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That's A Wrap

How the Supreme Court Ended Nikki Haley’s Campaign

Her entire candidacy was predicated on the notion that she’d be there if Trump’s legal woes caught up with him. Two controversial high court rulings ended that dream.

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley announces the suspension of her presidential campaign at her campaign headquarters in Daniel Island, South Carolina.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley announces the suspension of her presidential campaign at her campaign headquarters in Daniel Island, South Carolina.

Nikki Haley suffered not one but two monumental defeats this week. The obvious one came on a not-so-Super Tuesday, as Republican voters (outside of Vermont, anyway) embraced Donald Trump’s rotoscope vision for a second term, leading Haley to formally drop out of the race. But the less commented-upon but perhaps more significant pasting came at the hands of the Supreme Court—a one-two punch, really. First, the court abetted the Trump team’s wish to extend his federal trial as far into the future as possible. Then, the day before Haley’s electoral slaughter, they nullified Colorado’s invalidation of Trump’s place on the ballot. Together, those actions eliminated what was probably Haley’s play all along: being the warm body waiting in the wings, ready to step forward the very moment Trump’s legal troubles finally collapsed his ability to stand for election in November.

Naturally, it’s hardly surprising that Haley was unable to actually pry the Republican Party free from the stranglehold that Trump’s stubby fingers have long held over that institution. Trump’s appeal to the GOP base is not, I think, the same as it was eight years ago—his outrageousness was once bracing; today, his resentments have the sticky hold of unwrapped candy—but in this most recent GOP primary, his opponents were hobbled by their own weaknesses. DeSantis dematerialized as a threat as soon as his marble-mouthed cringiness was exposed to voters; Haley’s ceiling was carved, at least in part, by her race and gender. Neither really treated Trump’s many crimes the way a Republican of yesteryear would have: as opposition research. Haley might have done herself a favor if she’d made her hidden play more explicit, raising the specter of a down-by-law Trump in the months before the Supreme Court handed him a Trump-branded set of “get out of jail free” cards.

Here’s one problem Haley didn’t have: Her policy ideas were not even a little bit out of step with the Trumpian right. Her rhetoric on abortion was fluffy enough to confuse both anti-choice forces and journalists, and she made the mistake of being slightly humane in the wake of George Floyd’s death. But aside from some now-outré neoconservative foreign policy flourishes, her politics were as rigidly conservative as any elected Republican’s in today’s party.

Still, she was different. Out of sight from most of the mainstream media, fringy outlets touted rumors of Haley and extramarital affairs; Trump took so much pleasure in mocking her given name—Nimrata—that I can almost believe he mangled it intentionally (you know, like he does), dubbing her both “Nimbra” and “Nimrada.” Notably, even as those dog whistles grew louder and Haley’s chances at an unlikely comeback narrowed, polls of the general electorate showed Haley as an increasingly stronger candidate against Joe Biden; she’s currently beating him by an average of five points in head-to-head polls—or two times the margin that Trump now enjoys. Super Tuesday’s results suggest that the only force stronger than Republican primary voters’ desire to vanquish Biden is their reluctance to vote for anyone but a white man.

Still, the bank-shot defeats at the Supreme Court show how Haley has been ill served by the Republican Party establishment that she campaigned to represent.

Anyone who’s paid attention to the Roberts court’s maximally institutionalist history could have (and many did) predict that the court would make these moves—the Fourteenth Amendment decision, in particular, reeks of Roberts’s fetish for blandly trussing up a novel legal argument as the status quo. And while Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito both regard threats to Trump with the frenzied eyes of black-pilled berzerkers, Roberts has probably conned himself into the belief that protecting Trump’s presence on the ballot is just a matter of not inserting the court into “politics.”

Trump’s atrociousness has not yet ruffled Roberts’s facade of limp competence in public. Perhaps Roberts hangs a MAGA hat in his otherwise spartan office. But I suspect Roberts’s establishmentarianism echoes the rest of the GOP’s rear guard, who have mainly tolerated Trump as a means to preserving their own power. Still, Roberts and company might have done them all a favor—and shoved the Republican Party into Haley’s more dexterous hands—by accepting the Colorado court’s read of the Constitution.

Other states would have been freed to strike the unrepentant insurrectionist off the ballot, and Haley would be left to mop up the support. In one tidy stroke, they could have gotten Trump off their backs, helped defeat Biden, and ensured the calcification of the Federalist Society-to-federal-judiciary pipeline. Best of all: no more coups d’état. A Haley presidency would be far less tastelessly disruptive to the larger mainstream Republican project of amassing untouchable generational wealth in as few families as possible, and Roberts could probably get to retirement without having to worry he’d get stuck talking to Ginni Thomas at the office Christmas party.

Alas, Haley will end her 2024 as a longer-than-average footnote to the Trump revival and, if current pundit analysis continues, a misunderstood one. Her victories among younger, independent, and college-educated voters have led some to believe that Haley is a more moderate candidate than the man she’s losing to. But it’s probably more accurate to say that her appeal is limited to those who still believe that moderate Republican candidates exist.