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Nikki Haley Is the New Never-Trump Great Hope

This might be Nikki Haley’s moment.

Not her moment to become the Republican presidential front-runner. (Don’t be silly.) Not even her moment to nip at Donald Trump’s heels. But it could be her chance to consolidate the anti-Trump support in the GOP and make a solid play for the silver medal and maybe a good speaking slot at the RNC in Milwaukee next summer.

The former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador has risen, slightly, in recent polls, and is now third in RealClearPolitics’ average of national polls, after Trump and Ron DeSantis. She is consistently coming in second in polling in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire, having pulled ahead of DeSantis there. This week, she picked up the endorsement of former Representative Will Hurd when he dropped out of the Republican race. She’s appearing at two major donor conferences this month. Her boomlet is a long way from the big candidate bubbles of the 2012 and 2016 GOP primaries, but it’s the most notable surge in the race right now.

Haley has brought this about in part with strong performances at debates, where she’s managed to come off as an adult (sorry, Vivek), a lively presence (sorry, Mike and Tim), and an actual alternative to Trump without letting that define her (sorry, Chris). But more than anything, she has benefited from the dramatic flameout of DeSantis.

Nearly a year of campaigning has revealed a huge gap between “Ron DeSantis,” the candidate who conservative elites thought they were getting when they coalesced behind him last fall, and Ron DeSantis, the actual man who Americans have seen on the trail. Influential conservatives imagined a charismatic, crusading figure who could marry the belligerent rhetoric of Trump to a more traditional conservative platform and effective, low-drama governance. Plus he was a winner: Unlike Trump, who led Republicans to defeat or underperformance in 2018, 2020, and 2022, DeSantis had romped in Florida in the 2022 midterms. (Democrats also feared he was a formidable contender.)

This combination enthralled old-school Republicans who had not either surrendered to Trumpism or abandoned the party. National Review practically became a DeSantis fanzine. Rupert Murdoch’s influential empire excitedly covered him, with the New York Post labeling him “DeFUTURE.”

Instead, they’ve gotten DeFlation. Just as my colleague Mark Leibovich predicted last November, the more people get to know DeSantis, the less they like him. He delivers his lines like, well, he’s delivering lines. He seems incapable of talking to people like he’s a human being. His election-fraud squad and anti-Disney onslaught petered out. His vaunted campaign meme farm turns out to have had a thing for Nazi imagery. His flop reboot showed that the only boots that give him any lift are Cuban heels. Most lethally, from the standpoint of his bandwagon backers, he has failed to come close to challenging Trump’s dominance in the race, which was his whole appeal. (Though some backers simply refuse to believe it.) Donors have fled. A super PAC backing DeSantis has cut spending and lost staff. Murdoch has quickly gotten over DeSantis, like just another romantic partner.

Thus the Haley buzz right now. Hurd’s support won’t do much for Haley on its own—if he had many followers, he wouldn’t be dropping out—but it bespeaks the concern of anti-Trump Republicans that they must consolidate to defeat Trump, and that DeSantis is simply not capable of doing that.

But although it’s true that DeSantis looks like a terrible candidate, his ultimate problem was not that he’s a terrible candidate but rather that GOP primary voters don’t want someone other than Trump. The premise of the Haley boomlet, insofar as it exists, is that Republicans would choose another candidate if only the right one presented him- or herself. But Trump is consistently polling above 50 percent among GOP voters nationally. This isn’t a replay of 2016, where he managed to squeak past a splintered field but never achieved more than plurality support until he’d clinched the nomination.

Trump-chilly Republican elites still haven’t accepted the reality that rank-and-file Republican voters have a different ideology than they do. What’s surprising is that even after failing to stop Trump in 2016 and seven years of eulogies for the Republican establishment, party elites still don’t get that. Speaking to a conference of his former donors yesterday, Mitt Romney said, “I want to put responsibility on your shoulders as the people who are financing campaigns to have some say as to when it’s time for the person you support to say, ‘Okay, I’m getting behind someone else.’”

The donors, who presumably didn’t come into their piles of money by being bad at math, can run the numbers easily enough and see the flaws in this argument: Even if every Republican candidate except Trump dropped out and backed Haley, she’d still be trailing Trump. (That’s obviously not going to happen, especially given how bad the vibes are between Haley and Ramaswamy.) This makes Haley’s rise intellectually interesting, but it also means it will likely just be a footnote to Trump’s renomination.

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