It’s Thursday lunchtime in Iowa and, upstairs in a boathouse on the banks of the Cedar River, Nikki Haley is making her case to be president.
The modestly sized venue is packed. The crowd is polite and receptive, and also notably upscale.
These aren’t country club Republicans as such but they are clearly more prosperous than the MAGA battalions who make up former President Trump’s base. At least two people in the question-and-answer session will talk about the tough challenges facing veterans.
Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, is fond of reminding skeptics that she has never lost an election. Watching her at close quarters, it’s easy to see why.
The positions she enunciates are firmly conservative. She shows no reluctance to plunge into culture war issues, including immigration, “wokeness” in education, and support for law enforcement.
But Haley leavens the seriousness of her conservatism with a mix of charm and self-deprecation.
Her stump speech includes a memory of celebrating a victory over recalcitrant colleagues in South Carolina by “blasting through the statehouse Pat Benatar’s ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot.’”
Her remarks end with an instruction that, if the audience likes what they have heard, they should each tell 10 people. And if they don’t, Haley adds with a theatrical flourish — “Shhhhh!”
Afterwards, Haley waits to shake every hand, dispensing smiles and pleasantries all the way down the line.
One line in her remarks might be more politically important than any other, however.
“The polls you see today are not the polls you are going to see a year from now,” Haley says.
She badly needs this prediction to be right. And she is betting that old-school campaigning here will make it so.
The boathouse event, held in Waterloo, brought her count of campaign events in the Hawkeye State to 20 since she announced her candidacy in mid-February. By the end of the following day — last Friday — the tally stood at 22.
When Haley tells Iowans that nobody will outwork her in the search for their vote, she seems like she means it.
Will it work?
A crowded 2024 GOP field
Haley faces major challenges — the most immediate being the possibility that she will get squeezed out by the two biggest names, former President Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
In national polls, the contest right now is a two-horse race — even though DeSantis is only expected to make his official entrance into the race later this week.
In the weighted polling average maintained by FiveThirtyEight, Trump stood at about 54 percent support as of Monday afternoon, with DeSantis at about 21 percent. Haley registered just 4 percent support nationally.
Complicating the calculus for her even more, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) entered the presidential race on Monday.
It’s a rarity to have two South Carolinians running for president and, if both stay in the race, they could make fundraising more arduous and, ultimately, damage each other’s chances of a strong showing in the crucial Palmetto State primary next year.
But, despite those downsides, there are some reasons for optimism in the Haley camp.
Polling in Iowa is sparse at this stage of the race, but one of the few recent surveys showed Haley making progress. The poll, from Victory Insights, showed the former South Carolina governor in double figures, just 10 points behind DeSantis. They were both well behind Trump, but also well clear of the rest of the field.
The poll was also taken more than a month ago. At least as Team Haley sees it, there is plenty of time for her skill at retail politics to move the needle even more.
“We said we weren’t going to do any shortcuts,” Haley told The Hill in an exclusive interview before another campaign stop, in Dubuque. “This is about touching as many hands as you can. This is about getting your message out. This is about getting people to trust you, and to earn their support. And so we will do town hall after town hall after town hall. We will stay until the last person is done.”
She insisted that, even in an age where candidates have innumerable options for connecting with voters, from cable news to Twitter and TikTok, putting in the miles from town to town can still break through.
“Even now, nothing takes the place of that eye-to-eye contact,” she says. “The shaking hands, the really getting to know people and them getting to know you — I just think that’s more meaningful. It’s easy to come in and do a rally and leave.”
Haley and Trump
The last remark could be seen as a jab at Trump, who can draw crowds but who generally feels no need to adopt the campaigning cadence that Haley has thrown herself into.
Haley, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the early part of Trump’s term, is trying to thread a fine needle when it comes to the former president.
At times, she seeks to make an asset of her service to him.
Her stump speech includes an anecdote about presenting the then-president with a briefing book showing the amount of foreign aid being given to nations that often voted against the U.S. at the United Nations. In Haley’s telling, this produced a characteristically volcanic reaction from Trump.
But she also puts some clear water between herself and the former president.
At one campaign stop last week, in Ankeny, a woman in the audience asked Haley about the length of time some defendants are having to wait before their trials on alleged offenses related to Jan. 6, 2021.
Haley began her answer with language offering a break with Trump:
“I will continue to say it was a terrible day. It was not a beautiful day. It was a terrible day,” she says.
In her interview with The Hill, asked why she believes voters want a “new generation” of leadership, as she often claims, she replies that Americans are “tired of the drama. They’re tired of the noise.”
As for DeSantis’s likely entrance into the race?
“Welcome to the race. We’ve been waiting,” a smiling Haley replied.
But the battlefield is getting more crowded now. The question of whether Haley can carve out her own territory is becoming more acute.
Will Haley’s approach in Iowa benefit her?
Iowa has produced plenty of upsets over the years, in both major parties.
The caucuses first became significant a generation ago when Jimmy Carter won the 1976 Democratic contest, a victory that ultimately catapulted him toward the nomination.
In 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama won in Iowa on a night when Hillary Clinton was relegated to third place, changing that year’s Democratic contest at a stroke.
On the Republican side, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee scored a startling victory in 2008 and, four years later, former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) pulled off a broadly similar feat.
On the other hand, there are plenty of candidates of both parties who have virtually set up home in Iowa before the caucuses — and gone nowhere.
Which fate awaits Haley?
“The odds are against her — but lightning is going to strike somebody,” said David Yepsen, who covered numerous caucuses during a 34-year stretch writing about politics for the Des Moines Register.
“Sure, it’s possible that she does a Jimmy Carter, wins Iowa and goes the distance,” Yepsen adds. “But it is more likely that she carves a niche for herself in a post-Trump era…She will run well enough that by the time this is over, her position will be much enhanced in the national Republican Party.
“She is certainly young enough to fight another day if she doesn’t make it — and she may make it.”
So far, there is at least some evidence that Haley’s bid to turn Iowa in her favor, one potential caucus-goer at time, can’t be wholly ruled out.
After the event in Ankeny, Des Moines resident James Hart tells The Hill that he is impressed:
“Very articulate, well spoken, I think she’s got a good head on her shoulders,” he says. “In Iowa we like to look somebody in the eye and see what kind of character they have. That’s real value.”
In Waterloo, retired educator Beth McCrindle and her attorney husband Kevin McCrindle also seem close to being won over.
“I was in tears about five different times…I think I maybe have found my candidate here,” Beth tells The Hill. “But I will continue to go and hear the others as they come through too.”
No-one is speaking of Haley as a winner yet. For all the warm words, she still runs the risk of being unable to escape the long shadows of Trump and DeSantis.
But ask her about the charge, too often leveled at female candidates, that she’s really running to be vice president, and an emphatic reply comes back.
“I don’t play for second; I’ve never played for second. I’m doing this to win it,” she says.