haley is in the driver’s seat, and cruises through the final primaries to eke out a first ballot win in the Republican Convention.
Could it happen?
It depends on whether you ask Roger Staubach, Doug Flutie, or Eric Trump.
For all those lefties who salivate at this scenario: be warned. Nikky Haley could prove to be a more effective candidate against Joe Biden than Donald Trump. Be careful what you wish for.
Then again, remember when Joe Biden said that the reason he was running for re-election was because Donald Trump would be the Republican candidate? Rightly or wrongly, Biden continues to believe that he is far and away the best candidate to beat Donald Trump.
But what if Haley steals the nomination? Would Biden suddenly decide that he is not the best candidate to beat Haley, and throw the Democratic nomination open for the convention to decide?
Would we end up with Haley vs. Kamala Harris? Gavin Newsom? Gretchen Whitmer?
Ok, fantasy football fans, it’s time to return to reality.
The 2024 election is going to be a re-match of Joe Biden and Donald Trump.
Nikki Haley? She is staring down the full length of the gridiron, and there are effectively six seconds on the clock. Can she pull off what Doug Flutie pulled off?
It is possible. But wise people don’t bet on miracle finishes.
The hope is that in sketching out just how hard it would be for Nikki to execute the “Haley Mary,” we all realize that Nikki Haley isn’t going to do our work for us.
If you want to make sure Donald Trump never gets the chance to turn the United States into an authoritarian state, it is time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
If you would like to be on the Born To Run The Numbers email list notifying you of each new post, please write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.