Nikki, the rabbit
Goldstone is the author of the forthcoming "Not White Enough: The Long Shameful Road to Japanese American Internment."
Nikki Haley’s announcement that she was entering the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination should have evoked cheers among party leaders. Here was a non-white woman just over fifty, the daughter of immigrants with a compelling, up-by-the-bootstraps life story, who had become the United States’ first female Asian American governor. Haley is articulate, personable, less extreme than many other potential candidates, and, in addition to serving as South Carolina’s chief executive, she also represented the United States in the United Nations.
Who better to help a party widely accused of racism and misogyny to improve and expand its appeal?
Haley is more than aware that running as an anomaly can turn what would have been weaknesses into strengths. “We’re ready to move past the stale ideas and faded names of the past. And we are more than ready for a new generation to lead us into the future,” she exclaimed, touting herself as the candidate who could restore greatness to a nation that was “on a path of doubt, division, and self-destruction” and “of fading patriotism and weakening power.”
“Stale ideas and faded names,” was a bold statement, since anyone vying for the Republican nomination has an additional worry beyond the standard problems of raising money, getting the message out, and persuading voters that they are the best person to embody and promote conservative values. Under normal circumstances, Haley could have expected a withering assault from Mr. Stale Ideas and Faded Names himself, Donald Trump, the same prospect that has kept other, more weak-kneed challengers on the sidelines.
But Trump’s attacks have yet to materialize. Even more surprising, he seemed to welcome her into the race. As he wrote on Truth Social, “Nikki has to follow her heart, not her honor. She should definitely run!” Although he was gibing Haley for previous statements that she would not go against him, to say that this was a mild attack by a man totally lacking any sense of decency is an understatement. Even subsequent ripostes by Trump minions, calling her “just her another career politician,” are hardly up to the standards of a man who once blamed tough debate questions on a woman’s menstrual cycle.
The fact is, Trump does want her to run. More than that, he needs her to. Trump is desperate for a wide field in the primaries and would benefit enormously from a challenger who represents no real threat and to whom he can appear, by his standards, almost chivalrous.
Polls evaluating potential Republican candidates, while unreliable at this point and subject to vast swings, nonetheless make it clear that Trump’s chances of winning the nomination are far better in a diffuse field than in a head-to-head contest with Ron DeSantis. In a recent Monmouth University poll, for example, DeSantis beats Trump 53-40 if they are the only two in the race, while in a Morning Consult poll that included a dozen potential candidates, Trump thumped DeSantis 47-31. Although each poll has its own methodology, Trump has fared worse mano a mano with DeSantis in almost all of them.
In addition, Haley may have the potential to draw more votes away from DeSantis than other potential rivals, such as the two Mikes, Pompeo and Pence, or fringe entrants like Ted Cruz or Chris Christie. In a Yahoo News/YouGov poll, while DeSantis has a 45-41 lead over Trump head-to-head, “In a hypothetical three-way match-up, Haley effectively plays the spoiler, attracting 11% of Republicans and Republican-leaners while DeSantis’s support falls by roughly the same amount (to 35%), leaving Trump with more votes than either of them at 38%.”
And so, Trump’s reaction to Haley’s announcement was muted and is likely to remain so. Party leaders, on the other hand, although they will be loath to say so publicly, were likely none too pleased with Haley’s decision.
It has become an open secret that many Republicans dread the idea of Trump gaining the 2024 nomination. With him both the titular and spiritual leader of the party, Republicans have underperformed in three consecutive national elections, losing the presidency and the Senate and barely taking back the House, despite subterranean approval ratings for President Biden.
Once considered apostasy, some, such as Mitch McConnell, ethically challenged in his own right, have publicly called for a different presidential nominee in 2024. McConnell, who would give a body part to again be majority leader, is particularly aggressive about calling for change. Republicans need to pick up one, perhaps two Senate seats in 2024 if he is to achieve that aim, and under normal circumstances, he would be a heavy favorite to do so.
Seats in Montana, Ohio, and Arizona, and perhaps West Virginia, Nevada, and Wisconsin could easily flip red if Republicans nominate reasonable candidates, even if they are hard right. But in the last two Senate cycles, Trump has forced a series of laughably poor candidates on the party, some of whom seemed barely literate. Almost all lost. With Trump at the head of the ticket, that debacle may well repeat. (Kevin McCarthy should be aware of a similar risk, but in addition to other shortcomings, he lacks McConnell’s savvy.)
Despite the one poll that shows her at 11%, Haley does not crack 10% in any other. In addition, her profile, while perhaps appealing to a large segment of Republicans will be an impediment with others—the racist and misogynist labels did not come out of nowhere, after all.
In other words, Nikki Haley’s chances of actually winning the nomination are minimal, something of which she cannot help but be cognizant. Other than a lightning-in-a-bottle strategy, it is useful to try to divine her motivation for joining the race.
In another kind of race, middle distance running, when one or more of the entrants is trying for a world record, they will often ask someone with no chance of winning but with a good shorter distance speed to enter as the “rabbit.” It is a thankless task, running hard early only to finish last, the only reward for which is the gratitude of the real runners.
Gratitude in a mile race might be a couple of dollars sent the rabbit’s way. In a presidential race, the reward could be greater, perhaps the chance to live at the Naval Observatory, the official residence of the vice president, or to occupy the big office at the Department of State.
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