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Nikki Hayley. Alamy Stock Photo

Larry Donnelly Nikki Haley would crush Biden, but can she beat Trump?

Our columnist looks at where some of the GOP smart money is going, and how Nikki Haley is taking some of the shine off Trump.

THE FOURTH GATHERING, held in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, of a dwindling band of GOP aspirants to be the next President of the United States is in the history books. Similar to the previous three, it was a broadly ignored, “big do nothing burger” – and that is being charitable. It will not move the needle an iota and was again boycotted by the only man who could dramatically expand the audience and level of interest, Donald Trump.

The clash was noteworthy in one sense, however. That is the extent to which the erstwhile leading alternative to Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and the increasingly absurd businessman, Vivek Ramaswamy, ganged up on the ex-South Carolina Governor and US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who has been nicknamed “bird brain” by the disgraceful president she served in the latter posting.

One to watch

They went after her for a reason. Many Republicans, who have reservations about nominating Trump a third time to sit atop their party’s slate of candidates in November of 2024, have now united around Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants.

According to, which aggregates opinion polls to account for outliers, she is a mere shade behind DeSantis in Iowa, where he has profited from high profile endorsements and support from evangelical Christians there who never warmed to Trump. And she has surged past both DeSantis and the “localish” former New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, to occupy second place comfortably in New Hampshire.

Additionally, much was appropriately made of surveys showing Trump in front of President Joe Biden in the key battleground states. Haley has a greater advantage, though. The national averages show her five percentage points ahead of President Biden, with Trump and DeSantis two and one percent ahead, respectively.

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This vital indicator undeniably factored into the recent decision of the famous, or infamous, billionaire Koch brothers, hugely influential in Republican circles, to endow Haley with their massive financial and organisational heft. There is little doubt either that she will benefit substantially or that this is a damaging, perhaps lethal, wallop to DeSantis’ ambitions.

But, and it is an enormous BUT, still has Haley down approximately 33 percentage points to Trump in both Iowa and New Hampshire. She trails the undisputed favourite by a whopping 50 percentage points nationally.

The Trump question

There is, of course, the conundrum that will continue to perplex political scientists and strategists for generations to come: Why does Donald Trump inspire uniquely unshakeable loyalty in his adopted party’s faithful? The concomitant quandary at present for Haley is whether the mountain is too steep to climb with just a month to go before the primary process kicks off in earnest?

As for the first, there is a cult of personality surrounding the defendant in four criminal prosecutions. For tens of millions of Americans who disdain politics and politicians as usual, who care little what happens beyond the borders of the US and who want to turn the clock back in a country they no longer identify with as readily, Trump was, and remains, heaven sent.

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Speaking of the divine, for the vast swathe of people on the ideological right who describe themselves above all as proud social conservatives, Donald Trump is the man who accomplished the ultimate objective they have pursued and prayed for relentlessly since 1973: the reversal of Roe v Wade.

“God works in mysterious ways” is their mantra when asked how they reconcile their unwavering devotion to a patently immoral individual with their genuine religious beliefs.

From a raw political perspective, operatives linked to Trump cite the truth that he alone in 2016 grasped that American conservatism had transformed profoundly since it was defined by Ronald Reagan’s small government philosophy, sunny disposition and conviction that the US had a big role to play in global affairs. Whereas the likes of Mitt Romney and John McCain were dismal failures, Trump assembled an ostensibly incongruous winning coalition of working class whites, Latinos and a surprising number of Black men, while retaining a significant cadre of traditional Republican voters.

Conversely, Trump has driven away many women and men his party used to count on. Scores of affluent, well-educated, suburban dwelling Americans cannot stomach his ugly persona and poisonous rhetoric.

Young women especially find decades of offensive behaviour he typically bragged about appalling and are enraged that he has dealt a major blow to their bodily autonomy and reproductive rights, which legions of activists had fought long and hard to guarantee.

Nikki Haley is subtly making the case that she can draw lots of these voters – who may tell the tale in crucial states with shifting demographics, such as Georgia and Arizona – to the GOP, up and down the ticket and across the US. Doing so would more than counterbalance a loss of enthusiasm and turnout deficit among Trump die-hards, who are put off by her apparent unease with what she might privately term her party’s retrograde pivot, her internationalist bent and to a lesser degree, sadly, her ethnicity.

To address the second question posed, then, it is improbable, if not impossible, that Haley can persuade the amount of converts required at this late phase – not on the merits of her messaging, at any rate. What she, and others who can’t abide Donald Trump, hope is that he finally is so ensnared in his legal troubles that it becomes untenable for him to proceed in the eyes of enough of those who select the standard bearer in the primaries.

Yet no matter if things get considerably worse for him in the courts, it seems at this juncture that it will take an absolutely monumental sequence of events for his large, committed following to abandon ship. The prospect of a youthful, vibrant, articulate, unashamedly conservative woman whose skin complexion reflects the changing racial composition of the citizenry wiping the floor with a clearly outmatched President Biden on a debate stage won’t deter them.

Yes, Donald Trump is currently favoured to vanquish the incumbent. But were she to manage an almost unfathomable upset and emerge as the nominee, I am convinced that Nikki Haley would be pretty close to a dead cert to be the 47th POTUS.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a political columnist with

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