How Trump Crushed Haley’s Momentum — and Came Closer to Clinching the Nomination

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Former president Donald Trump speaks with Vivek Ramaswamy, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) at a campaign rally in Laconia, N.H., on Monday.

NASHUA, N.H. – Donald Trump and his team had a singular mission as the Republican primary shifted to New Hampshire: Destroy Nikki Haley.

Behind closed doors, Trump’s team had long viewed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as the bigger threat because of his vast war chest and his ideological alignment with the base. They quietly agreed to allow Haley to surge, viewing her as a useful foil as they finished off DeSantis in Iowa.

But now it was time to train Trump’s full arsenal of attacks on the woman who had previously served as his U.N. ambassador and would prove the last Republican standing between him and his party’s nomination.

During a Saturday rally in downtown Manchester, Trump used a giant projector screen behind him to display sign after sign attacking Haley as his crowd roared its booing disapproval at the mere mention of her name. In what senior Trump adviser Chris LaCivita described as a “pincer” movement, Trump bombarded Haley from both ideological sides – falsely claiming she would kill Social Security benefits and did not support his border wall.

“NIKKI HALEY IS LOVED BY DEMOCRATS, WALL STREET & GLOBALISTS,” the screen blared above his head.

By Sunday, two days before the primary, it was clear Trump’s heavy artillery strategy against the former South Carolina governor was working. Trump’s edge in New Hampshire was growing and the momentum that Haley had hoped to use to help her make up ground in her home state of South Carolina was slipping from her grasp.

Betsy Ankney, Haley’s campaign manager, was clear-eyed about the challenges of taking on a de facto incumbent with a fanatical following, describing the task as daunting but possible.

“He is a juggernaut,” Ankney acknowledged at a lunch hosted by Bloomberg News over the weekend. “But how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

On Tuesday, the juggernaut rolled on. The New Hampshire voters who could have lifted Haley to victory instead chose Trump and made her long-shot bid even longer. Haley had performed better than predicted by some pre-election polling, but it was a decisive loss nonetheless.

The results could represent the last gasps of the efforts to stop Trump, who barreled closer to locking down the Republican nomination after winning just a couple hundred thousand votes in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Haley’s campaign insists that as many as a dozen remaining states – including Michigan and many of those that cast ballots in the Super Tuesday contests March 5 – offer “fertile ground” for Haley, because they are open or semi-open primaries where independents are allowed to vote. She is launching a $4 million ad buy in all seven of South Carolina’s media markets, and has a rally planned in Charleston on Wednesday evening.

“We aren’t going anywhere,” Ankney wrote in a Tuesday memo.

But the outcome here was the culmination of a guarded candidate who was reluctant to fully engage with voters and the media, and whose tight, streamlined stump speech offered prescriptions for multiple problems – but without a clear sense of what her top priorities would be.

Haley was also hesitant to take on Trump directly, caught between the competing imperatives of turning out the state’s undeclared voters without alienating core Republicans who still like the former president. The Trump campaign, meanwhile, seized on her cautious approach, using the vacuum to define her to voters.

“She was a blank canvas, and we had a bucket of paint,” LaCivita said.

Haley headed Wednesday to her home state of South Carolina, where her campaign says she is poised for a strong performance in the Feb. 24 primary. But polls show Trump beating Haley by double digits in a state that includes a deeply conservative and heavily evangelical Republican Party, though there have been few independent polls so far.

Speaking to her supporters Tuesday night in Concord, N.H., Haley struck a defiant note, telling the crowd, “I’m a fighter, and I’m scrappy and now we’re the last ones standing next to Donald Trump.”

“South Carolina voters don’t want a coronation,” she concluded to cheers. “They want an election – and we’re going to give them one. Because we are just getting started.”

‘Nikki was Nikki’

Haley’s team could not wait for the first Republican primary debate.

After launching her bid in February 2023, Haley had struggled to gain traction. Donors were intrigued by her – they liked her personal story as the daughter of Indian immigrants who went on to become the first female governor of South Carolina – but they didn’t want to pour money into the coffers of someone who they weren’t sure could win their party’s nomination.

Her campaign found itself stuck in a nightmarish loop. Donors wanted to see more positive news stories about Haley and improvement in the polls, and the media was reluctant to take Haley seriously until she began to raise money and climb in the polls.

Many of her advisers knew the story of her 2010 gubernatorial bid, when she had emerged from single digits to defeat three White good ol’ boys, in part on the strength of her debating prowess. They felt confident a strong August debate performance in Milwaukee could again jump-start her campaign.

“We were telling people, ‘Just wait. We’re winning rooms. Just wait until millions of people see her on the debate stage,’” Ankney said.

In the meantime, Haley’s team stressed discipline, doubling down on a lean, insurgent operation. They knew their frugality – a necessity – would also be viewed as an asset.

Haley’s finance director personally bought a trash can for her office, and boasted about her frugality in an email to solicit donations from her supporters, writing, “We put every dollar to good use.”

Trump and DeSantis flew on private jets and traveled in sleek black SUVs. Until security dictated otherwise, Haley’s personal aide drove her around in a rented minivan – the cheapest large car they could find that fit her and her aides.

When they arrived in Milwaukee for the debate, Haley and her team stayed at a budget hotel – gently suggesting to donors who wanted to stay at the same place as the candidate that they might prefer slightly more luxurious digs.

Once onstage, Haley delivered. The only woman alongside seven men, Haley distinguished herself, including the moment when she smacked down tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy during a question about Ukraine.

“You have no foreign policy experience and it shows,” Haley shot at Ramaswamy, prompting a round of applause.

After the debate, small-dollar donations began rolling in. Haley raised $1 million in 72 hours, transforming a financial situation that one donor later described as more dire than most people realized. Haley’s lone staffer in Iowa was inundated with more than 400 calls and texts from Iowa voters, donors and activists, all eager to get involved.

“Nikki was Nikki and performed well,” Ankney said. “And we are doing our jobs. We are running a smart campaign. We didn’t grow too early. We were smart in terms of when we expanded and grew, and we were very thrifty.”

Their third-quarter fundraising number also invigorated their campaign. At the time, the Haley operation touted an $11 million haul, though The Washington Post later reported they had drastically overstated the figure and the real number was closer to $8.3 million.

Even as they grew, the Haley campaign remained fiercely loyal to Haley and joyful. Jon Lerner, a longtime Haley adviser and top campaign aide, organized a daily 6 p.m. song; every evening, he would bop through campaign headquarters in Charleston with a tiny red speaker, blasting his choice of the day – everything from Elvis to Pitbull and Flo Rida – to pump up the team and boost morale as they looked down another long night of work.

Others were giving Haley a second look, as well. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu – the popular four-term governor whose endorsement was also being courted by DeSantis and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie – was impressed by Haley’s feistiness during her various debate faceoffs.

Sununu said he was skeptical that Christie had a path outside New Hampshire, and managed only some awkward sports banter – about Florida football and the New England Patriots – with DeSantis before the Florida governor all but stopped coming to the state. He eventually sent DeSantis a note, wishing him well in Iowa.

But he remained excited by Haley, who he later described in an interview as “an absolute workhorse” who exuded the same energy at a breakfast event as at an evening town hall. They forged a close friendship over dinners, where they compared their love of hard rock and their shared approach to fiscal policy and decentralized government.

“‘Man, this ‘live free or die’ thing is real – like you can feel it,’” Sununu recalled Haley telling him over coffee and a cookie at a Merrimack bakery, referring to the state’s famous motto. “‘I want to carry that to the White House.’”

“And I said ‘That’s it,’” Sununu said.

He endorsed her six weeks before the primary, in mid-December. By the final stretch before the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses, the two were texting or talking several times a day as Sununu personally mapped out Haley’s final New Hampshire sprint.

But not everything was going according to plan. At a town hall in Berlin, Haley failed to utter the word slavery when asked by a voter for the cause of the Civil War.

And Christie – who appealed to the same sorts of undeclared voters likely to also support Haley – repeatedly attacked her, criticizing her for equivocating on Trump and providing little clarity on key issues. One New Hampshire voter who was originally from the South quipped to Christie after approaching him at one of his events that Haley was what southerners refer to as “Magnolia Mouth” – sweet-sounding, but devoid of substance.

The Haley campaign rejected the charge that her policies lacked specifics, arguing that she had weighed in on controversial topics – abortion, entitlements, Ukraine – that her fellow Republicans were reluctant to touch.

“Nikki was the first presidential candidate to go to the border and roll out her plan to secure the border,” Haley spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas said in a statement. “She delivered major policy speeches on China, energy, and the economy. Nikki is running as a new generational, conservative leader.”

When Christie dropped out, 13 days before the state’s primary, he pointedly declined to endorse her and was overheard on a hot mic saying she was going to get “smoked – you and I both know it. She’s not up to this.”

Even some of Haley’s allies privately questioned some of her decisions following Iowa, such as refusing to participate in two New Hampshire debates if Trump didn’t also appear. They said that Haley needed to run an insurgent, freewheeling campaign – as McCain had in 2008 – offering herself up to the media and the state’s voters. Instead she remained too cautious, they argued.

Some Haley allies also privately griped that she needed to go after Trump more forcefully if she hoped to peel voters away from him. Instead, Haley largely stuck to her original theory of the case – that Trump was the right president at the right time, but chaos seems to follow him and its time for a new generation of leader.

Michael Dennehy – a New Hampshire-based GOP strategist for John McCain’s 2000 and 2008 campaigns – similarly argued that Haley should have abandoned the fear of offending Trump voters while going “as hard as humanly possible” after undeclared voters, as McCain had when he successfully won the state in both his presidential bids. “You have to do what you have to do to win,” Dennehy said. “You can’t win by sitting on a fence.”

She did, however, sharpen her indictment of the former president over the final weekend.

“When you’re dealing with the pressures of a presidency, we can’t have someone else that we question whether they’re mentally fit to do this,” Haley said in Keene on Saturday, questioning Trump’s competency after he repeatedly confused her with former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at a rally the previous day.

But by then, even her own supporters were growing wary.

“She might win in New Hampshire,” said Kevin Bidermann, 60, who explained he generally votes Republican and had come to support Haley Saturday night in Nashua. “I think it’s, sadly, a tough deal.”

“If she doesn’t win here,” he added, barring a legal verdict against Trump, “I think that’ll be a really tough road.”

Melina Mara/The Washington Post
Nikki Haley greets voters as they make their way to the polls at a high school in Hampton on Tuesday.

‘No one had laid a glove on her’

As Haley’s poll numbers surged in the Granite State, the Trump campaign initially held off on attacking her. The former president and his team were still obsessed with never taking their foot off DeSantis’s throat, in the words of one top adviser, and many Trump aides also personally despised the Florida governor.

Trump, meanwhile, had internalized a key lesson from his 2016 run – that his loss to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in Iowa had allowed the nominating race to drag on too long. Early last year, he told aides he wanted to snuff out his rivals’ campaigns within the first few contests.

So during meetings around Christmas, the Trump operation plotted their pivot toward Haley. “No one had laid a glove on her,” said James Blair, Trump’s national field director.

Both internal and public polling had showed Haley within striking distance of a second-place finish in Iowa. While her campaign and its allied super PAC drew DeSantis into an ad war that ultimately totaled more than $60 million between the two sides in the caucus battle, the Trump campaign seized on her vulnerability in New Hampshire.

She had been virtually unchallenged on the airwaves here throughout December. But spending by the Trump campaign and its allied super PAC, Make America Great Again Inc., shot up to match hers shortly before the new year.

Trump’s advisers had begun testing the most effective messages against Haley last spring. They decided on a one-two punch in New Hampshire: first, imposing a ceiling on her support among New Hampshire’s Republican voters with a misleading ad accusing her of opposing Trump’s border wall, and then rotating to an ad falsely suggesting she would make it harder for seniors to collect Social Security benefits, intended to drive down turnout among independents and liberal-leaning voters.

In fact, Haley had only proposed raising the retirement age for people currently in their 20s, not current retirees or those nearing retirement.

Trump also amplified the notion that Haley was relying on liberals and independents to try to win New Hampshire, suggesting she and Sununu were conspiring to rig the results. Attack ads from outside groups backing Trump featured comments from Wall Street titans like JPMorgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon urging Democrats to back Haley and headlines about the $250,000 donation to her super PAC from Democratic donor Reid Hoffman.

Conservative voters in New Hampshire who wanted to move on from Trump and had been considering Haley echoed Trump’s attacks as they ricocheted across social media, telling door-knockers with Americans for Prosperity Action that they were concerned she was a “globalist” and a pawn of Democrats.

The former president also ramped up his racially charged blitz against Haley – the daughter of Indian immigrants – repeatedly referring to her as “Nimbra,” a deliberate misspelling of her first name, Nimrata; Haley has used her middle name, Nikki, since childhood.

Haley’s New Hampshire message was amplified by the extensive data and get-out-the-vote effort on her behalf by AFP Action.

But Trump’s fervent volunteers had begun organizing their networks last spring. By this year, they were woven into the campaign’s infrastructure – assigned distinct tasks each week and rewarded with Trump campaign swag, like hats signed by Trump. In the final weeks before Tuesday’s contest, Trump would personally call a few of his New Hampshire town captains each day to check in.

“What can I do?” he would often ask his aides. “How are we taking care of my people?”

New Hampshire Republican Chairman Chris Ager said he had ben impressed with the Trump campaign’s organization, especially compared to his team in 2016.

“They were so well run,” Ager said during a breakfast hosted by Bloomberg News. “It was like clockwork – when you went up to the stage you knew there was a teleprompter with a countdown, they had it angled right.”

Trump had earned the endorsement of nearly all the officials elected statewide in South Carolina and his campaign already wielded that support like a cudgel.

Then, in December, Edward McMullen, a native South Carolinian who was Trump’s ambassador to Switzerland, floated to senior campaign officials the idea of flying some of the his state’s top elected officials to New Hampshire – a display of force intended to rattle Haley and show that she would crash into a wall of Trump support when the primary shifted to her home state.

Team Trump privately called it the “Know Nikki” tour.

“The goal was to show that the people who know Nikki the best support her the least,” Blair said.

As the New Hampshire primary drew to a close, they prepared to unveil a final weapon from South Carolina.

Trump and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) were friends from Trump’s presidency, and had continued to chat regularly during the campaign. Trump called Scott the Sunday before the Iowa caucuses, and Scott made clear he planned to endorse Trump; he just wanted a day or two to think about it.

The Trump campaign hoped to unveil Scott’s endorsement Monday night, right before the New Hampshire primary for maximum impact. But Scott was worried the news would leak, and pressed to announce his support sooner.

On Friday, Scott became the star attraction at Trump’s rally in Concord, where he gave a rousing endorsement of Trump. But his appearance was also a striking rebuke to Haley, his fellow South Carolinian who had helped launch his career when she appointed him to the Senate in 2012.

Nonetheless, Haley’s team plowed ahead in the final days, arguing that the more voters got to know the former governor of South Carolina, the more they’d like her. They added stops to her already frenetic New Hampshire schedule, having her pull pints of Guinness at Nashua bar and make an impromptu Chick-fil-A run with Sununu in his red 1966 Ford Mustang.

But in the span of just a few weeks, Sununu had gone from predicting a win, to predicting “a strong second.” Haley donors, once bullish that she might be able to pull off a victory in New Hampshire, began discussing how narrow the margin of her loss would have to be to stay in the race.

Perez-Cubas on Tuesday night argued that Trump’s performance was weak for a de facto incumbent: “There are now two states where Trump got barely half the vote.”

And in her memo Tuesday morning, Betsy Ankney, Haley’s campaign manager, sounded a confident note, writing, “over 200 stops, and 12 fellas later, and Nikki’s still standing.”

“See y’all in South Carolina,” Ankney concluded.

Quoting her memo in the lobby of Trump’s hotel late Tuesday afternoon, LaCivita quipped: “Oh yes you will!”