There is no Nikki Haley ‘moment’

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Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley went into damage control this week over her comments about the Civil War.

At an event on Wednesday in Berlin, New Hampshire, someone asked her what caused the bloody conflict. What followed was a garbled and evasive mish-mash of words where she said “I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run. The freedoms and what people couldn’t do.” Eventually, she asked her questioner what he thought the cause was.

On Thursday, she began damage control, saying on a New Hampshire talk radio show that “Of course the Civil War was about slavery” before bizarrely saying “that’s the easy part of it.” At another campaign event in North Conway, she said later tried to clarify her comments in a painful monologue.

This would be an unacceptable answer for any presidential candidate given that the answer was simple: slavery. It’s especially dire for a woman who prided herself on taking down the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol after a white supremacist murdered nine Black parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015. Indeed, the letter South Carolina sent declaring its secession from the union in 1861 cited “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery” and feared Abraham Lincoln’s election because his “opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.”

But Ms Haley’s problems run far deeper than one simple prevaricating comment about the Civil War. Rather, the larger structural problems within Ms Haley’s candidacy have now come into full relief and she still faces the same obstacle that every Republican not named Donald Trump has – the math isn’t on her side.

Since she launched her campaign in February, Ms Haley benefited from two windfalls: breathless favourable media coverage as the political press hopes to find a Republican who simultaneously is not Mr Trump while and who does not come off as too odious in their delivery; the second is debates in which Mr Trump chose not to participate.

As Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s campaign failed to live up to its expectations, donors began to flock to Ms Haley. Similarly, her pushback against businessman Vivek Ramaswamy in debates has generated viral moments. This led to New Hampshire’s Governor Chris Sununu backing Ms Haley and campaigning for her.

But even as her numbers have gone up, she has little chance of competing against Mr Trump, who nominated her to be the US ambassador to the United Nations.

In Iowa, Ms Haley now polls in second place in most surveys. That’s still not enough. An Emerson College poll showed that she more than tripled her support in the Hawkeye State. But that just means she went from 5 per cent in May to 17 per cent in December, compared to Mr Trump who enjoys 50 per cent of the vote. While she is the second choice of 44 per cent of Mr DeSantis’s dwindling supporters, 28 per cent would break for Mr Trump, giving him an even bigger boost.

Spencer Kimball, Emerson’s polling director, said when the poll was released that Ms Haley “support among post-graduate GOP voters where her support has increased by 27 points since September.” Unfortunately for her, most Republicans don’t have post-graduate degrees and the GOP is increasingly becoming a party populated by non-college educated voters.

Ms Haley has bet that she could break out in New Hampshire. Indeed, the state’s voters are not the same flavour as Iowa’s religious conservatives. And Ms Haley has gained ground in the Granite State. A St Anselm College Survey Center report showed she has doubled her support since September. But that just means she went from having 15 per cent of the vote to 30 per cent while Mr Trump has the support of 44 per cent of voters in New Hampshire.

All of these problems existed for her before her gaffe about the Civil War. And there is little evidence that Ms Haley, who in the past has criticised Mr Trump harshly before ultimately folding, could ever win over his slice of the GOP. That means she has to compete with Mr DeSantis in places like Iowa and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie in New Hampshire for the same piece of the pie. As long as that’s the case, any candidate will not have a shot at putting up a competitive campaign against Mr Trump.

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There is no Nikki Haley ‘moment’

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