There are now two Republicans running for president: Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and ambassador to the United Nations under President Donald Trump, will make her formal announcement on Feb. 15, joining her former boss as an official candidate. The question isn’t so much whether she can win, but whether and how her campaign can change the party.
As a former governor with some foreign policy experience, Haley is only the second woman with conventional qualifications to run for the Republican nomination, and the first since Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine entered a few primaries in 1964. Since then, the only Republican women to announce they were running for president are Elizabeth Dole in 2000, who at that point had held two minor cabinet posts; Rep. Michele Bachmann in 2012; and business executive Carly Fiorina in 2016.
So Haley’s announcement, whatever happens next, is a significant landmark in terms of normalizing women as presidential candidates on a bipartisan basis. As the child of Indian immigrants, Haley also contributes to the history of ethnic diversity among Republican candidates.
That said, when it comes to party support, Haley is not off to a good start. Most notably, her state’s governor and senior senator already support Trump, while the junior senator is a potential candidate himself. If Haley can’t even solidify support in her own state, it’s not clear why she should expect to gain support from Republican-aligned donors and activists elsewhere. And while it’s possible to win a Republican nomination without party actors — Trump did in 2016 — it’s still the case that they control resources that are valuable in the nomination fight: money, volunteers and expertise, to name a few.
Trump was able to bypass the party in large part because the media gave him so much publicity. That seems unlikely for Haley — especially because Republican-aligned media so far is enamored of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.
Still, it’s early, and surprising things happen in presidential campaigns. Haley has no evident disqualifications and appears to be within the ideological mainstream of the party. That suggests that if she ever does catch fire, there’s no obvious reason she would collapse.
And remember: While the media focus on which candidate will win, the most important aspect of the nomination process is how the party uses it to redefine itself. Ideology, policy positions, symbolic commitments: They’re all up for grabs. And in the last half century or so, as the presidency has become more partisan, it has become a reflection of the party’s priorities far more than the president’s personality.
Recall that in 2008, the leading Democrats all ran on different versions of what eventually became the Affordable Care Act — not on climate issues or energy plans or anything else a candidate may have wanted to prioritize. And in 2020, the nomination was fought among mainstream and more extreme liberals. The result has been a Joe Biden presidency that has been a combination of mainstream and extreme liberal policies.
It’s not yet clear exactly how Haley will position herself within the Republican Party. But Trump is promising an even more Trumpy party, and DeSantis is basically pushing Trumpism without Trump. Haley has the background to run as both a traditional conservative and a Trump radical. If she does, it will be a good test of how that might work — and whether it appeals to party actors and Republican voters.