The most important question in the GOP presidential race for the next few weeks isn’t if anyone can narrow Donald Trump’s imposing lead over his rivals; it’s whether Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley can surpass the other clearly enough to create a genuine one-on-one contest with the former president.
The answer to that second question likely will go a long way toward answering the first. No one in the party disputes that all the candidates face long odds of toppling the current front-runner. But many of the Republican strategists skeptical of Trump now view the race as a kind of stair-step: before any other candidate can really challenge Trump, they argue, he or she must achieve what his 2016 rivals could not by clearing the field to create a binary choice with him.
“You’ve got to have one real challenger: two or three doesn’t help you,” said Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire state attorney general and GOP strategist who has been active in every primary there since 1964. “The more splintered this field stays, the better it is for Donald Trump.”
For much of this year, most Republicans assumed that DeSantis was best positioned to emerge as Trump’s principal rival. And GOP strategists supporting the Florida governor still argue that he remains the only alternative with both the breadth of appeal in the party and the national campaign organization to truly threaten Trump.
But many Republican strategists believe that DeSantis’ struggles to connect with voters, and his choice to run at Trump solely from the right, have opened a lane for Haley to eclipse the Florida governor. Some Republicans believe Haley has already done so — partly because she now appears to have a much clearer path than DeSantis to strong showings in New Hampshire and South Carolina, the two critical early states that follow the kick-off Iowa caucuses that he has prioritized.
“I think Haley is clearly the second-place candidate right now,” said veteran Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
Even about two months away from the first contest on the GOP calendar, all indications suggest that the first stage of that culling process has already occurred. An array of recent polls, both nationally and in the battleground states, signal that DeSantis and Haley have separated themselves from the rest of the candidates chasing Trump. “The field has winnowed down to where they are at the top,” said Alice Stewart, a CNN political commentator who has worked on multiple GOP presidential campaigns.
One clear measure of that separation was a 538/Washington Post/Ipsos poll of likely Republican primary voters who watched last week’s debate. Just over half of those debate-watchers said they were considering voting for Haley or DeSantis; only about a quarter said they were even considering the other three candidates on the stage, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. Scott quit the race on Sunday.
The reason some in the party now view Haley as a stronger option than DeSantis is not because of big shifts in the national polling, where he still typically leads her as a distant second place finisher to Trump; rather it’s because of how they are positioned in the first three major contests on the calendar – Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
DeSantis is following the same strategy relied upon by other recent GOP presidential hopefuls who ran hard to the right on social issues. Like Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012, and Ted Cruz in 2016, DeSantis is betting his campaign predominantly on a strong showing in Iowa. Following the tracks of those predecessors, DeSantis has campaigned exhaustively in Iowa, devoted more effort to building a campaign organization there than anywhere else, and placed the highest priority on consolidating support among the state’s evangelical Christians. DeSantis has attracted the most backing from local elected officials (including Gov. Kim Reynolds, who endorsed him last week) and seems likely to win endorsements from the state’s leading religious conservatives.
Variations on that model allowed Huckabee, Santorum and Cruz to each win Iowa. But none of them came close to winning the nomination. Once each man was defined in Iowa as the candidate of evangelical social conservatives, he struggled to compete in states where those voters were not the dominant faction in the GOP electorate. Their problems immediately manifested in New Hampshire, when any momentum they acquired in Iowa crashed as if sliding into a snowbank: neither Huckabee, Santorum nor Cruz reached even 12% of the vote in the Granite State, where only about one-fourth of GOP voters identify as evangelicals (about half the level as in Iowa). Ultimately none of those past three Iowa winners captured more than a dozen states or came close to beating the front-runner in their primary races (John McCain in 2008, Mitt Romney in 2012 and Trump in 2016).
Haley’s campaign believes DeSantis has placed himself squarely on the same dead-end path. “Even if DeSantis were to do well in Iowa, which is a big ‘if’ given his current decline, he is in such a weak position in New Hampshire and South Carolina that it doesn’t matter,” Haley’s campaign argued in a memo released to reporters last week. “He has no end game.” In a sign of Haley’s improving position, her campaign this week announced it would launch a $10 million ad blitz in Iowa and New Hampshire, after spending only a little over $100,000 on its own advertising in those states so far. (A super PAC supporting Haley has made larger buys.) That dwarfs the ad purchases DeSantis’ campaign has announced, although he too has the help of a super PAC.
Many GOP strategists and operatives not affiliated with any of the campaigns agree that Haley now has more room than DeSantis to grow in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Recent polls in both states, including a CNN/SSRS survey in her home state of South Carolina, have found her with about one-fifth of the vote, roughly double DeSantis’ support.
Both Ayres and Rath say the New Hampshire electorate should be more favorable to Haley than to DeSantis. The weak showings for Huckabee, Santorum and Cruz continued a long-standing pattern in which New Hampshire GOP voters have rejected the most socially conservative candidates – even George W. Bush lost there in 2000.
Even if DeSantis finishes unexpectedly well in Iowa, “he will have done so by running to Trump’s right on abortion and gaining a significant portion of conservative evangelicals,” Dante Scala – a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire and author of “Stormy Weather,” a book on the New Hampshire primary – wrote in an email. “But that anti-abortion message does not play well here.” By contrast, Scala said, Haley’s message of seeking “consensus” on abortion “will pay off among NH GOP women (and college educated GOPers generally).” Haley has said that although she is personally “pro-life,” she does not believe there are enough votes in Congress to pass a national abortion ban. “At the federal level, it’s not realistic,” she has argued on multiple occasions.
Much like McCain, who won the state in both in his 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns, Haley will also likely be boosted in New Hampshire by the large number of independents who can vote in the primary. Polls already show independents there are much more likely to prefer her than DeSantis. “I think it was Linus from Peanuts who said, ‘There’s no greater burden than a high potential,’” said Rath. “Everybody assumed DeSantis was going to really hit it out of the park and he hasn’t. So, as he’s underperformed, he’s left space for her.”
After New Hampshire comes South Carolina, which historically has been the most important contest on the GOP calendar: the candidate who won the state also won the nomination in every contested GOP race since 1980 except for 2012 (when Newt Gingrich captured South Carolina but lost to Romney). As a former governor there, Haley begins with an intrinsic advantage over DeSantis. “Absolutely, Nikki Haley has more upside than DeSantis if they are both viable after the first two,” argued Alex Stroman, a former executive director of the South Carolina GOP. “We’ve seen it time and time again, that her ceiling [in South Carolina] is always much higher than it appears.”
To those who believe Haley is passing DeSantis as Trump’s main rival, all of these developments are evidence not only of tactical missteps by the Florida governor, but proof of a fundamental strategic miscalculation. In DeSantis’ efforts to peel away Trump supporters by consistently running to his right, these critics believe he has driven away the portion of the party — maybe around 30% — most resistant to the former president. DeSantis “went so hard to try to destroy Trump from the right that he alienated the other buckets of folks in the party,” said Stroman. “He should have tried to consolidate the people who want to move on from Trump-ism first.”
Ayres has famously divided the GOP electorate into three camps: an always Trump group immovably bound to him; a never Trump group implacably hostile to him; and a maybe Trump group that supported him but is wearying of the chaos that surrounds him and is open to an alternative. DeSantis, Ayres argued, has “has tried to appeal to some of the ‘always Trump’ voters, but the ‘always Trump’ voters are always Trump for a reason. Nikki Haley seems to have figured out the job is to consolidate the ‘maybe Trump’ voters who supported Trump twice but now … want a different style and different temperament.”
Republicans sympathetic to DeSantis argue that it is Haley who has boxed herself in. They maintain she is rising primarily because she is consolidating the most moderate and often college-educated voters in Ayres’ “never Trump” camp. But, they maintain, she is doing so with positions — such as affirming a more hawkish foreign policy and signaling that she will downplay abortion as an issue — that will prevent her from reaching broadly into the “maybe Trump” group of voters still sympathetic to his agenda, if not his style. DeSantis’ ads attacking Haley, tellingly, have all portrayed her as insufficiently MAGA — for instance, accusing her (in claims disproved by fact-checkers) of supporting the US admitting refugees from Gaza.
DeSantis allies maintain that the Florida governor has more room to pick off “Make America Great Again” voters in today’s GOP who may be ambivalent about Trump. From their perspective, Haley is positioning herself in a way that might appeal to the pre-Trump party, but will collide with the dominant views in a GOP coalition he has reshaped in his image.
That argument points to the DeSantis campaign’s core theory: by starting on the right it will be easier for him to expand to the centrist parts of the party than it will be for Haley (or anyone else) to reach into the right after starting in the center.
Scala believes that calculation is probably correct. While any plan for dethroning Trump faces long odds, he believes, he’s dubious that Haley’s positions on issues will allow her to capture enough “soft Trump” voters to beat him, even if the race narrows to a one-on-one contest.
“To me, DeSantis has the more plausible theory of how to win the nomination (Trumpism without Trump),” Scala wrote in his email. “And he’s (slowly) becoming a better candidate.”
The veteran GOP strategist Mike Murphy, who’s become a staunch Trump critic, reaches the opposite conclusion. Haley, he believes, can assemble a bigger coalition than DeSantis in the primary, partly because polls now consistently show her as the strongest GOP candidate against President Joe Biden. “She says winner,” Murphy said. “He is a dime store Trump.”
The competition between Haley and DeSantis, of course, will prove at most a historical footnote if neither can climb closer to Trump. Even as they jostle with each other, recent events have underscored how difficult it may be for either to do so.
Many who see Haley as the best chance to stop Trump were enthused by a recent Iowa poll showing her rising to tie DeSantis for second place there. If Haley unexpectedly passed DeSantis in Iowa, many believe, it would give her a boost of momentum that could allow her to soar in New Hampshire — and from there potentially quickly expand her national support. There’s a precedent for such a brushfire: in the 1984 Democratic primaries, then-Sen. Gary Hart parlayed a surprising (though still distant) second-place finish in Iowa to a win in New Hampshire that ignited a national surge of support. Though Hart ultimately lost the nomination, he fought toe-to-toe with Walter Mondale, who began as a commanding front-runner, until the last weekend of the contest in June.
But Haley’s chances of finishing second in Iowa took a blow when the popular governor endorsed DeSantis. Even if DeSantis finishes ahead of Haley in Iowa, many believe she would still run ahead of him in New Hampshire, especially if GOP Gov. Chris Sununu endorses her. But if Haley comes in third or lower in Iowa, the odds diminish that she will generate enough momentum from the first contest to overtake Trump in New Hampshire. And, in a cascading effect, if Haley does not exceed expectations in New Hampshire, she will likely find it difficult to beat Trump in South Carolina, even with her home-court advantage. In turn, if DeSantis underperforms in New Hampshire — which seems likely on his current trajectory — he may find it as difficult as Huckabee, Santorum and Cruz did to recover sufficiently in South Carolina.
DeSantis’ supporters argue he is building a campaign to fight on long beyond the first few states. But in the modern primary era, no one has won a contested GOP nomination without capturing at least one of the initial contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Haley faces the same urgency: Ayres says that even if she establishes her viability by finishing third in Iowa and second in New Hampshire, she would still need to finish first in South Carolina to genuinely threaten Trump. “You’ve got to beat him somewhere,” Ayres said, “and if you can’t beat him in your home state, it’s hard to make the case that you are the strongest contender.”
Haley and DeSantis have plenty of reason to focus now on their duel with each other. Yet at some point each will need to do something — make a compelling argument at a debate, win an early state — that prompts a meaningful number of the GOP voters now backing Trump to reconsider. The clock is ticking on their opportunity to do so. “As Yogi Berra used to say,” Rath noted, “it gets late early out here.”
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