Nikki Haley’s Problem: Her Party Is Nuts
Iowa and New Hampshire have exposed the pathologies of Republican voters.
NIKKI HALEY HAS NOW BEATEN DONALD TRUMP TWICE, in Iowa and New Hampshire, among two groups of voters who, in a saner world, would be deciding the Republican presidential nomination. The first group is Republican primary and caucus voters who acknowledge that Trump legitimately lost the 2020 presidential election. The second group, which overlaps with the first, is Republican primary and caucus voters who accept that if Trump were to be convicted of a crime, he would be unfit to serve as president.
Haley’s problem—and the problem for her party, our country, and the world—is that neither of these groups represents a majority of Republicans or Republican primary voters. Most rank-and-file Republicans deny the results of the 2020 election and are willing to support a convicted criminal for president. The Republican electorate is deeply pathological. And Haley’s losses to Trump are a measure of that pathology.
In the entrance poll conducted at last week’s Iowa caucuses, Haley easily defeated Trump, 53 to 11 percent, among caucusgoers who acknowledged that Biden legitimately won the 2020 election. (Ron DeSantis and other candidates got the remainder.) But Trump crushed Haley, 69 to 5 percent, among caucusgoers who insisted that Biden hadn’t legitimately won. And these election deniers made up two-thirds of the Republican caucus electorate.
On the question of crimes, the numbers were almost identical. Haley beat Trump 49 to 10 percent among caucusgoers who conceded that if Trump were to be convicted, he would be unfit to serve. But only 31 percent of caucusgoers accepted that standard. Twice as many, 65 percent, rejected it—they said a criminal conviction shouldn’t stand in Trump’s way—and this majority chose Trump over Haley, 72 to 5 percent.
Iowa Republicans also rejected a more basic proposition: that a criminal conviction should make Trump less worthy of their support in a general election. In the final Des Moines Register poll, only 18 percent of likely Republican caucusgoers said a conviction of Trump would make them less willing to support him. Haley led Trump among this small minority. But Trump handily beat her among the 80 percent of likely caucusgoers who said a conviction wouldn’t matter or would make them more likely to support him in a general election.
In New Hampshire yesterday, Haley did better, largely because independent voters, who tend to be more reasonable on these questions, made up a larger share of the Republican primary electorate. Again, Haley trounced Trump among voters who said Biden had legitimately won in 2020, while Trump trounced Haley among voters who said Biden hadn’t legitimately won. But in New Hampshire, people who said Biden had legitimately won made up nearly half (47 percent) of the primary electorate.
Likewise, Haley easily beat Trump among voters who said a criminal conviction would make him unfit to serve as president, and Trump easily beat Haley among voters who said a conviction wouldn’t make him unfit to serve. But in New Hampshire, 42 percent of voters accepted the idea that a conviction would be disqualifying. If 55 or 60 percent of voters had accepted that idea or had agreed that Biden legitimately won in 2020—in other words, if the Republican primary electorate had been, on balance, rational—you can see how Haley, by doing well among those voters, might have won.
YOU COULD ARGUE that the causality runs the other way: that most Republican voters simply love Trump, and therefore they’re willing to say that he was the real winner in 2020 or that he’d be fit to serve again despite a criminal conviction. But that’s just another way of conceding their pathology. Sensible people don’t let sympathy for a politician drive them to such recklessness.
The derangement doesn’t stop at election denial. It extends to violence. The clearest illustration comes from a poll of likely New Hampshire Republican primary voters, taken by YouGov and UMass Lowell’s Center for Public Opinion from January 6 to 16. The poll asked respondents whether they supported or opposed “full pardons for all Americans arrested for their participation in the riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.” According to the center’s director of survey research, John Cluverius, Haley led Trump by 55 to 29 percent among respondents who opposed such pardons. But Trump led Haley by 65 to 18 percent among respondents who supported the pardons.
Haley’s problem, mathematically, was that 58 percent of the poll’s respondents supported the pardons. Only 42 percent opposed the pardons. She was dealing with an electorate that favored pardons for the January 6th arrestees and therefore, on balance, favored Trump. She needed saner people to show up on Tuesday. And not nearly enough of them did.
Keep up with all our coverage of 2024—in articles, newsletters, podcasts, and more—by signing up today:
National pollsters haven’t looked at how Trump voters and Haley voters answer questions about violence, criminal convictions, or election denial. But the general pattern is that self-identified independents are much more reasonable than self-identified Republicans on these questions, and Haley does about twice as well among independents as she does among Republicans.
In a December Yahoo News/YouGov survey, 53 percent of self-identified Republicans said they would approve of Trump pardoning himself if he were to regain the presidency after being “convicted of a serious crime.” Sixty-three percent said Trump should appoint a special prosecutor to “go after” Biden and his family. Seventy-one percent endorsed Trump’s promise “to be a dictator on Day One but not after.” On all these questions, independents disagreed with Republicans. And independents said they were twice as likely to vote for Haley: 17 percent of them supported her, compared to 8 percent of Republicans.
In a January Harvard CAPS/Harris poll, 84 to 91 percent of Republican voters said they would still vote for Trump against Biden, even if Trump were “convicted by a jury for inciting the Capitol riots of January 6th,” convicted of “crimes related to his handling of classified presidential documents,” or found guilty of RICO violations for “trying to influence the 2020 election results in Georgia.” Three-quarters of Republicans said Trump “should have immunity for his actions on January 6th.” Again, independents disagreed with Republicans on these questions. And again, independents were twice as likely to vote for Haley: 20 percent of them supported her, compared to 9 percent of Republicans.
NOBODY SHOULD MAKE EXCUSES for Haley’s defeats. This is the party she chose to run in, and—like Trump in 2020—she lost fair and square. But what’s happening to her is less important than what’s happening to her party. One after another, candidates who stood for any semblance of decency, honesty, or acceptance of reality—Mike Pence, Asa Hutchinson, Chris Christie—have been forced out. They’re gone because, as Christie put it on a hot mic two weeks ago, Republican voters “don’t want to hear it. We know we’re right, but they don’t want to hear it.”
Haley will be the next to go. The Republican primaries have become a test not of the candidates, but of the sanity of the Republican electorate. And sanity is losing.