Veteran Iowa GOP activist Marlys Popma has gotten a call from Nikki Haley’s presidential campaign every other week for months.
Popma’s is one of those coveted endorsements among the state’s conservative evangelicals. The 67-year-old served twice as the executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa and twice as president of Iowa Right to Life, and worked for the presidential campaigns of John McCain in 2008 and Ted Cruz in 2016.
But until a few days ago, she wasn’t ready to back a candidate. Then, at a town hall on Friday in Newton, Iowa, Popma stood up and made a surprise endorsement. “I was an undecided voter when I walked in here,” she told the room full of Iowans, who had just heard Haley’s stump speech. “I no longer am an undecided voter.”
Later, she told Christianity Today that “as a Christian, I just really felt the Spirit saying, ‘This is what you need to do, where you need to go.’ So I stood up and said, ‘You’ve got my endorsement.’”
The welcome endorsement came as Haley, the former South Carolina governor and Trump-era US ambassador to the United Nations, is having a moment in the polls and following up strong debate performances with more detail on her pro-life stances.
During the fall, she’s risen nearly ten points in Iowa—bringing her to trail Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. In New Hampshire, she’s risen 15 points in the polling, from 4 percent in August to 18 percent in November. She’s maintaining second place in her native state of South Carolina. Donors have started to flock to her campaign. Surveys show voters prefer her in a matchup with President Joe Biden.
The momentum comes with a big asterisk. “I’ve got one more fella I’ve gotta catch up to,” Haley told voters at an event in South Carolina earlier this month. “I am determined to do it.”
Former president Donald Trump is still the far and away frontrunner among evangelicals and Republicans. He’s consistently led in the polls, and most signs have pointed to a rematch between Trump and President Joe Biden. His commanding lead has made the rest of the race look like a scramble for second place.
But as the crowded primary field has started to winnow—former vice president Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Scott dropped out over the last month—Haley has hung on, and her campaign is hoping to shake things up, with a list of 70-plus endorsements from Iowa leaders and $10 million worth of advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire over the next few weeks.
“I think there is great potential for movement in Iowa,” Popma said. “And I probably know the caucuses as well as just about anyone in the state … and I think as more people see her and hear her, the better she’s gonna do.”
She’s drawing the attention of voters beyond the early primary states.
“She’s just really good in the debates,” said Dan Darling, director of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Land Center for Cultural Engagement. “She was a good, good governor.”
Another advantage Haley has, Darling said, is projecting a sense of being “the adult in the room” during a time with troubling events on the world stage, particularly since war broke out between Israel and Hamas.
Haley has had to do some convincing around the issues many evangelicals view as paramount. In a one-on-one with the candidate prior to the town hall, Popma voiced concerns about Haley’s position on abortion.
Haley put those concerns to rest. “What I got from her is that if Congress gets her a bill that protects unborn babies at 15 weeks, at 6 weeks, wherever, she’s going to sign,” Popma said.
At that point, it was a more stalwartly conservative stance than Haley had made publicly, but she went on to reiterate it a few hours later at the Family Leader’s Thanksgiving Forum, hosted by the influential Iowa-based Christian group.
When asked about whether she would sign a federal bill banning abortion after six weeks gestation, Haley said she would. “Yes, whatever the people decide,” she added, a nod to her previous answers suggesting she believes movement on abortion is likely to happen at the state level.
In South Carolina, Haley signed a 2016 law banning most abortions past 20 weeks gestation, the most conservative bill state lawmakers could pass at the time. Since then, the state has gone further by outlawing most abortions past six weeks.
In her campaign, she has consistently described herself as pro-life but has come across as more moderate on the issue than some of her rivals.
In the wake of last year’s Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade, Haley has said Republicans needed to focus on finding consensus on the issue. At the third debate, she said she would sign anything lawmakers could get across the finish line but noted the chances of Republicans getting through a federal ban were unlikely while they only have slim control of one chamber of Congress.
It’s unclear whether Haley’s rhetorical shift to the right on abortion, or her push to become more visible in Iowa and other early voting states, will move the needle when it comes to white evangelical voters, most of whom still favor the former president.
“The evangelicals that are backing Trump aren’t going to be swayed by a particular story or set of convictions from someone like Nikki Haley,” Daniel Bennett, a political science professor at John Brown University, told Christianity Today. “They’re going to be behind Trump.”
Bennett added that Haley’s story of converting as an adult may be “compelling” for “a lot of Christians in this country who came to Christ later in life. … But at the same time, I think there are those who are going to be more skeptical of her because of her non-traditional background.”
Haley is Indian American and was raised Sikh by her parents. As an adult, she converted to Christianity and now attends a well-known Methodist church in South Carolina, Mt. Horeb. The church recently left the United Methodist Church to align with the newly formed Global Methodist Church.
Tim Lubinus, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Iowa, who attended the Family Leader event Friday, said he believed “most evangelical voters would prefer someone else” over Trump and that Haley “has a lot of traction here in Iowa.”
Lubinus said a number of conversations with pastors gave him the impression that many are “interested in her and her campaign” and thought she had a good performance at the candidate forum over the weekend.
He added that others agreed that her rhetoric on abortion could have been stronger: “We should have a position that’s clear and strong, and she was maybe a half step back from that.”
For the first six months after launching her campaign, while her polling remained unimpressively low, there was doubt her moment would come. Political commentators wrote off her campaign. Her rivals questioned her constituency. If a substantial shift is going to happen, now would be the time—the first test for GOP primary candidates is less than two months away, on January 15 at the Iowa caucuses.
“I haven’t heard of like a huge movement toward her among evangelicals, but I’m increasingly hearing a lot of them say, ‘You know, she could win,’ ‘I think we could easily vote for her,’” Darling said.
Popma thinks Haley can surprise people.
“I would not have done what I did If I didn’t think that she had the ability to shoot up in the polls,” she said. “It was what she said, it was the people around me all saying they were undecided, it gave me this vibe like, this whole room could go Haley. And if she could duplicate that city by city as she stomps through here the next month and a half, who knows what could happen?”