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Nikki Haley: A Story of Factional Presidential Candidates

What will she do when she loses? What’s the endgame for her long, drawn-out campaign? This is where we were just a few weeks ago after her series of big losses on Super Tuesday and her less than convincing showing in crucial primary states like New Hamphsire and South Carolina. Indeed, despite Haley’s talk of persistence, these results were deemed by many as the manifestation of an inevitable election season: a re-run of the Biden-Trump 2020 election, a political battle many American voters are deeply unhappy with. And now that she has officially withdrawn her bid for the presidency of the United States, this outcome seems all but guaranteed. But before we move on, exiling Nikki Haley to the back of our minds for the rest of 2024, let us take a moment to appreciate her moment in the spotlight, for it tells a historical tale of presidencies of the past and to come.

Haley’s rise to prominence is impressive; from the inception of her campaign, Haley was mostly disregarded as another marginal, inconsequential candidate—one of the many who’d show their face at a couple presidential debates and then drop out after a few months, perhaps earning a place in several articles in the national newspapers about their short campaign, that is, of course, alongside the various other candidates who’ve also indefinitely suspended their campaigns. But Haley transcended this narrative, really starting to take hold of the national spotlight at the first presidential debate: “This is exactly why Margaret Thatcher said if you want something said ask a man, if you want something done ask a woman.” There, she really began to separate herself from the pack of non-Trump candidates, and she carried this momentum into the second debate. “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows,” said Haley to Vivek Ramaswamy. She projected strength, experience, and a powerful confidence. And slowly, more and more people rallied at her events. 

Nikki Haley, despite having been a high ranking official in the Trump administration, serving as UN Ambassador, does embody a more traditional era of conservatism that is rather at odds with the contemporary version of republican politics under the Trump years. When she ran for South Carolina governor, she upheld many conservative policies but also highlighted herself as a child of Indian-American immigrants. Furthermore, one of her defining moments as a governor is when she supported the removal of the confederate flag at the state capital after a mass shooting had taken place in a black church. It's also important to remember that she passionately endorsed Marco Rubio in the GOP primary in 2016, and even when she held office as the UN Ambassador in the Trump administration, she wasn’t just another microphone for the typical Trump foreign policy MAGA talking points. In other words, she’s been able to develop a political identity distinct from Trump, even though she served in his administration. 

In particular, foreign policy, and the way she has discussed it, has become one of the main issues which she has leveraged to distinguish herself from Trump. Especially in tussles with Vivek Ramaswamy, the MAGA stand-in on the debate stage with an absent Trump, she’s highlighted her own foreign policy experience, attacking Ramaswamy for being naive and inexperienced, for not seeing the connections between Russia, China, and Iran, and for his desire to reduce aid to Israel: “A win for Russia is a win for China, we have to know that. Ukraine is the first line of defense for us.” She has made this a defining issue of her campaign, and this is generally an issue which many people who dislike Trump, care very much about. “Putin has said…once Russia takes Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics are next. That's a world war. We're trying to prevent war. Look at what Putin did today. He killed Prigozhin. This guy is a murderer. And you are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country," said Haley to Ramaswamy, followed by a roar of applause from the audience. 

Indeed, Haley has consistently and vigorously defended the principles of a classically neo-conservative ideology: a foreign policy approach from an older era of republican politics which sees the US as more interventionist, robust, and sort of as the world guarantor of peace, a stark contrast to Trump’s isolationist, “America First” foreign policy. And these neo-Conservative republicans have a long lineage in the Republican party and still constitute a large portion of the contemporary party, and Haley has essentially taken up the flag of the neo-conservative position.

On domestic policy, abortion has become another galvanizing talking point for Haley. “I am unapologetically pro-life,” she stated, claiming that she “would support anything that would pass.” But she also took on a more reconciliatory tone on abortion, stating that we need “to be honest with the American people” that when it comes to a federal abortion ban it will take an inconceivable majority in both chambers of Congress. She took this rhetoric another step further saying “I think we can all come together and say any woman that has an abortion shouldn’t be jailed or given the death penalty,” a clear attempt to reach out to socially more liberal voters, Democrats and Republicans, who are concerned with the overhaul of Roe v. Wade. 

Haley’s strategy—appealing to the more moderate political and social wing of the GOP—and subsequent success is actually very common in presidential elections: she has become the so-called “factional candidate” —a candidate that appeals to the values and hopes of a faction of a political party that is dissatisfied with the frontrunner. And this makes sense. Even the strongest presidential front runners are incapable of capturing every single voter in a given party, and thus there is always space for another candidate to fill that void. For example, a Bernie Sanders appealing to the more democratic socialist left against an establishment moderate, like Hillary Clinton; John Kasich in 2016, an establishment moderate, against Trump and Ted Cruz; Rick Santorum, Howard Dean, Ron Paul, Jesse Jackson; almost every election cycle has a “factional candidate,” someone who represented the best alternative to the frontrunner of a party. But these factional candidates aren’t just appealing to particular factions of a political party because those voters don’t like the frontrunner. In many cases, in most cases in fact, these candidates have a genuine connection to this group. Bernie Sanders was a real believer in the democratic socialist cause and Rick Santorum had a genuine appeal to evangelicals. Factional candidates usually have both a genuine appeal to a faction of a political party and the “I don’t like the main guy we have '' appeal. 

Other than Chris Christie, who was the most obviously anti-Trump candidate, Nikki Haley has also been one of the only candidates in the GOP to openly criticize Trump on both his behavior and his policy. In an interview in January, she labeled the former Republican president as “toxic” and lacking “moral clarity.” In a party which has developed, to some degree, a cult following for Trump, attacks like these are politically risky. But she hasn’t always expressed such scathing critiques. Throughout the early stages of her campaign, she mostly pushed the notion that the office of the presidency should have age limitations, implicitly jabbing at both Trump and Biden for their elderly age; she largely steered clear of any personal, ideological, or political slights. However, as she gained traction from several strong performances in the primary debates, her attacks on Trump ramped up in frequency and fundamentally in nature. As candidates began to drop out, the question of the GOP primary was who would emerge out of the pack of candidates to face Trump. Once her chances of taking that position became ever clearer, the strategy was clear: in order to beat Trump, she would have to highlight his downfalls. Indeed, why would anyone vote for her if she agreed with everything that Trump did? But at the same time, critiquing Trump consists of balancing a fine line: critique the former President too much and you're ostracized by the Trump-controlled party, but criticize him too little and there’s no incentive to vote for her. Indeed, why would anyone vote for Haley if she just agreed with everything that Trump did and would do?

Haley’s transformation from a marginal, unknown candidate to becoming the clear Trump alternative in the GOP is mathematically indisputable and an undeniable success. Starting at just two percent of the vote at the outset of the campaign season, she has slowly gained traction among moderate leaning republicans and independents, winning 43.2% of votes in the New Hampshire primary, 50.2% in the Vermont primary, and large portions of the primary electorate in several other states, as well as outlasting a field of candidates including the likes of Ron DeSantis, the candidate touted by many as Trump’s primary opposition. But in the end, candidate Haley faces the same dilemma that every factional candidate in the past has faced: as she consolidated her base and her reputation as the candidate for voters who want something other than Trump, she also distinguished herself more clearly from him, making the decision for people on the fence about Trump a little easier. In the end, for a factional candidate to win a party’s nomination, they must essentially prove that their values and ideas for the future are aligned with those of the majority of the party, that they aren’t really a factional candidate after all. For almost every factional candidate, this dilemma has been insurmountable, and so just speaking from a historical perspective, Haley’s chances from the beginning were slim at best. 

But finally, on March 6th, what most people believed to be the inevitable outcome of a valiant campaign, became reality. Haley, after weeks of calls from Republican constituents to suspend her campaign and unify the party in support of Donald Trump, indefinitely suspended her campaign. Dread for some, exuberance for others, it marked the end of the factional candidate of the 2024 elections, and it all but guaranteed the Biden v. Trump battle that most Americans wished not to have. 

And though Haley’s rise to prominence was unique in that she started her campaign, not as a household name in the national political arena, but with empty chairs at her rallies and few reporters in attendance, her ultimate withdrawal from the primaries was not. Like Bernie Sanders, John Kasich, Ron Paul, Jesse Jackson, almost every factional candidate before her is eventually unable to transcend the monumental challenge that is, proving that they aren’t, in the end, a factional candidate. And thus, Nikki Haley is yet just the latest victim of the factional candidate curse, a curse which may not be broken for decades to come.

After Wednesday, the real pragmatic question which remains, the one that is concerning those who’ve moved past the Haley ticket, is where do her voters go from now? Considering the proportion of the GOP she was able to carry in the first primary states, the share of Nikki voters could very well swing the outcome of 2024. 

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