Opinion | Nikki Haley Was an Illusion. It Just Shattered.

Opinion | Nikki Haley Was an Illusion. It Just Shattered.

Nikki Haley was made for New Hampshire. New Hampshire was made for her.

I kept hearing that, kept reading that, as various political observers turned a myth into a mantra, persuading themselves of her potency and Donald Trump’s vulnerability not only in the Granite State but also beyond it. They wanted so much to believe that Trump’s grip on the Republican Party might be loosening. They were desperate for assurance that he wouldn’t return to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

So a wishful narrative took shape: New Hampshire’s quirky voters would buck Iowans and back Haley. Independents would overwhelm the MAGA minions. She’d notch an upset victory and then, all across a Trump-pummeled land, voters would suddenly realize that they had an alternative, suddenly recognize polls that showed Haley with a better chance in a one-on-one contest against President Biden than Trump had. They would come to their senses. And on the far side of that epiphany gleamed Haley, her youth, ethnic background and gender giving the Republican Party a new vitality. A new image. A fresh start.

What a lovely illusion. It just shattered. The results on Tuesday night, when Trump followed his commanding victory in the Iowa caucuses with a compelling one in the New Hampshire primary, leave Haley with no plausible path to the Republican nomination, not unless something extraordinary happens. The scenario in which she was supposed to topple Trump can now be seen for what it always was: the latest of many fictions in which those of us who rightly fear American democracy’s ability to survive Trump sought consolation.

We told ourselves that Robert Mueller’s investigation or Trump’s first impeachment or his second impeachment would stop him. We told ourselves that the methodical work of the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol would seal his political doom. We told ourselves that he couldn’t survive four indictments encompassing 91 felony counts. We told ourselves that his outbursts were finally growing too vicious, his temper too volcanic, his lies too outrageous and ornate.

Haley flourished in the context of those calming tales. She was a vessel for our hopes. As a result, we upgraded her debate performances from decent to dazzling. We sometimes put as much emphasis on her rise in the polls as on how fatally far behind Trump she remained. The difficulty of accepting Trump’s continued hold on Republican voters became a readiness to accept that voters secretly hankered for the likes of her.

But the evidence never held up. Sure, she raised buckets of money. So did Ron DeSantis — from the same sorts of Republicans, the ones who lost control of the party back in 2016. Yes, she outperformed expectations in the past, becoming governor of a deep red state that didn’t seem to be fertile ground for a trailblazer like her. But she wasn’t running against anyone like Trump back then. She wasn’t dealing with anything like the MAGA movement.

On Tuesday night she put a cheerful, confident face on her defeat in New Hampshire, casting the margin between her and Trump — as of 11:30 p.m., with about 80 percent of the vote counted, she had 43.6 percent to his 54.7 percent — as a triumph and a reason for her campaign to press on. She mocked pundits who, she told her supporters at a rally in Concord, N.H., were “falling all over themselves saying this race is over.”

“Well,” she continued, “I have news for all of them: New Hampshire is first in the nation. It is not last in the nation.” Actually, Iowa is first, and New Hampshire is probably her last stand, a state whose particular Republican primary rules — which allowed an influx of non-Republican voters, who overwhelmingly chose her — gave her a better chance there than perhaps anywhere else.

She spoke on Tuesday night of there being “dozens of states left to go.” Few, if any, look as ideal for her as New Hampshire did. In her home state, South Carolina, which votes in a month, polls show her trailing Trump among Republicans by more than 25 percentage points. I’ll be surprised if she’s still in the race when that contest comes along.

Trump will spend the next days crowing about his back-to-back triumphs in Iowa and New Hampshire: No Republican presidential candidate has won both states and lost the party’s nomination.

He began that crowing in his victory remarks on Tuesday night. “She had to win,” he told supporters in Nashua, N.H., referring to Haley. “She failed badly.” He radiated derision for her and then ceded the microphone to Vivek Ramaswamy, so that somebody else could radiate even more of it. They’re like some nightmare MAGA Batman and Robin. They gave me the shivers.

But while New Hampshire may well guarantee that Trump carries his party’s banner in the general election, it also gave him reason to worry about how well he’ll fare then. The intensity of the anti-Trump vote was clear in that turnout. And the undeclared voters who favored Haley are arguably proxies for the swing voters who can sway a general election.

Trump had surely longed for an even more lopsided win over Haley, and the way in which various Republican officeholders and former primary opponents lined up behind him over the past week created the possibility of that. So did the fact that Trump is running, if we’re honest, as an almost incumbent.

But he underperformed some expectations, and that’s not all that made him look a little wobbly. As Tuesday night neared, his always odd ramblings grew more eccentric still, as Haley acidly pointed out in her remarks to her supporters. “The other day Donald Trump accused me of not providing security at the Capitol on Jan. 6,” she said, referring to his confusion of her with Nancy Pelosi. “Now, I’ve long called for mental competency tests for politicians over the age of 75.”

She can be sharp. We didn’t tell ourselves a fable about that. But in our yearning for her to pose a real threat to Trump and to turn the Republican primary contest into a real fight, we often overestimated her skill and underplayed her flaws, glossing over the gobbledygook that tumbled from her lips, disregarding how disingenuous she seemed to many voters, who had watched her bend this way and that over the years, her ambition constant but her principles up for grabs.

She wasn’t a spectacularly fierce campaigner. She was an adequate one, vying to lead a party so thoroughly in thrall to Trump, so completely dominated by him that adequate was never going to cut it. And our reluctance to reckon with that reflected a more enduring reluctance: to understand that Trump isn’t some phenomenon about to pass, some fever about to break. He was his party’s standard-bearer in 2016 and in 2020, and all signs point to his being his party’s standard-bearer in 2024.

Haley fought that with great energy. I don’t think she ever had a shot.

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