AMES, Iowa — It was another big crowd that greeted Nikki Haley at a barbecue restaurant here on Sunday afternoon. Onlookers unable to squeeze in peered through the windows of the room where she was speaking. On the eve of Monday’s caucuses, her candidacy continues to draw attention.
To most Americans, Iowa’s precinct caucuses that begin the presidential nominating process are a quirky, arcane and sometimes undemocratic process. They test a candidate’s personal appeal and right now that’s working to Haley’s advantage. They also test a candidate’s ability to organize and mobilize supporters. For those reasons, Monday’s results could be telling for Haley.
The former U.N. ambassador and former South Carolina governor has been gaining ground in Iowa. The Iowa Poll released on Saturday night showed her running ahead of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who has staked his candidacy on this state. Whether she has the political muscle to deliver on that showing is one of the key questions the caucuses should answer.
The Iowa Poll is conducted by J. Ann Selzer for the Des Moines Register, NBC News and Mediacon. Selzer has a reputation for producing the most reliable polls of Iowa caucus-goers. In the latest poll, Donald Trump led with 48 percent, Haley was second for the first time in this survey with 20 percent and DeSantis was third with 16 percent. Other recent polls also show her in second.
Selzer’s analysis of other findings represent a series of flashing yellow lights for Haley. “If you didn’t know that Nikki Haley was in second, you would think Ron DeSantis was in second,” Selzer said in a telephone call on Sunday morning. “Every indicator [in the poll] falls in DeSantis’s favor.”
Selzer offered an analogy from 2016, when her final pre-caucus poll showed Trump leading the Republican field in the last competitive GOP caucus race, with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) running second. But Selzer believed then that there were clear signs that it was Cruz rather than Trump who was the stronger candidate on the eve of the caucuses.
That proved correct. On caucus night, Cruz ended up as the winner with Trump second. Trump, as is his way, claimed Cruz cheated, a harbinger of what he would do after losing to President Biden following the general election in 2020. The truth was that Trump was out-hustled by Cruz, who had built a more substantial organization while Trump’s was more haphazard.
Is it possible that the same thing could happen to Haley — who finds herself second in the final Iowa Poll but ends up third to DeSantis on caucus night? There are some reasons that could be the case, from the internal numbers in the Iowa Poll to questions about the relative strengths of the Haley and DeSantis organizations.
Haley has become a vessel for Republicans who want to send a message of dissatisfaction with Trump. But their attachment to her is far less strong than supporters of Trump or DeSantis. Her afternoon appearance in Ames offered some evidence of this.
Though she turned out a big crowd, the level of excitement among them was limited, something highlighted in the new Iowa Poll. The poll showed that just 9 percent of her supporters are extremely enthusiastic about her. A majority said they are only mildly enthusiastic or not enthusiastic at all. Meanwhile, 49 percent of Trump supporters and 23 percent of DeSantis supporters said they are extremely excited.
Selzer told the Register that those numbers for Haley “are on the edge of jaw-dropping.”
As she has climbed in the polls, Haley’s favorable ratings have declined. In December, her favorable versus unfavorable numbers were 59 positive and 31 negative. In the new poll, they are 48 percent favorable, 46 percent unfavorable.
There are some obvious reasons for that. For part of last year, she avoided sustained attacks in television ads. That’s no longer the case. Both on the stump and in television commercials, Trump and DeSantis have ramped up their criticism of her.
At a rally in Indianola on Sunday afternoon, Trump spent part of his speech denigrating Haley as not tough enough to be president and not up to the job. “She’s starting to fade as people find out [about her],” he said. DeSantis has attacked her as a globalist funded by Wall Street money.
Summing up everything in her poll, Selzer said, “It all says Nikki Haley shouldn’t be in second place. But she is.”
Perhaps Haley will run second on Monday night, and with enough of a margin over DeSantis to give her the kind of boost that would provide her more momentum heading into New Hampshire, whose primary is Jan. 23. But will the interest in her candidacy manifest itself in big support on Monday or will the tepid level of enthusiasm recorded in the Iowa Poll affect her turnout?
The critical unknown about Monday night is the weather. These will be the coldest caucuses in history, with wind chills estimated to be close to 40 below zero in some parts of the state. That puts a premium on organization — on a campaign’s ability to know who is truly committed and able to assure that as many as possible brave the weather to go caucus.
Trump’s organization was flimsy in 2016. Today it is seen as far more professional, having been built for many months, and more able than eight years ago to bring out his supporters on Monday night.
DeSantis outsourced his organizational work to Never Back Down, the super PAC that has backed his campaign. Never Back Down has gone through its own period of disarray, raising questions about spillover effects here on Monday night. But DeSantis has had a big head start on Haley in developing a ground organization.
Haley has become dependent on Americans for Prosperity, which is associated with billionaire Charles Koch, for organizational support. The endorsement represented a major boost to Haley, but it came late last year, leaving less time to develop the breadth and depth of the best organizations from years past.
On Sunday afternoon, 27 hours ahead of the caucuses, Haley was asking people in the audience to sign cards committing to vote for her and to volunteer for her campaign. That’s helpful, but at this point, most well-organized campaigns are checking and double-checking their lists of committed supporters. Can her organization convert the interest in her candidacy into votes on Monday?
The Iowa Poll found that among the three top candidates, the percentage of DeSantis supporters who say they will definitely attend the caucuses is higher than supporters of Trump or Haley. Among DeSantis supporters, 62 percent say they will definitely caucus, compared with 56 percent of Trump supporters and 51 percent of Haley supporters.
What happens in Iowa might not have much influence on the voters in New Hampshire. The primary there is likely to be far more competitive than the caucuses in Iowa. New Hampshire has long been more fertile ground for Haley. The electorate is more moderate, there are fewer religious conservatives than in Iowa and independent or unaffiliated voters long have played an important role.
In Iowa, about half of Haley’s supporters say they are independents or Democrats. A recent University of New Hampshire poll for CNN showed Haley within single digits of Trump in the Granite State and leading among those registered as undeclared or not registered. That can help in the primary, but to win the Republican nomination, a candidate needs to win Republicans.
While Monday’s results won’t dictate to New Hampshire voters, they will provide clues about the strength and potential durability of Haley’s candidacy. She has come a long way over months of campaigning in her bid to overtake DeSantis. She doesn’t want to fall back on the night the first votes are counted.