Nikki Haley Is the GOP’s Best Chance to Win in 2020

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The first time I met Nikki Haley, in 2010, I was a columnist for the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and she was a little-known state legislator vying for the governor’s mansion near the end of Mark Sanford’s tenure. I had been invited to a quiet Q&A session Haley was having with a group of local attorneys at a popular Myrtle Beach restaurant. I felt a vibe similar to the one I had the first time I met Barack Obama, when he was visiting South Carolina during the 2008 Democratic nomination fight. I thought her political skill set was that impressive, even though we disagreed about many things. She’s been proving me right ever since.

But unless she does what Obama did and ignore conventional wisdom, particularly that coming from within her own party, she could miss the opportunity to become this country’s first female president.

When Haley announced that she would resign as ambassador to the United Nations on October 9, she attempted to put to rest all speculation about a 2020 run. “For all of you who are going to ask about 2020, no, I am not running for 2020,” Haley said. “What I can say is I will be campaigning for [Trump].”

It’s certainly the safe play. Established party officials and political pundits might look forward to the day Haley throws her hat into the presidential ring, but most surely don’t think she should do it now. As Democratic leaders believed about Obama in 2008, Republican Party brass think Haley should wait her turn, because the party already has a popular figure at its helm who will be hard to beat in 2020—President Donald Trump. And while Haley has found ways to set herself apart from Trump—on Thursday she said in a speech “in America, our political opponents are not evil,” a break from Trump-style politics—she is, it appears, following their advice.

But back in 2008, Obama was smart enough to ignore party bosses. He understood that political landscapes change, sometimes by the day, the hour even—that he had a chance in 2008 that might not come again. The question is, is Haley smart enough to understand that? Is she smart enough to see that 2024, or 2032, if Trump wins reelection and Mike Pence is able to succeed him, is an eternity away in political time and that the opportunity she has now might not materialize in future?

And, is the Republican Party smart enough to see that Trump is more vulnerable than they think, and that Haley might be the GOP’s best chance to win in 2020?

Though you won’t hear this from pundits and political analysts who are still smarting from getting it wrong in 2016, Trump is highly unlikely to win a national presidential race in 2020. His chances aren’t zero, and whoever wins the Republican nomination two years from now has a chance to win. But his prospects for a second term are extremely dim. Four years ago, he ran against a candidate nearly as unpopular as he was. He had help from the Russian government. He was aided by an eleventh-hour intervention from then-FBI Director James Comey. Aggressive voter suppression efforts by Republicans also played a role in his victory. (Some version of each of those things might still be in place in 2020, but they are not nearly as rooted as they were in 2016.) And despite all of that support, he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million and won the Electoral College because of a roughly 80,000-vote difference in three states. He’s unlikely to benefit again from a confluence of such events.

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