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Who Is Nikki Haley, Trump’s First Major Challenger?


Michael Tabb: This is Nikki Haley. She’s the former governor of South Carolina and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under former President Donald Trump. Now she’s challenging Trump in the GOP primary for president.

Haley is the daughter of Indian Sikh immigrants, and she’s one of the highest-profile women of color in the Republican Party.

To understand more about her, I reached out to my colleague Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, who’s covering her campaign for FiveThirtyEight.

Tabb: Hey, Amelia, just to get straight into it: Who is Nikki Haley?

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux: Nikki Haley was elected governor of South Carolina in 2010. She wasn’t the favorite, but she had the support of Republican Party heavyweights like Sarah Palin, went on to win the primary, and then, of course, the general election to be the first female governor of South Carolina and the second Indian governor in the whole country.

Tabb: Haley grew up working for her family’s gift and clothing business. Starting in 2005, she served in South Carolina’s state House before being elected governor.

Haley has gotten a lot of attention over her career from the way she talks about race. Haley has said she was bullied growing up and faced discrimination throughout her life, but she does not believe America is a racist country.

Thomson-DeVeaux: I would say her profile really began to rise in 2015, after the racially motivated murders of people at a Black church in Charleston. In the wake of that shooting, which obviously got national attention and national mourning, she advocated to have the Confederate flag taken off the South Carolina state House.

And that response really helped cement her status as a leader in the Republican Party.

Tabb: Her relationship with Trump, though, has complicated things.

In 2016, Haley endorsed Marco Rubio, then Ted Cruz. After Trump won the GOP nomination, she said she was still “not a fan” but would vote for him.

Still, Trump appointed her ambassador to the United Nations, and she became the first woman and person of color named to his cabinet.

She served in the administration for two years, forcefully defending Trump’s agenda at the UN.

Nikki Haley: America will put our embassy in Jerusalem. That is what the American people want us to do. And it is the right thing to do. No vote in the United Nations will make any difference on that. But this vote will make a difference on how Americans look at the UN, and on how we look at countries who disrespect us in the UN.

Tabb: Then things took a turn. Haley resigned as ambassador in 2018. After the Jan. 6 insurrection, she argued Trump no longer had a place in the Republican Party — though she later changed her mind.

Thomson-DeVeaux: Nikki Haley is a fairly standard conservative. I don’t think you’ll find her taking stances that are really outside the mainstream of anyone who’s likely to run in this Republican primary. But she has talked about race a little differently than other Republicans, because of her background.

Tabb: Do we have any early polling about Haley’s name recognition and support?

Thomson-DeVeaux: We do. So Haley is going into the race with lower name recognition than, of course, Trump and several other candidates who we think are likely to run, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence. Her name recognition is substantially lower than any of those candidates. Her favorability is not as high as DeSantis or Trump, who are both well-known. But there’s a possibility that as Republican voters get to know her, that will change.

Tabb: What will you be looking at in the next couple of months to see how Haley’s campaign is going and how the overall race is looking for Republicans?

Thomson-DeVeaux: Specifically thinking about Haley, I’m going to be looking for how she introduces herself to the Republican primary electorate, and whether she’s able to present herself as a unique alternative to Trump, who can bring the Republican Party into a new generation while also being strong enough as a candidate to defeat an incumbent president like Joe Biden, assuming he’s also running.

Tabb: Thanks so much, Amelia. I really appreciate it.

Thomson-DeVeaux: Thanks, Michael. Great talking to you.

Michael Tabb is a former video and motion graphics producer at FiveThirtyEight.


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