Nikki Haley is having a moment. Whether it will evolve into a disaster remains to be seen.
The former governor and UN ambassador entered the Iowa caucuses on Monday with the wind at her back, boosted by climbing poll numbers in every state and with campaign-watchers believing that a rout of her rival, Florida Gov Ron DeSantis, was at hand.
Instead, she settled for third place. Mr DeSantis came out ahead, barely but verifiably on top. Donald Trump, the continued frontrunner for the nomination, was miles away — more than 30 points separated Mr Trump and Ms Haley’s final percentage totals.
Despite this, Ms Haley was unbent on the stage of her caucus-night event in Clive. Appearing onstage after Vivek Ramaswamy showed up at his own event and dropped out, the ex-ambassador declared the 2024 GOP primary to be a two-person race going forward. Mr DeSantis, she argued (somewhat questionably, given the result), is no longer a factor.
Now, that race heads to New Hampshire; later, Nevada and South Carolina. The ground ahead is unfavourable terrain for Mr DeSantis, who does worse with independents than does Ms Haley and is not projected to do well in the next several contests. For the same reason, it represents the best opportunity for Ms Haley to pull ahead, even possibly within range of the frontrunner.
But Monday night’s results do not help make that path any easier.
While not a campaign-ending performance by any standard, her inability to crack 20 per cent in Iowa will provide none of the momentum she was hoping for as her campaign headed to the Granite State just hours after voting ended in the first contest. The ex-governor needs to charge into her home state, South Carolina, with her campaign on a noticeable upswing if she has any hope of beating Mr Trump and taking the lion’s share of the state’s delegates to the GOP convention in Milwaukee. A defeat in South Carolina — like a defeat in Florida for Mr DeSantis — could very well be that campaign killer they both avoided in Iowa.
Polling still shows the New Hampshire primary, which has long been defined by the state’s independent political bent, as competitive. It is not, however, a toss-up: Donald Trump is still clearly ahead. Not by anywhere close to the margin he won in Iowa — single digits in some polling — but leading nonetheless. For Mr Trump, New Hampshire is his next opportunity to tell Ms Haley that this isn’t a two-person race, or even a three-person race; it’s just a coronation.
Iowa’s caucuses are no bellwether. Mr Trump lost them to Ted Cruz in 2016, losing both the popular vote and delegate count. But a 30-point margin of victory is nothing to shrug at, and certainly projects an image of an impending coronation, whether accurate or not.
It remains unclear how much of Monday night’s result can be attributed to factors outside of Ms Haley’s direct control. A brutal winter storm over Friday and into Saturday left the entire state in subzero temperatures and covered in snow, depressing caucus turnout to a serious degree. The state is also overwhelmingly white and home to a major Evangelical Christian contingent of voters; a demographic that largely rallied behind Mr DeSantis and Mr Trump. None of those factors are likely to repeat themselves over the next few weeks.
But one thing is certain: Monday night was not a victory for Nikki Haley. And whether she will ever see herself in real competition for the nomination will be decided in the next 30 days.
On to New Hampshire.