Despite a double-digit loss to Donald Trump in New Hampshire—which
was as likely a state as any for her to pull off a victory in—Nikki Haley says
she’ll remain in the presidential race, at least until her home state of South
Carolina votes, a month from now. That could prove to be very good news for Joe
Biden and Democrats because right now Haley has an ability to wound Trump in
ways Biden cannot.
To understand why, one must recall that this campaign, or really any campaign, is an ongoing media event that only sporadically breaks through to the attention of most of the 150 million or so Americans who will vote in November.
Trump’s strength as a general election candidate can be at least partly explained by the fact that his comparatively low profile over the last three years has allowed memories of what makes him so repellent to blur. Every time he has been on the ballot, dominating the news—either literally, as in 2016 and 2020, or in spirit, as in 2018—most voters have rejected him and his party (he lost the popular vote in 2016 but prevailed in the Electoral College).
So the more discussion there is of Trump and his shortcomings, the better. But it also depends on who’s doing the discussing. While Biden is nominally possessed of the bully pulpit, his ability to make news about Trump is quite constrained. At the moment, the Biden campaign isn’t really much of a thing (to the apparent consternation of some Democrats, including Barack Obama), and many news organizations don’t have anyone covering it. “Biden Criticizes Trump” just isn’t a front-page story.
“Haley Criticizes Trump,” however, clearly is. The reaction to Trump’s recent remarks confusing her and Nancy Pelosi offer an illustrative case study. In a campaign speech in New Hampshire on January 19, Trump went on a bizarre riff about Haley being in charge of Capitol security on January 6. “Nikki Haley, Nikki Haley, Nikki Haley, did you know they destroyed all of the information, all of the evidence, everything, deleted and destroyed all of it?” he said. “Nikki Haley is in charge of security. We offered her 10,000 people, soldiers, National Guards, whatever they want. They turned it down.” This was not merely a slip of the tongue; he was confusing not names but people and events with whom we are all familiar. One might argue that it suggested a troublingly addled mind.
But Trump says bizarre and nonsensical things in his rambling hour-long speeches all the time. They are usually noticed by one of the social media accounts dedicated to capturing and disseminating such clips, after which Trump opponents will spread them to their own followers. A clip might show up in an MSNBC segment or be mentioned in a column by a liberal writer. But its impact will be limited; most of the time it won’t break through to the wider media world, where major newspapers and the nightly network newscasts show it to audiences that aren’t attentive to every ebb and flow of politics.
Trump’s Haley-Pelosi confusion did break through, not because on its own terms it was so shocking (even if it was), but because Haley herself brought it up in her campaign appearances to criticize Trump. When she did that, there was a gaggle of campaign reporters in the room who were listening to her—and looking for something to write about.
That may be the single most important factor driving campaign coverage: News organizations devote resources and time to the campaign, and the reporters following candidates around have to find different things to report every day. It’s not easy to do when a campaign can be numbingly repetitive; it takes a skilled journalist to listen to a candidate give the same speech she gave yesterday and the day before and the day before that, and somehow manage to write something new about it.
But conflict is always new, especially when there hasn’t been that much of it in a campaign characterized by the reluctance of Trump’s Republican opponents to go after him in anything but the gentlest of terms. In addition, reporters are always drawn to intraparty conflict, which they find inherently more interesting than conflict between parties. Battles within a family can be more compelling than the dog-bites-man of sniping across partisan lines. As a bonus, when Haley attacks Trump in a speech, there will be video that can be shown on TV and “sound” for the radio.
As long as Haley is in the race, she’ll keep criticizing Trump, he’ll go after her, and the conflict between them will remain the locus of news coverage. Followed by a pack of reporters, they’re going to the same places, pursuing the same voters, and working toward a series of voting days in different states that provide structure to the larger story, like the clock ticking down in a sporting event. It’s far more concrete and immediate than the contest between Trump and Biden, which can still feel distant and abstract, something we’ll all get around to focusing on some time in the summer. Which means that the things that happen in the Trump-Haley conflict will be pushed to the top of the news agenda.
Furthermore, Haley is already bringing out the worst in Trump. He has lobbed racist attacks at her, and some ugly misogyny is surely on its way. When he won the New Hampshire primary, a moment when he should have been triumphant, he was instead bitter and angry. “Who the hell was the impostor that went up on stage and claimed a victory? She failed badly,” he said in his characteristically ungracious speech. While his most devoted fans might cheer Trump’s vindictiveness and obsession with slights, to most everyone else those are among his most unappealing traits.
Each day Haley stays in the race will bring more stories in which Trump is attacked by a representative of his own party—for failing to fulfill his promises, for being weak when he pretends to be strong, and for his increasingly questionable cognitive state. Those attacks could resonate with the kind of independents and moderate Republicans who supported Haley in New Hampshire. There may not be enough of them for her to win her party’s nomination, but there are millions in the broader electorate who need the proper nudge to vote against Trump in the general election.
Meanwhile, Joe Biden can wait on the sidelines and preserve his energy and campaign cash for the push to November. Haley may not be trying to do Biden a service, but she is. And the whole country can be thankful.