There are a lot of people who have been and continue to be committed to the idea that this year’s Republican presidential nominating contest is competitive.
Some in the media are committed, certainly, both defensively — what if Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis somehow pulled it off! — and because a contest with an uncertain outcome is more interesting to contemplate than one that’s running out the clock. Numerous political actors are also committed to this idea, such as legislators who backed DeSantis or former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley in Iowa. If either pulls out the nomination, their picks could be framed as vindicated (even if they didn’t do much good in Iowa on Monday night).
Then there are the candidates themselves.
There were three broad categories of results in Iowa. One consisted of former president Donald Trump, who cleaned up across the board. Another included the candidates who performed as poorly as had been expected; two of them, Vivek Ramaswamy and Asa Hutchinson, have since dropped out.
Then there were DeSantis and Haley, who essentially tied for second place. For those two, the caucus results seemed to serve little obvious function than to help them argue that they didn’t need to drop out just yet.
In his “victory” speech, DeSantis (who beat Haley by two points while losing to Trump by 30) affected a celebratory tone, though, as is so often the case with him, he failed to deliver the emotional punch he was intending. He kept talking about how the results had “punched his ticket” to future contests, as though his transit to those primaries did not simply reflect his own appetite for masochism.
Haley took an even bolder approach, declaring that the nominating fight had become a two-person contest. Her goal was clear, to suggest to anti-Trump voters that she was the only real alternative, and her argument wasn’t as bad as has been presented. After all, she’s running close to Trump in next week’s New Hampshire primary. But, of course, what Iowa really reflected is that the nomination is a one-person battle, that person being Trump. As it has been for a long time.
What’s the best argument for Haley moving forward? She narrowly wins or loses in New Hampshire, bolstering this “two-person race” idea. (Indeed, that was probably the implied argument for the claim.) Trump responds by pummeling her relentlessly. Then we get to Nevada’s primary and, two days later, its caucuses. Only the latter counts because of state party rules — and Haley isn’t competing in them. So there will be stories on Feb. 6 about how Haley won the primary (because she’s the only one of the three on the ballot) with caveats about how that doesn’t mean anything. Then, two days later, new stories about how dominant Trump was in the state.
Even if Haley pulls out a strong performance in South Carolina, the state where she was once governor, it probably doesn’t change much. Her base of support is centered on less-conservative voters, Republicans who are less likely to engage in primaries. She’s hoping to consolidate the electorate as the anti-Trump candidate, but Trump is far better liked now than he was eight years ago. Then, consolidating the non-Trump vote would have established a non-Trump nominee. Now, getting all of the non-Trump vote lands you in second to Donald Trump. (And, besides, she’s unlikely to do very well in South Carolina, anyway.)
The picture is even less optimistic for DeSantis. He’s almost certainly going to come in third in New Hampshire and probably trail Trump by a wide margin in Nevada. After Iowa, he flew to South Carolina — where he’s once again polling in third. That primary is more than a month from now — a long time to sustain a campaign in which you keep finishing well behind the front-runner. Then comes Super Tuesday, when polling and mechanics favor Trump broadly.
The best-case scenarios for Haley and DeSantis involve the other dropping out. But in neither case is the benefit clear. DeSantis supporters are much friendlier to Trump than Haley supporters, so his leaving would probably provide more of a boost to the former president. If Haley dropped out, DeSantis would probably see a bigger gain. If all of her support went to the Florida governor, national polling averages suggest that DeSantis would jump to 23 percent — only 40 points behind Trump.
Sure, something could cause the race to go sideways. But it almost certainly won’t be that DeSantis or Haley comes up with an argument that peels support away from Trump. After all, they’ve been trying to do that for months without luck.
DeSantis argued that nominating Trump would doom Republicans in November, a pitch that worked better a year or so ago than it does now, especially because Trump now leads President Biden in many polls. (A new one from Georgia, for example, has him up eight points.) DeSantis also tried to ding Trump on his pandemic response, another issue that was way more potent months ago.
Haley has gone after Trump as too old, an attack that doesn’t land in part because Republicans have been primed to contrast Trump’s perceived age with Biden’s. She has also tried to pitch herself as a more viable general-election candidate, but, again, the fact that Trump often leads — and has a history of defying polls to some extent — makes that a tough sell.
Other candidates have tried other arguments, such as going after Trump directly for the actions that led to his indictments. Former New Jersey governor — and former 2024 candidate — Chris Christie can attest to the utility of this explicitly anti-Trump pitch. Then there was Ramaswamy’s assertion this week that Trump supporters should vote for him because the “deep state” would somehow “eliminate” Trump before the election. This (odd) argument also didn’t work.
No other Republican has landed a blow on Trump, particularly since he galvanized his support at the beginning of last year. This is one reason that Haley and DeSantis so often go after each other; there’s actual ground to be gained. The other reason is that neither candidate wants to irritate Trump’s base of support, just in case Trump gets hit by a meteor or something. The result is that there is a heated battle to win the Pro Bowl while Trump wins the Super Bowl by forfeit.
All of this, the preceding 1,000 words or so in this article, is talking generally about an obvious point. Barring that meteor strike, there’s no realistic outcome to the nomination other than Trump appearing on the November ballot. That was true before the caucuses, but, as with projecting individual election outcomes, it’s useful to see some actual vote results before you call it.
Feel free to call it. My professional duty, though, is to proceed as if DeSantis can somehow pull it off, which he can’t.