Nikki Haley’s ‘sticky’ problem: Will big donors stay?

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By Dan Sears

The Wall Street donor class used to rule elections; today not so much, though the fat-cat money men (and women) will have an outsized role in just how long Nikki Haley stays in her race against GOP front-runner Donald Trump.

In Haley’s somewhat strange quest for the GOP nomination, she needs big money more than votes from the party’s rank and file. It helps her stay in the race long enough to hope Trump face-plants in a way that makes her the nominee, maybe without winning a single state, consultants close to her admit.

Haley’s dilemma, of course, is that she’s a moderate in a populist party. The old country-club-types, Wall Street execs and free-marketeers are now a back-bench caucus. Donald Trump’s MAGA movement has converted the GOP base to “blue” — as in blue-collar, anti-globalist, and definitely not Wall Street-friendly.

He finances his campaign with his own (allegedly) enormous wealth but mostly through contributions from these base voters and the equivalent of free ads buys, intense media coverage every time he says something crazy.

Candidates like Haley need money from the non-populist but still cash-rich fat-cat minority to compete and hopefully outlast The Donald.

Will it work? I have my doubts. Sure, she has a slew of fundraisers set up in the coming weeks. She claims her super PAC raised around $50 million in the second half of 2023, surpassing Trump’s large haul.

The big-money donor class seems to like Haley’s pitch that she matches one-on-one against Biden better than Trump because independents won’t vote for someone likely to be a convicted felon. After all those indictments, Trump could well be in jail in a few months. They should keep her in play and wait for his inevitable downfall.

But all her money hasn’t moved the needle with GOP voters. She has lost the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary to Trump, and if the polling is right, she’s a loser in her home state of South Carolina in February. Not exactly a great start for someone who eventually wants to be president.

Plus, Wall Street will soon demand a return on its investment. Fat-cat cash comes with a lot of strings. That’s where Haley’s greatest strength could soon become her biggest weakness.

Remember, base voters don’t care if Trump governs from a prison cell, every GOP poll shows. They also think Trump will crush Biden. Big-money donors see those polls and they’re getting nervous. Several have already pulled away from Haley. Others like Home Depot founder and legendary financier Ken Langone are warning they’re not throwing money away on a losing ticket if it looks like Haley can’t win in her home state — or any state, for that matter.

And if Langone pulls out, the rest will follow.

Again, Haley says she’s in it to the bitter end — but so did Ron DeSantis. Last Sunday, citing big donors, I reported on X that because Trump’s lead was so insurmountable, the one-time GOP front-runner  was on the verge of dropping out.

“We have already refuted,” his campaign spokesman emailed me. DeSantis was in it to the end, angling for a two-person race with Trump after Haley gets trounced in her home state and drops out, the rep further assured.

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Less than three hours later, DeSantis announced his campaign was over. The reason? He was in it until his big-money donors told him they weren’t going to throw their money away on a losing effort.

Like DeSantis, at some point Haley is going to have to win a state. If she doesn’t, her “in it till the end” moment will conclude the same way as his — and maybe sooner than she even knows.

The new ‘Silverback’

If you haven’t noticed, the old “Silverback” leading the meme-stock army is no longer AMC’s Adam Aron. As shares of AMC have declined more than 99% from their highs, the theater chain’s loquacious (and sometimes pompous) CEO has gone largely silent.

Never fear, memesters, there appears to be a new Silverback in town: Bill Pulte, a scion of the famous Pulte home-building family.

The 35-year-old Pulte, the grandson of the company founder William J. Pulte, isn’t part of the management of the family business any longer (he is a large shareholder). Rather, he has a private equity shop, does a fair amount of philanthropy, and has become very active on social media, spouting off to his 3 million-plus  X followers on various subjects including defending meme investors who got slaughtered as the craze fizzled.

The question is why? Pulte describes it as part of philanthropy efforts. He says he’s looking “to get answers, to get transparency” from management about just what went wrong.

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Yes, the execs of these companies have their flaws (as I’ve reported on these pages), but they warned time and again about the speculative nature of their stocks. Meanwhile, the people Pulte says he’s defending chose to take the “advice” of pumpers on social media, including  Reddit’s Wall Street Bets forum, touting the financially troubled AMC as a $1,000 stock, or shares of Bed Bath and Beyond as the next Apple while it was about to be delisted and the company liquidated in bankruptcy.

Irrational exuberance on steroids, and not surprisingly, the memesters got crushed.

When I asked Pulte during an interview on Fox Business if he knew about all this, he seemed nonplussed. “Give me a name or something . . . I don’t know who that is.” Later he said he knows there are pumpers on social media but needs a “specific name to hold accountable.”

Sounds a bit strange. My advice to Bill is, if he wants to find out who’s responsible for meme losses, he needs to get more acquainted with Reddit and fully understand the practice of stock pumping.

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