Not very long ago, the harshest thing Nikki Haley would say about Donald Trump was that “chaos follows him”—a sort of benign jab that creatively avoids causation and suggests mere correlation, like noting that scorched trees tend to appear after a forest fire.
For most of the Republican-primary campaign to date, Haley adopted a carefully modulated approach toward the former president, and reserved most of her barbs for her other primary rivals. Her motto seemed to be “Speak softly about Trump and carry a sharp stick for Vivek Ramaswamy.” Recently, though, Haley has made a hard pivot.
Just two days after she came in (a distant) second to Trump in the New Hampshire primary, she began fundraising for the first time off his attacks on her—selling T-shirts with the slogan BARRED PERMANENTLY after the former president said that anyone who continues to support her will be “permanently barred from the MAGA camp,” whatever that means.
In the past week, Haley has been on a tear, calling Trump “totally unhinged,” “toxic,” “self-absorbed,” and lacking in “moral clarity.” Her campaign unleashed a new attack-ad series in which Trump and President Joe Biden are portrayed as two “grumpy old men” standing in the way of the next generation. And yesterday, Haley posted a gag photo of a Trump Halloween costume labeled “Weakest General Election Candidate Ever.” To paraphrase the words of the Democratic-primary candidate Marianne Williamson, Girlfriend, this is so on.
Such an aggressive posture is new for Haley, and Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans have applauded her for it. She should have been talking this way all along, some of her supporters argue. “If she started it sooner, she would’ve cut the lead in New Hampshire,” Chip Felkel, a Republican strategist in South Carolina, told me. In his view, Haley thought she “had to play nice” to win over Trump voters: “But this ain’t a nice game.”
Can Haley still achieve anything by playing hardball at this point? Things don’t look promising. Her bid to defeat Trump is already the longest of long shots, based on the polls coming out of virtually every state, including Haley’s own South Carolina. So what’s the point of changing things up? Why muster the courage to smack-talk Trump now, when the race seems all but over? I asked a number of political strategists and experts for their view, and pieced together a few plausible theories. (Neither the Haley nor the Trump campaign responded to a request for comment.)
1. Attacking Trump is easier now.
The most obvious theory for Haley’s more combative rhetoric is that with only one other major candidate still in the primary, the task of drawing a direct contrast with Trump is much simpler. “If you have six people in a race and a couple are attacking a couple others, it’s hard to predict how that’s going to work in terms of driving your ballots,” David Kochel, a longtime Iowa Republican strategist, told me. “When it’s a multi-candidate field, you’ve got to tell your own story.” After Iowa, “that’s resolved,” he said, and so “she has no choice but to turn her attention to Trump.”
The jabs are meant to draw Trump out—to pressure him to join her on a debate stage or to provoke a tantrum that turns off his potential voters and motivates her own. “She needs him to make a mistake,” Kochel said. “She needs some intervening activity, some dynamic that is not completely in her control.”
Maybe this is a good moment for Haley to exploit Trump’s weakness with women voters. In a hypothetical head-to-head matchup, Biden beats Trump with the support of women, a new Quinnipiac poll showed, and that gender gap appears to be growing. Last week, Haley dragged Trump over his defamation-case loss to E. Jean Carroll, in which he was ordered to pay $83 million in additional defamation damages to the woman whom he was previously found liable for defaming and sexually abusing. “Haley is running the Taylor Swift strategy in the primary,” Steve Bannon, Trump’s former White House chief strategist, told me. “She’s playing to the ‘Trump is toxic’ women’s vote.’” The pop star’s apparent potential to influence Americans, and especially women, to vote Democratic, coupled with the results of the Quinnipiac poll, represent “deep, underlying forces that need to be addressed,” Bannon said—something Haley will continue to seize on.
2. Haley’s anti-Trump rhetoric represents the death throes of her campaign.
Haley’s campaign has followed the same trajectory as several other Republicans’ efforts in the Trump era: They might have avoided attacking him directly at first, but when their prospects dimmed, they lashed out. Marco Rubio mocked Trump’s small hands just before dropping out of the race; Ted Cruz called Trump a “pathological liar” at the tail end of his own campaign. “It seems like they all have consultants in their ear telling them if they take on Trump directly, they are going to crater support with the base, which is true,” Tim Miller, a political consultant and writer at the conservative outlet The Bulwark, told me. “Then, finally, when they’re up against the wall and in the final stages, they figure it’s worth a shot.”
Maybe ratcheting up the combativeness is a form of emotional catharsis. When I asked the Democratic strategist James Carville about Haley’s change in approach, he texted me that Haley “is tired, scared & pissed off.” Because she’s trailing Trump in her own state, “certain doom in SC is eating at her. NEVER discount the human element.” Haley now sounds a lot more like she did behind closed doors during the Trump administration, Mike Murphy, a Republican consultant, told me, citing conversations he’s had with former Haley staffers. “This is Nikki therapy,” he said. “She’s just having fun poking him in the eye, getting all her ya-yas out. It’s the most entertaining dead-cat bounce in history.”
3. Haley is giving her donors what they want.
Haley’s billionaire supporters adore this new, aggressively anti-Trump candidate, and they’re rewarding her with cash. “Nikki’s more aggressive posture toward Trump was welcomed as it is communicating the stark choice in front of the party,” Bill Berrien, the CEO of the manufacturer Pindel Global Precision, who hosted a fundraiser for Haley in New York, told The Washington Post. Cliff Asness, a co-founder of AQR Capital Management and a Haley donor, wrote on X that, in response to Trump’s attacks, he “may have to contribute more” to her.
At least some of these funders are convinced that Haley still has a shot. “She’s got donors saying, ‘You have a credible campaign, and you never know when Trump is going to choke to death on a meatloaf,’” Murphy said. Whether or not Haley believes that, she’s going along with it. The odds that she might become the nominee through an act of God or a brokered convention, after all, are probably better than buying a Power Ball ticket. “It’s a clutching-at-straws thing, but she’s got the best straw in town to clutch on,” Murphy said. “Why the hell not? It’s free and fun.”
4. Haley is looking to a post-Trump future.
A few weeks ago, rumors circulated that Haley might be on Trump’s shortlist for vice president. If the decision, though unlikely, went her way, that could set her up to be Trump’s political heir. But Haley’s recent hostility toward Trump—and his splenetic response—have surely shut the door on that possibility. Instead, Haley is staking out her own territory.
“She’s not done. She’s running for 2028,” Sarah Isgur, a senior editor at The Dispatch and a former deputy campaign manager for the 2016 Republican presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina, told me. Trump has “changed her brand-thinking.” Instead of gunning for some sort of role in MAGA world, Haley can portray herself as the last person standing in the war against Trumpism—a position that many men before her have fought for and failed to achieve. If she can do that, she can consolidate a leadership future for herself, post-Trump, Isgur said.
Haley will be able to say “I told you so” if Trump loses to Biden in November—or if he wins but then governs disastrously. She’ll be “the good conservative who tried to warn you,” Murphy said. This also means that after the race is over, she’ll have to lie low for a while, and not join other Trump rivals turned grovelers, including Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott, and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum. She’s playing “the long-term game,” Murphy said.