Haley's GOP Primary Play Lacks Power Punch
With a determined core of anyone-but-Mitt GOP voters in South Carolina Gov. Haley's endorsement of Romney likely to sway very few, and may upset her base.
The first female and minority governor of South Carolina, swept into office by a wave of Republican energy in a mid-term election, was supposed to be the top prize.
Gov. Nikki Haley's endorsement was coveted by numerous presidential candidates. She appeared at events with Rep. Michele Bachmann and Gov. Rick Perry. She welcomed Bachmann, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Gov. Mitt Romney's wife to spend the night in the governor's mansion.
In the end, after GOP candidates spent months campaigning on her pet issues, Haley returned the endorsement favor in December to Romney, who backed her early in her 2010 gubernatorial bid.
But what good did it do?
While polls that showed Gingrich leading the SC race back in December now put Romney comfortably in front, experts say it had nothing to do with Haley's backing.
In fact, if anything, the decision could make her vulnerable for conservative GOP attacks in the future.
"It might help Romney with the truly undecided voters," said Robert Oldendick, a University of South Carolina political science professor.
"That group that doesn't pay close attention to politics and isn't going to take the time to research the candidates themselves. They might look around and see who is supporting who, and (Haley's) endorsement may help them make up their minds, but that's a very small percentage of voters, maybe 1 to 2 percent."
Oldendick is not alone among political observers to largely dismiss the relevance of political endorsements, even as candidates love to tout winning the support of various elected officials come election-time.
"There was a lot of speculation about what her endorsement would mean for any candidate, even before she was elected," Winthrop University Political Science Professor Aldolphus Belk Jr. said.
However, Belk adds, that while Haley's endorsement of Romney may help him pull in a few more votes in South Carolina, the effect will be minimal.
"The center has been hard to read," Belk said. "People are searching for a Romney alternative and they've not found one yet."
Belk said despite Romney's early endorsement for Haley in 2010, her fortunes in her own Republican primary campaign seemed to turn with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's endorsement.
"They (Romney's campaign) may have been hoping for a similar impact (to Palin's endorsement) coming from Haley's endorsement of Romney," Belk said.
But Haley may have lost some of her luster to many in the GOP and in the Tea Party, which provided staunch support for Haley in 2010.
Haley has had her share of controversy since taking office — purportedly, conservative activists are campaigning to build support for recalling Haley — and her approval rating sits at an all-time low.
But she still remains popular among many in the Tea Party, even if they disapprove of her support of Romney.
"I still support Haley, she can endorse whoever she wants as long as she doesn't try to tie that endorsement to the Tea Party," Allen Olson said.
Olson, a leader of the Columbia Tea Party, left his position with the group in September when he publicly came out in support of Gingrich, and continues to work with the campaign as a volunteer. He stepped down because the Columbia Tea Party has a policy of not endorsing any of the candidates.
"I still support Gov. Haley," Olson said. "For personal reasons I would rather have her for Newt Gingrich, but I understand her reasons, Romney supported her."
Not all Tea Party activists are as understanding though.
Spartanburg Tea Party organizer Karen Martin said she is still waiting for a good explanation from Haley as to why she supports Romney.
"A lot of people are baffled by it," Martin said. "We still haven't gotten a good reason from her ... it sounded like she was reading from Romney's script when she made her endorsement."
Martin said 99 percent of the Tea Party sees Romney as the worst-possible candidate in the GOP field. And to have Haley, who was backed so faithfully by the Tea Party, support him is a betrayal.
Martin doesn't know of anyone in the Tea Party planning a primary challenge against Haley in 2014. But she does see a possibility.
"We're not going to primary Haley," Martin said. "Prior to the endorsement I heard unwavering support (for Haley). But now, if another credible conservative candidate emerges this might drive some support to that person."
Whether she is repaying Romney's endorsement or if Haley, like many in the Republican establishment, believes Romney is best situated to defeat President Barack Obama, her reason for supporting Romney hinges on his electability.
"Governor Haley understands as well as anyone how important it is to beat President Obama - his administration's support for unions nearly cost us Boeing jobs, his health care mandates will bust state budgets, and his opposition to Voter ID and illegal immigration reform is an affront to the 10th amendment," Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey wrote in an email to Patch.com.
"The governor is happy to do what she can to support the person she believes can best beat President Obama and get the economy moving again."
However Martin doesn't buy the argument that Romeny can beat Obama, and said he is a failed candidate. She would prefer the GOP to nominate someone who has never been a politician.
"I wanted someone who could re-energize people, not the same crowd that does and says the same old things," Martin said. "I really wanted someone who had never run before."
Whether Haley faces any blowback from her Romney endorsement in South Carolina may depend on how the rest of the election plays out. If Romney wins South Carolina and the GOP nomination and cannot beat Obama, some people may hold it against Haley.
But overall both Olson and Martin think Haley's support for Romney will have little impact, and agree with the assessment of USC's Oldendick and Winthrop's Belk, that only a very small percentage of S.C. primary voters will look to endorsements to make up their minds about the candidates.
"For the people that don't pay close attention to politics, that endorsement may sway some of them," Martin said. "But not anyone who is involved in politics."
"On Tea Party voters it will have absolutely zero impact," Olson said.
Both Martin and Olson do see potential for the endorsement to hurt Haley if Romney falters, however Belk and Odendick point out that Haley won't face voters again for a long time.
"She still has time to recover from some of the mistakes and missteps her administration has made," Belk said.
The endorsement can help Romney in the immediate term Belk said, but the impact will likely be negligible.
Despite Romney leading in most polls throughout the campaign, he has not been able to pull away from the pack, though he gained some distance on his competitors in South Carolina in several recent polls.
Unless Romney pulls out a big win in South Carolina, Belk said, 2012 could be very similar to 2008 with a long drawn out primary fight such as occurred between Sen. John McCain, former Gov. Mike Huckabee and Romney on the Republican side and between Obama and then Sen. Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side.