The most popular politician in America

Obviously it’s Kanye. Or it was until he went full MAGA and instantly lost — can this be right? — nine million Twitter followers.

So now it’s Nikki Haley.

But let’s be real. To some extent these numbers are smoke and mirrors.

Trump is at 39/54 approval by way of comparison. The next most popular Republican after Haley is James Mattis, who enjoys a healthy 59/22 approval rating but barely breaks even among Democrats at 43/37. Haley not only tops him, her approval rating among Dems alone nearly matches his across the entire population. “Black and Hispanic voters were more than twice as likely to approve of Haley than Trump, and women nearly so,” notes Axios. She’s also the only Republican tested by Quinnipiac who’s net positive among black Americans, who may remember her crusade in South Carolina to remove the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds after the Charleston massacre. A lot of Republican consultants are going to stare at that table and start reserving “Haley 2024” websites.

So why is it smoke and mirrors? Well, note the 2009-2013 period here:

Nikki Haley isn’t Hillary Clinton. She’s a *much* better politician with 1/1,000th as much baggage. But the fact that Hillary’s popularity soared while she was at State isn’t a coincidence. Politicians in diplomatic roles tend to be better liked by the public because they’re above the fray of grimy, everyday politics. Instead of picking sides between left and right, they spend most of their time taking the side of the United States against foreign adversaries. Haley in particular has shrewdly leveraged her UN perch to unleash evening-news-soundbite-ready broadsides at Russia, which may not make her boss happy but pleases GOP hawks and Putin-hating Democrats immensely. To some extent, Nikki Haley has the easiest job in America right now: Just make the case on a big stage every month or so that the Kremlin sucks and you’re golden with about 75 percent of the American public.

Once Hillary left the lofty diplomatic world and returned to being a partisan pol, her high approval went with her. Haley will never be as unpopular with Clinton, needless to say, but to some extent her extraordinary popularity is a function of her position and she won’t hold that position forever. Once she’s on the trail six years from now attacking Democrats for their “weakness,” her blockbuster numbers with liberals and indies will turn to ash.

But there’s another wrinkle in her polling. If Steve Bannon’s implosion stands for anything, it’s the fact that no one remains popular on the American right without Trump’s approval. Trump has stayed away from criticizing Haley publicly so far, which is curious given the amount of grumbling he’s done privately about her rhetorical attacks on Russia. Maybe it’s because he enjoys having a rare popular Republican in his cabinet, maybe he appreciates the fact that she’s good on TV. But a Trump/Haley clash seems inevitable, particularly given her boldness in backing down Larry Kudlow after he criticized her for “confusion” over Trump’s sanctions policy. If POTUS ends up giving Haley the same treatment as Sessions, Rosenstein, Tillerson, and McMaster — that is, if he makes it known publicly somehow to his fans that an aide has fallen into disfavor — Haley’s numbers among her own party will lose altitude. Hawkish Republicans will still love her, some entertaining silly, lurid fantasies of a Haley primary challenge in 2020, but the Trump base will lose interest. It seems paradoxical given Trump’s own poor polling among the electorate, but it’s true: Haley’s spectacular ratings exist to a degree only at Trump’s sufferance.

Here’s S.E. Cupp a few days ago channeling the 10-15 percent of the party that prefers her to POTUS. One last point about Haley’s 2024 prospects: As a successful former governor with foreign-policy experience, she’s destined to be a top-flight contender. But if it’s true, as a recent study claimed, that Trump’s coalition rallied to him not because of “economic anxiety” but because they felt that their culturally dominant status as whites, Christians, and (mostly) men was threatened, an Indian-American woman would not be the most obvious choice to inherit that coalition. That’s not to say it’s impossible; having someone from outside one’s “tribe” stand up for it can be extraordinarily powerful, as Kanye West is discovering today via the cheers he’s getting from POTUS and MAGA Nation. But it is what it is.