Let’s start by stating the obvious: it’s very unlikely any of the eight candidates on stage for the August 23 debate in Milwaukee will become next year’s Republican presidential nominee. All nationwide and early-state polls point to the same conclusion: most GOP voters aren’t looking for an alternative to Donald Trump. They don’t find his baggage disqualifying. He’ll be the nominee unless he is physically incapacitated between now and next summer.
With that assumption in mind, we should think about “winners” from the first Republican National Committee debate in a different way. The question isn’t who improved their chances of winning this race, but rather, who made sure they will remain relevant, both in this election cycle and in the future, when Trump won’t be on the ballot?
From that perspective, no one had a better night than former South Carolina Governor and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley. Here’s why:
Haley made the best use of her speaking time.
Fox News personalities Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum did a horrendous job as moderators. They phrased some questions poorly, couldn’t control the crowd interruptions, didn’t enforce the time limits for responses, and didn’t give everyone a chance to speak on some topics.
That forced candidates to take the initiative, and Haley did. She used a solid one-liner, invoking the Margaret Thatcher quote that inspired a book Haley wrote: “This is exactly why Margaret Thatcher said, ‘If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”
She tangled with rising star Vivek Ramaswamy on foreign policy. She set herself apart from the field with unusual rhetoric on abortion, and criticized Trump by name.
CNN calculated the speaking time for all eight candidates and found Haley in fifth place, with a big gap between her and the four contenders who got more time. On that metric, she was only about 30 seconds ahead of Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, who waited patiently for a chance to speak instead of barging in like some others.
Yet Haley made it onto post-debate “highlight reels” and was in several clips shared widely on social media last night. Scott and Burgum delivered their practiced lines but didn’t leave much of an impression.
In a CNN focus group of Iowa Republicans, a plurality of seven voters thought Ramaswamy won the debate. But Haley came second with four people saying she did the best. Only two people in that focus group said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis won the debate, and no one picked Scott, Burgum, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, or former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson.
She emphasized her strengths.
Aside from being the only woman in the field, Haley’s experience as UN ambassador during the Trump administration distinguishes her from most of the other candidates. She typically spends more time on foreign policy during her stump speeches than the others.
GOP primary voters aren’t primarily concerned about foreign policy (unless you count immigration/securing the southern border). But U.S. aid to Ukraine has become a hot topic, and Haley provided the best rebuttal to Ramaswamy on that score. Not only did she put him on the defensive over his stance on aid to Israel, she capped it off with one of the evening’s most quotable lines: “You would make America less safe. You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows. It shows.”
Haley wasn’t the only rival to ding Ramaswamy for his lack of experience. But when Pence said, “We don’t need to bring in a rookie,” many in the audience jeered at him.
She told Republicans some hard truths.
Haley’s typical stump speech includes a riff with “hard truths” about the national debt and the “spending addiction” that affects Republicans as well as Democrats in Washington. She expanded on that point at the debate.
“No one is telling the American people the truth” about how Republicans contributed to the country’s biggest problems, Haley said. “The truth is that Biden didn’t do this to us, our Republicans did this to us too. When they passed that 2.2 trillion-dollar COVID stimulus bill, they left us with 90 million people on Medicaid, 42 million people on food stamps.”
Haley didn’t just slam borrowing and spending policies in vague terms. She called out DeSantis, Scott, and Pence for voting to raise the debt limit, adding, “and Donald Trump added 8 trillion to our debt, and our kids are never going to forgive us for this.”
She then asserted that Congressional Republicans asked for $7.4 billion in earmarks for the 2024 federal budget, while Democrats asked for $2.8 billion. “So you tell me who are the big spenders. I think it’s time for an accountant in the White House.” The line was well-received.
I’ve noted in the past that most of Haley’s “hard truths” about the federal budget don’t challenge the prevailing beliefs of the GOP base. Who likes the DC establishment?
But she definitely broached an uncomfortable topic for Republicans last night.
A time-honored debate tactic is to pivot from the question you were asked to the one you want to answer. DeSantis was clumsy when he attempted the maneuver on stage in Milwaukee. But Haley did it well when asked about Pence’s actions on January 6, 2021. She spent about five seconds on that question before moving to a case against Trump’s candidacy. Watch:
Nikki Haley: "Trump is the most disliked politician in America. We cannot win a general election that way." pic.twitter.com/tRKO0vGngG— Republican Accountability (@AccountableGOP) August 24, 2023
I do think that Vice President Pence did the right thing, and I do think that we need to give him credit for that. But what I will also tell you is—look, I mean, when it comes to whether President Trump should serve or not, I trust the American people. Let them vote. Let them decide.
But what they will tell you is that it is time for a new, generational conservative leader. We have to look at the fact that three-quarters of Americans don’t want a rematch between Trump and Biden.
And we have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America. We can’t win a general election that way.
To be clear: that’s not a winning argument with Republicans now. Quite a few people in the live debate audience booed, and they weren’t outliers. Polls consistently show most GOP voters don’t buy electability arguments against Trump. According to the recent Iowa Poll by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register, NBC News, and Mediacom, a majority of likely participants in the 2024 GOP caucuses believe Trump won the 2020 election.
The same poll found, “65% of poll respondents say it’s most important to find a candidate who comes closest to their own views on issues, while 29% say it’s most important to pick a candidate who has the best chance of defeating Biden.” And Trump led all other contenders (though by a smaller margin) among Iowa respondents who said electability was more important.
Several conservative groups have spent heavily on direct mail to Iowa GOP households, pushing the idea that Trump would lose the general election to Biden and bring down the Republican ticket. (I posted a few examples at the end of this article, and there have been many more mailings.)
That message isn’t resonating with the majority of the GOP base. But for Republicans who do buy into the concept that Trump’s a loser, Haley and Christie are looking like the most viable choices. That should help Haley meet the higher polling thresholds to qualify for the second GOP debate in late September.
If Trump wins the 2024 general election—an outcome that can’t be ruled out—Haley may look foolish. But if he becomes the nominee and loses to Biden again, she will be able to say she tried to warn Republicans.
She offered an unusual take on abortion.
Republicans have struggled to find a winning message on abortion since the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Dobbs decision in June 2022. Conservatives lost elections over abortion-related constitutional amendments in Kansas and Kentucky last year. A pro-choice ballot initiative easily passed in Michigan. In Wisconsin (famous for very thin statewide election margins), a pro-choice candidate won this year’s Supreme Court race by 11 points. This month, Ohio voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have made it difficult to pass a constitutional amendment on reproductive rights in November.
Haley declared during the debate that she is “unapologetically pro-life.” But she made some gestures toward pro-choice Republicans by saying, “We need to stop demonizing this issue.” She took a swipe at the U.S. Supreme Court: “unelected justices didn’t need to decide something this personal, because it’s personal for every woman and man.”
Now that abortion is in the hands of the people, “When it comes to a federal ban, let’s be honest with the American people and say it will take 60 Senate votes, it will take a majority of the House.” Haley called for “consensus” policies in this area: banning “late-term abortions” (a medically inaccurate term), encouraging adoption, making sure doctors and nurses don’t have to perform abortions, making contraception available, and not prosecuting women for getting abortions.
“Let’s treat this like a respectful issue that it is, and humanize the situation, and stop demonizing the situation.”
There’s no real prospect for a national consensus on abortion. Many millions of Americans oppose all restrictions on the procedure, especially before a fetus is viable outside the womb. But Haley’s agenda probably appeals to many Republican moderates.
Pence criticized Haley’s comments, saying “consensus is the opposite of leadership.” He characterized abortion as a “moral issue,” not a “states only issue,” and promised to be a “champion for life in the Oval Office,” pushing for a federal ban at 15 weeks.
Most GOP primary voters probably are closer to Pence than Haley on this issue. But she pushed back effectively.
“When you’re talking about a federal ban, be honest with the American people,” Haley told Pence. “We haven’t had 45 pro-life senators in over 100 years. So no Republican president can ban abortions any more than a Democrat president can ban all those state laws. Don’t make women feel like they have to decide on this issue when you know we don’t have 60 Senate votes” for a federal ban.
Pence argued that 70 percent of Americans support a federal ban “after a baby is capable of experiencing pain.” Haley interrupted: “But 70 percent of the Senate does not.”
Haley’s not going to be the 2024 presidential nominee. But in the absence of any pro-choice candidate, she may look like the best option for Republicans who don’t support banning abortion. That alone could give her the polling numbers she needs to keep qualifying for the RNC televised debates.
Maybe Republicans will win a trifecta at the federal level in 2024. But if they do not, and abortion is perceived as one reason the party lost the presidential election or key Congressional races, Haley will look prescient.
While some contenders appear to be auditioning for a role in the next Trump administration, Nikki Haley is playing the long game. At only 51 years old, she has plenty of time to run for president again if the base is ever ready to move on from Trump, or from national abortion bans.
UPDATE: Pollsters Margie Omero and Ian Smith had a group of 33 swing voters in the Milwaukee suburbs (people undecided for the 2024 general election) watch the debate with dials that allowed them to register positive or negative impressions in real time. Speaking on the Beyond Politics Podcast on August 24, Smith said, “This was the debate of the moderate candidates, specifically Nikki Haley. Across the board she swept all of our pre-post testing among the candidates on stage. These folks liked what she was saying, they liked that she moderated positions, liked that she attacked Donald Trump, and went after Republicans on some of their downfalls during the Trump administration and over the last couple of cycles.”
Omero added that the dial-testers liked Haley’s individual comments, and overall, she and DeSantis tied when respondents were asked who is more likely to beat Biden. Also, “women responded” to Haley’s appeals to gender and citing Margaret Thatcher.
A FiveThirtyEight/Washington Post/Ipsos poll surveyed 775 likely Republican primary voters who watched the debate. About 15 percent of respondents thought Haley performed the best in the debate; on that metric, she trailed DeSantis (29 percent) and Ramaswamy (26 percent). However:
We also asked debate watchers after the debate which candidates they were considering voting for and compared that to their answers before the debate. Haley saw the biggest change in her numbers — 30 percent of debate watchers were considering her before the debate, and 47 percent are considering her after it. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (+8 percentage points), Ramaswamy (+5 points) and DeSantis (+4 points) saw more modest increases.
In addition, “Haley saw a 14-point increase in her favorable rating with virtually no change to her unfavorable rating, while DeSantis increased his net favorability rating from +41 points to +48 points.”
SECOND UPDATE: The Citizen Awareness Project (a PAC that is part of the Koch funding network and opposes Trump) commissioned a post-debate poll of Iowa Republicans by Public Opinion Strategies. That survey found that DeSantis and Haley gained the most following the debate. Here’s the polling memo:
Top image: Screenshot of Nikki Haley from a video Fox News posted on YouTube following the GOP debate in Milwaukee.