Two things can be true in the Republican presidential primary: one, that Nikki Haley is the first candidate to supplant Ron DeSantis as the race’s Donald Trump alternative; two, that it’s probably for naught — that Trump has things sewn up.
But what if the second isn’t actually the case? Given Haley’s momentum in the race, it’s worth asking a question we had long asked about DeSantis: Can she beat Trump? And if so, how?
New polling confirms Haley’s upward trajectory.
She had previously overtaken DeSantis in New Hampshire and her home state of South Carolina, and a new CNN poll in South Carolina out Tuesday showed her doubling up the Florida governor, 22 percent to his 11 percent.
That’s on the heels of the venerable Iowa Poll showing her drawing even with DeSantis for the first time in what will be the contest’s earliest state.
Despite these developments in Haley’s favor, the doubters have come out strong. Trump is still flirting with half of the vote in the early states, they note, with little signs of decline. He’s still taking more of the vote than Haley and DeSantis combined in all early states. Trump’s supporters are more devoted to and enthusiastic about their candidate. What’s more, Haley is drawing primarily from a relatively small pot of non-MAGA voters; if either Trump or DeSantis suddenly faded, the data suggest it would accrue to the other man’s benefit, rather than to hers.
All of that is true. But none of it means, as one recent headline stated flatly, that “Haley has no path to nomination.”
So let’s, for argument’s sake, look at what that path — however unlikely — could be.
One reason we can’t rule this out right now is that the undercard is fluid. We’re confronting a dynamic different from what we’ve seen before in this race, with Haley laying claim to the challenger mantle. This will result in increased scrutiny of her, and voters who perhaps didn’t consider her before may give her a fresh look.
If the choice now looks more like Trump vs. Haley than Trump vs. DeSantis, that’s a new one for voters. It’s more Trump vs. a different path, rather than Trump vs. a supposedly more electable Trump Lite.
Haley’s base of support, at the very least, appears to span more parts of the party. Unlike DeSantis, she hasn’t alienated moderate voters. Unlike other candidates who have sought to appeal to the party’s mainstream, she hasn’t alienated the hardcore MAGA base (at least yet). The Iowa Poll shows she’s nearly as popular as both Trump and DeSantis there, and she actually holds a slight lead in the suburbs.
“It’s not just one particular group where she’s really dug in,” J. Ann Selzer, who conducts the Iowa Poll, told the Des Moines Register. “She’s digging in across demographics.”
Who knows whether that new dynamic could pan out differently. Continuing to appeal to both MAGA and the rest of the party has proved difficult for other candidates for a reason. DeSantis never really tried it, though he has certainly proved to be a flawed candidate.
But there have been signs that Trump’s base isn’t quite as committed as it once was. If you’re making a highly optimistic case for Haley, you could say that voters haven’t really been given a clear choice between different types of candidates and a break from Trumpism, but suddenly they will be.
The best path for everyone involved is for Trump to have an underwhelming night in Iowa on Jan. 15. That would seemingly open the door for a legitimate contest.
As for whether that could happen: Iowa appears to be Trump’s weakest of the early states, at least right now. He’s at 43 percent in the Iowa Poll, compared with 16 percent apiece for Haley and DeSantis. And two-thirds of those Trump supporters say they are committed to backing him — a little more than one-quarter of the electorate.
One way to look at that is that Trump’s supporters are more committed than other candidates’ supporters are, and that puts him on the verge of victory. Three of the past five winners of competitive Iowa caucuses have taken less than 30 percent of the vote.
But another is that more commitment is probably to be expected for supporters of a former president, and his level of support isn’t prohibitive yet. With nearly three-quarters ostensibly up for grabs and Haley having demonstrated broad appeal, she could keep the race close enough.
The problem, as noted above, is that any bleeding of Trump’s support would appear more likely to go to DeSantis. But there’s a question of whether that will definitely be the case, now that Haley looks like the alternative and DeSantis continues to look wounded.
At that point, these two states would loom large.
The latest quality nonpartisan polling in New Hampshire, from Suffolk University, is a month old. It showed Trump at 49 percent and Haley at 19 percent. (DeSantis was at 10 percent). That’s an Iowa-esque gap.
But perhaps more than any other state, New Hampshire poses unusual dynamics that could help Haley. Its GOP electorate skews more educated, independent and suburban. There’s also the fact that it was just confirmed that President Biden won’t be on the Democratic primary ballot (over a calendar dispute). And some already are trying to persuade would-be Democratic primary voters to cross over to vote against Trump. Oh, and New Hampshire has a bit of a contrarian streak; it often votes for a different candidate than the one Iowa picked.
South Carolina comes fourth, on Feb. 24, after Nevada. Haley would need to stay relevant weeks after the earlier contests, which would be no small task.
Her deficit in South Carolina is similar to what it is in Iowa and New Hampshire, if not greater — 53 percent for Trump to her 22 percent in the CNN poll this week. But this might be, for obvious reasons, the former South Carolina governor’s best shot at an early victory.
The CNN poll showed 72 percent of voters there said they would at least consider Haley, compared with Trump’s 80 percent (and 68 percent for DeSantis).
Her problem is similar to what it is in Iowa, in that DeSantis would seem more likely to peel off Trump supporters. While 19 percent of those who list her as a second choice are backing Trump, 36 percent of DeSantis’s second-choice voters are. At the same time, 60 percent of Trump backers say they would at least consider Haley, meaning their votes are in play for her — especially if DeSantis can’t make it to South Carolina and Trump fades somewhat.
A Haley victory or even a strong showing would probably come with significant caveats, given her home-state connection. But it would still be a former president struggling in a primary, which right now doesn’t seem foreseeable.
Haley’s best hope would seem to be having the outcome at least in doubt heading into Super Tuesday on March 5 (and ideally notching a win). Perhaps at that point, with Trump’s first federal criminal trial set to begin the day before Super Tuesday, voters might begin to more earnestly consider something they’ve shrugged off: electability. The most recent polling shows Haley, once broadly popular as a Trump administration official, running better than other Republicans, including Trump, in the general election.
As you can tell, we’re straining pretty hard to find a path. It’s hardly likely and seemingly pretty implausible.
But when it comes to gaming out an actual contest for the GOP nomination, it’s what we’ve got right now.
A previous version of this post incorrectly said Donald Trump was polling at 45 percent in the Republican primary in New Hampshire a month ago. He was polling at 49 percent. The post has been corrected.