Nikki Haley’s secret weapon in Iowa: Setting no expectations

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared he will win Iowa. Former President Donald Trump says he’ll capture the state, with his advisers promising a victory by at least 12 points. And Vivek Ramaswamy’s team has said he’ll come in third.

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley hasn’t been as easy to pin down.

Just four days before the caucuses, Haley on Thursday remained vague about just where she expects she’ll finish Monday or what she needs to do to have momentum going into New Hampshire.

“What I want is I want to be strong in Iowa, strong in New Hampshire, strong in South Carolina. We don’t know what strong looks like until we see the results, right?” Haley told NBC News. “But I think it’s important that if we show that we’re strong in Iowa, that gives us momentum going into New Hampshire. That’s what I’m focused on for Monday.”

It’s the kind of answer Haley and her team have been giving when it comes to anticipating her performance in the first caucus state. In doing so, they have tried to insulate Haley from an expectations game that has the potential to drive momentum out of Iowa.

But it also allows her more room to falter in Iowa and still keep an aura of momentum moving into New Hampshire, where her polling is strong, some Republicans say. Haley has increasingly made her argument one of electability — that she is the inevitable candidate to take on Trump one on one — and some observers say that was bolstered by Chris Christie’s departure from the race Wednesday. Also helping Haley’s argument is that, as the former governor of South Carolina, she is known to voters in the important early-primary state.

“Unfortunately, Gov. DeSantis let expectations get a little bit out of control when he said he was going to win Iowa about a month ago. That’s not going to happen. His best bet is second place, and that is in question,” said Jimmy Centers, an Iowa-based Republican strategist. “This is an expectations game. What’s really nice, if you’re Team Haley, is that they don’t need a second-place finish. They just need third — and that seems fairly guaranteed at this point.”

If polling is any guide, DeSantis is narrowly leading Haley in Iowa — but within the margin of error — with both of them trailing Trump, who broke 50% support in the NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll taken last month. That survey had Trump at 51%, DeSantis at 19%, Haley at 16% and Ramaswamy at 5%. If that holds, it would ensure she and DeSantis take up the second- and third-place slots.

In Iowa, Haley had a lackluster ground operation until the conservative group Americans for Prosperity backed her in late November, and this weekend, it plans to have 150 people out knocking on doors for her — to the extent that Iowa’s expected brutal winter storms permit.

That organization, however, came well after the DeSantis-aligned Never Back Down super PAC had sunk more than $100 million into what’s promised to be a massive ground organization.

Last month on NBC News’ “Meet the Press,” DeSantis declared: “We’re going to win the caucus.”

Trump has promised to win by a wide margin, with a senior adviser on his team last month predicting a margin of at least 12 percentage points. That only led DeSantis to question the estimate and accuse the Trump team of trying to lower expectations for Trump in Iowa.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa — I thought he was winning by 50. That’s what he always Truths out,” DeSantis said at the time. “Are they lowering expectations? I mean, give me a break.”

Steven Everly, the Marion County GOP chair, who hasn’t endorsed in the race, said: “Your best bet is to not have any expectations at all. All you got to do is say, ‘I believe we’re going to do well; we’re going to keep talking to everybody.’ When you start saying you’re going to win by X amount of points and then you turn around and you don’t meet those expectations, you make yourself look like a fool.”

Preya Samsundar, the spokeswoman for the Haley-aligned Stand for America PAC, said it has never been the Haley strategy to align strongly with any one early state; instead, the strategy is to try to force an eventual showdown between Haley and Trump.

“It’s not nearly as relevant for her as it is for Ron,” she said of Haley in Iowa. “It’s do or die for Ron. Nikki has a path forward wherever she goes. Nikki is playing in multiple spaces; she didn’t put all her eggs in one basket. She’s worked all the early states.”

Stand for America itself is looking forward. On Thursday, it launched a new ad titled “tantrum” attacking Trump. It ran in New Hampshire.

The DeSantis strategist countered that Haley could struggle in New Hampshire if she ends up third in Iowa. The person said Haley’s recent remark that New Hampshire is poised to “correct” Iowa’s result most likely rubbed potential caucusgoers the wrong way.

But it isn’t just Haley world that’s looking beyond Iowa to New Hampshire.

MAGA world is bracing for Haley’s performance there, along with the flood of donor cash already flowing in her direction.

Her sharp political acumen is not to be minimized, said Steve Bannon, Trump’s ousted chief strategist in the White House and the architect of his winning 2016 campaign.

“This is not Ron DeSantis,” Bannon said of the governor, who has struggled in the primary campaign, and whose rise Trump claims credit for. “This girl came out of the knife fight that is South Carolina Republican politics. She’s tough. She represents everything we detest, but it doesn’t mean people should not take her seriously.”

Joel Maiola, a longtime New Hampshire Republican operative who was former Sen. Judd Gregg’s chief of staff, said Christie dropped out of the race just in time to give Haley momentum in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“Haley’s campaign just got a turbocharge. … She has run a perfect New Hampshire campaign, and now she is set up perfectly for South Carolina and beyond,” Maiola said. “This will very much allow her to go full steam into New Hampshire and the other early states.”

Bannon said MAGA world concerns about Haley go even beyond New Hampshire.

“You saw the host committee that had all the donors taking place in New York City. The date is the 30th of January. That’s a week after New Hampshire,” he said. “That means she knows that even if she doesn’t win New Hampshire, she’s got the biggest checkbooks in the Republican Party, and some of the Democratic Party, that are openly hosting a massive fundraiser for her to let her reload for South Carolina and Super Tuesday. She’s in this for the long term.”

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