The promise and perils of Nikki Haley's White House run

The former South Carolina governor has a compelling résumé. Is that enough in the Trump era?

Former South Carolina Republican Governor Nikki Haley speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada, on November 19, 2022. (Wade Vandervort/AFP via Getty Images)
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Former South Carolina Gov. and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley launched her bid for the White House Tuesday with a video playing to her foreign policy bona fides and stature as a woman of color in the GOP.

But she left out some critical contradictions which could hobble her in a party remade by her chief opponent, former President Donald Trump.

Haley is the second major candidate to enter the Republican field, following Trump, who announced his third run for office three months ago. They’re expected to be followed by other high-profile Republicans who have been teasing White House runs, including former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections. That has to change,” Haley said in the video. “It’s time for a new generation of leadership.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a likely contender for the Republican nomination for president. (Michael Laughlin/South Florida Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

As she was prepping her run for the White House, Haley crafted an image as a tough-as-nails conservative woman. The title of her pre-launch book, “If You Want Something Done...,” is a nod to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who once said that “if you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”

“They all think we can be bullied, kicked around,” Haley added in her launch video. “I don’t put up with bullies. And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels.”

Haley enters the race on firm footing in a critical early primary state, South Carolina, where she enjoys high statewide name recognition after serving two terms as governor from 2011 to 2017. But early polling cast doubt on her ability to defeat Trump in 2024 — or displace Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has emerged as the leading alternative for Republicans eager to turn the page on the former president. DeSantis is expected to announce his own candidacy in the next few months.

According to the latest Yahoo News/YouGov poll, registered voters who are Republicans or Republican-leaning independents approve (48%) rather than disapprove (22%) of Haley’s decision to run by a more than 2-to-1 margin. Yet nearly a third (30%) say they are unsure, and few are ready to vote for her. While Haley’s support in a hypothetical nine-candidate field has risen significantly since January — from 1% to 5% — Trump would currently trounce her 54% to 27% in a head-to-head primary contest.

Donald Trump
Former President Donald Trump at the South Carolina State House, Jan. 2. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Haley effectively plays the spoiler in a hypothetical three-way matchup with Trump and DeSantis, attracting just 11% of Republicans and Republican leaners — while DeSantis’s support falls by roughly the same amount (from 45% to 35%), leaving Trump with more votes than either of them (38%). Polls likewise indicate that Republican voters are less familiar with Haley than Trump, Pence and DeSantis.

Such numbers underscore the challenge that will define Haley’s candidacy. The subtext of her announcement video — that she is the opposite of Trump in almost every way — was hard to miss.

He is a senior citizen. She was once the youngest governor in the country. He is white. She is the daughter of Indian immigrants. He is a New Yorker. She comes from a small town in South Carolina. He is a he. She is a she.

But while Haley has long positioned herself as one of the GOP’s most promising anti-Trumps, can that brand still work in 2024? Or are persuadable primary voters looking for a new-and-improved Trump instead — a more disciplined (and less criminally exposed) culture warrior such as DeSantis?

If so, Haley may struggle to adjust. While her launch video touted some clear strengths, it’s far less clear how her decision to break an earlier vow to “not run if President Trump ran” will affect her standing, or how how her support for taking down the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina state Capitol in 2015 will play in a party that seems to relish anti-woke brawling.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley
Haley announces via video her run for president. (Nikki Haley via Instagram/via Reuters)

Notably, Haley did not mention that moment in the video, choosing instead to criticize those on the left who “think [America’s] ideas are not just wrong but racist and evil.”

Haley “spent most of her time working for and praising Donald Trump and has long embraced some of the most extreme elements of the MAGA agenda,” said Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison in a call with reporters on Tuesday. “You know, there's a lot of questions about Nikki Haley and about what she really stands for.”

Given the uphill battle ahead, veterans of Republican presidential campaigns have speculated in private that Haley may actually be angling for the No. 2 spot on the ticket, where she could help to broaden the appeal of Trump, DeSantis or another candidate.

It’s not the first time vice presidential whispers have circulated within the GOP. In his recently published book, Pompeo — a likely 2024 competitor — accused Haley of attempting to replace Pence as Trump’s running mate in 2020. Haley roundly rejected the accusation as “lies and gossip.”

Either way, longtime Republican pollster and anti-Trump strategist Sarah Longwell wrote Tuesday that the chief hurdle Haley faces is that she has no clear constituency in the modern Republican Party.

Sarah Longwell
Republican pollster and Never Trumper Sarah Longwell. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

“Haley, despite how good she is on paper, finds herself in that same tier: No one is asking for what she’s selling,” Longwell wrote. “While many Republican voters may be moving off Trump the man, the forces that he unleashed within the party — economic populism, isolationist foreign policy, election denialism, and above all, an unapologetic and vulgar focus on fighting culture war issues — remain incredibly popular with GOP voters.”

Despite agreeing to serve as Trump’s U.N. ambassador in 2017 — and describing him as her “friend” even after he tried to overturn the 2020 election — Haley is not new to opposing the former president.

Starting in 2015, when Trump fashioned himself into America’s principal avatar of right-wing intolerance, demonizing Mexicans, Muslims and Megyn Kelly, among others, Haley emerged as a lonely symbol of Republican inclusiveness, denouncing Trump’s divisive rhetoric on numerous occasions.

“I will not stop until we fight a man that chooses not to disavow the KKK,” Haley said in 2016. “That is not a part of our party. That’s not who we want as president. We will not allow that in our country!”

Gov. Nikki Haley with from left, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. during an event Greenville, S.C., in February 2016
Haley with from left, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., at an event in Greenville, S.C., in February 2016. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

And even as ambassador in an administration that prized “lock-step loyalty,” Haley “managed to hold to at least some of her own priorities,” according to a 2018 New York Times op-ed, eventually exiting the job “with her dignity largely intact.”

Haley was born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa in Bamberg, S.C., on Jan. 20, 1972. When her parents arrived from India’s Punjab state three years earlier — her father, a biology professor, wrapped his long hair in a traditional Sikh turban; her mother, a lawyer, wore a sari — they found that no one was willing to rent them a house.

“We were the first Indian family ever to live in Bamberg,” Haley wrote in her 2012 memoir, “Can’t Is Not an Option.” “In a time and place that only knew black and white, we didn’t fit either category.”

It was a lesson that Haley learned early on and that she returned to in Tuesday’s announcement video. At the age of 5, she entered a “Little Miss Bamberg” pageant with her sister. There were typically two winners: a black queen and a white queen. The judges let the Randhawas perform — then disqualified them because they were brown, according to Haley’s memoir.

“We don’t have a place for you,” they explained.

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley
Haley at a Republican Jewish Coalition event in Las Vegas in November. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In kindergarten, Haley’s teachers cast her as Pocahontas in the school play — a turn, she recalled in her memoir, that “marked the beginning of a long parade of little boys dancing around me and doing the American Indian hand-to-mouth call.”

A few years later, the rest of Haley’s classmates divided themselves into two groups at recess — one black, the other white.

“Are we playing [kickball] today?” Haley asked.

“We are,” one girl said. “You’re not.”

“Why?” Haley asked.

“You have to pick a side,” the girl replied. “Are you white or are you black?”

Haley began working for her mother’s clothing business at an early age and eventually received an accounting degree from Clemson University. But it wasn’t until she decided to run for the state House in 2004 that she realized how insidious the bigotry that she had first encountered as a kid could be.

Nikki Haley
Haley, then a South Carolina state representative, during her bid to become South Carolina's first female governor in 2009. (Tim Dominick/The State/MCT via Getty Images)

Haley’s rival, incumbent Larry Koon, was the sort of guy who believed, as he once put it, that “women are best suited for secretarial work, decorating cakes and counter sales, like selling lingerie.” In her memoir, Haley — a Sikh who converted to Christianity — recounted that Koon’s campaign fliers featured his photograph on one side (“white male, Christian, business owner”) and Haley’s on the other (“Indian female, Buddhist, housekeeper”).

Whenever the two candidates met on the trail, Koon made sure to call Haley “little lady”; he regularly reminded voters that her birth name was Nimrata Randhawa. Eventually Haley defeated Koon — the heavy favorite — by 10 percentage points.

Her underdog gubernatorial campaign was no different. “We’ve got a raghead in Washington,” state Sen. Jake Knotts said at one point, referring to President Barack Obama. “We don’t need a raghead in the statehouse.” A black Democrat referred to Haley as “a conservative with a tan.”

Gender was an issue as well. As soon as polls showed Haley in the lead, unsubstantiated rumors of extramarital affairs began to surface in the press — accusations that were “more believable in the eyes of some voters,” Haley wrote in her memoir, because “I was a young woman.” (Haley vowed to resign if the claims were validated, which they never were.)

Nikki Haley
Haley celebrates after winning reelection as governor in 2014. (Gerry Melendez/The State/MCT via Getty Images)

Still, for most of her governorship — she was reelected in 2014 — Haley, true to her tea party reputation, was hardly a civil rights crusader. She refused to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. She signed an Arizona-style immigration law forcing police officers to report anyone they suspected of being a noncitizen. She pushed for stricter enforcement of South Carolina’s E-Verify rules. And when she first took office, legislators immediately complained about her administration’s lack of diversity.

“At the end of the day, I had to show results as governor,” Haley wrote in her memoir. “I didn’t care what color the people were who helped me do that.”

Haley even opposed removing the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state Capitol. During her initial run for governor, she said the flag was “not something that is racist,” but rather “a tradition that people feel proud of.”

Yet after 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African Americans at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church during a June 17, 2015, prayer service, Haley’s views began to change.

“I’ve got some things in my head,” she texted her husband after seeing photos of Roof clutching the Confederate flag, “and I just need to know if I’m thinking right.”

A rally against the Confederate flag in Columbia, S.C., June 20, 2015
A rally against the Confederate flag in Columbia, S.C., June 20, 2015. (Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images)

She had decided that the flag needed to come down. She met with members of both parties. She cried during a press conference. When legislation stalled in the House, Haley huddled with her fellow Republicans to make sure they understood what was at stake.

“I told them they had not heard me talk a lot about race,” she recently explained, “but I wanted them to know a story.”

One day, when Haley was 10, she convinced her father to let her drive with him to Columbia, the state capital, about an hour away from home. On the way they stopped at a fruit stand. As her dad began to fill a bag with produce, Haley glanced at the register. The owners looked nervous. One of them picked up the phone. Moments later, a pair of police cars sped up to the stand. Even as a grade schooler, Haley realized that the cops were “there because of us.”

“I have to pass that farmer’s stand every time I go to the airport,” Haley told the Republicans. “And every time I pass it I feel pain.”

“The Statehouse belongs to everybody,” she continued. “No child should drive by the Statehouse and feel pain.”

The bill passed soon after.

Later, Haley indicated she would not support legislation introduced by the South Carolina state Senate that would require transgender individuals to use restrooms based on the gender they were assigned at birth.

President Donald Trump with Nikki Haley and ambassadors
President Donald Trump hosts ambassadors from the U.N. Security Council with Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., in 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

When Trump ascended to the top of the GOP polls in the summer of 2015, Haley was one of the first Republicans to speak out against him. “We need to make sure that we’re always communicating in a way that’s got respect and dignity,” Haley said at the time. “When we saw all of this happen [in South Carolina], people respected each other. They may have disagreed, but they respected each other. That tone is important for the country. ... A harsh tone ... hurts people, and it’s just not necessary.”

Instead, Haley backed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, then sided with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz after Rubio dropped out. Ultimately she said she would vote for Trump — even though she was “not a fan.”

Offered the U.N. ambassadorship, Haley nonetheless went on to “navigat[e] the Trump era with a singular shrewdness, messaging and maneuvering in ways that kept her in solid standing both with the GOP donor class as well as with the president and his base,” as Politico’s Tim Alberta wrote in a 2021 profile.

Her non-MAGA reputation aside, though, Haley is not a moderate. Even after Charleston, she didn’t call for new gun control measures. As governor, she pushed steep cuts to the state budget. She sought to curb regulations and limit lawsuits. She was vehemently opposed to Obamacare. She backed voter ID laws. She was hostile to unions.

But in 2024’s Republican Party, that’s no longer enough. Once upon a time, Republicans chose Haley to deliver their response to Obama’s final State of the Union address because she represented the party they hoped the GOP was becoming: younger, more diverse, and more consistently, thoughtfully conservative. Then Trump hijacked 2016.

The question now is whether Haley has what it takes to steer the Republican Party back on that track — or lead them somewhere new.