Welcome to Thunderdome, where the podcast has returned just in time for the final days before Iowa’s verdict. All those counties, all those fairs, all that fried food and all that slogging through freezing temperatures and Covid flare-ups has come to this: a caucus that will determine who drops out first, Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley.
You can see in last night’s CNN debate why the hopes were once so high for the Florida governor. DeSantis won the debate, solidly, and has continued to improve as a debater throughout this process. But without Donald Trump on the stage, the back and forth with Haley turned into bickering over lying about records and meta commentary from the former South Carolina governor about bungled campaigns. This isn’t the type of performance that’s likely to change the result all the polls indicate awaits the two serious challengers on Monday: a double-digit loss for both to the former president, who has been vindicated in his decision to skip the debates entirely.
Trump’s counter-programming for the evening was a Fox town hall event, which even in small moments showed his vulnerability on the issues he’ll have to confront as the nominee. On Covid, he once again tried to gaslight the audience on his approach to the advice of Dr. Fauci and the approach to shutdowns across the country in 2020. On abortion, his attempt to find a path to make everyone happy continues to disappoint pro-lifers while winning him no apparent support from others. Whether this qualifies under DeSantis’s accusation for Haley of using the arguments of the left against pro-lifers or not, it’s unlikely to satisfy those single-issue voters who already feel that having been used to win in 2016, Trump would prefer to have nothing to do with them now.
Looking back, it’s possible it was always going to end up this way. Trump’s dominance over the conservative and populist portions of the Republican Party have left DeSantis and Haley squabbling over the suburbs and the upper class, a group that is more secular and more educated than the strength of today’s GOP. There simply aren’t enough of those voters to compete with Trump’s strength among the other factions, at least in a state like Iowa.
At the same time, the poll numbers for Joe Biden continue to indicate a bounce-back — and if the economy continues to improve, those swing-state advantages enjoyed by the former president will continue to shrink. As of today, the two candidates are effectively neck and neck — and that’s before the Democrats have even begun to unleash their negative ad campaigns against Trump. Will Republicans nominate him in a clean sweep by March only to regret it once the choice is made? It’s a strong possibility… but so is the possibility that the bottom drops out of a Biden administration that looks increasingly unmoored and chaotic.
Chris Christie drops out
The guy who said America needed to dream bigger in his announcement turned out to have dreams that were too large for the moment, so he’s taking a break to spend more time cheering for the Dallas Cowboys. Seriously, who ever thought this guy was going to go anywhere — and where can they go to get their pundit card shredded? His persona as Jersey a-hole seemed so tired and rundown, Tommy DeVito would have stood a better chance in this primary. And how does he go out? Crapping on everyone:
Chris Christie’s long-shot presidential bid ended not with a triumph in New Hampshire, as he had hoped, but with a series of potshots at his rivals caught on a hot microphone.
The former New Jersey governor, never one for softening his elbows, let it be known how little he thinks of his soon-to-be former competitors just as he exited off the political stage.
“She’s gonna get smoked,” the former New Jersey governor said of former UN ambassador Nikki Haley — although he did not reference her by name. “And you and I both know it. She’s not up to this.” Haley stands to gain the most from Christie’s departure from the contest.
The comment was captured on the audio of a live stream broadcast before his event as Christie was backstage. With no video feed, it was unclear who Christie was speaking to, though the Daily Beast reported that it was Wayne MacDonald, a former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party…
A person familiar with his thinking said Christie changed his mind only in the past twenty-four hours. “Part of the reasoning,” the person added, “was he had no interest in allowing Haley or others to use him as a scapegoat.” …
On the hot mic, Christie was also caught musing about Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who he said had called him “petrified.” It’s unclear what DeSantis was petrified of.
Christie will head to a cable network near you to say all the things Joe Scarborough and Jake Tapper want him to say, unless he decides to answer Joe Lieberman’s call.
Trump says he has already chosen his VP
Well, of course he would say that. But is it possible he really has? If so, it could mean that Kristi Noem blanketing Fox with ads for South Dakota featuring her prominently, paired with pulling out the stops on the trail for Trump in Iowa, has been a more effective tactic than anticipated.
His friends and advisors have discussed the possibility of choosing a woman who might help him win back suburban women who voted for President Biden in 2020, or whether choosing a person of color might help him build on gains he made in that election with black and hispanic men.
This month, a number of people who have been mentioned by news media outlets as possible running mates have traveled to Iowa to campaign for Mr. Trump and publicly show their support. They include Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota; Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who held events in the state last week; and Kari Lake, a former candidate for Arizona governor who plans to hold an event in Iowa on Friday.
If Haley has a shot, it’s this
Reporting from fantasyland, but with Christie dropping out, people are entertaining the concept — here’s how any very unlikely late-stage push would play out.
New Hampshire election rules work to Haley’s advantage since independent voters can take part in the GOP primary. According to the most recent UNH/CNN Granite State poll, she leads Trump by a wide margin among these undeclared voters. In New Hampshire, this isn’t a small slice of the electorate. There are more undeclared voters than Republicans or Democrats; 39 percent of the state’s registered voters are undeclared. And without a competitive Democratic primary, the action is on the GOP side, incentivizing undeclared voters to pull a Republican ballot. The last time there wasn’t a competitive Democratic contest, in 2012, independents cast nearly half the GOP primary vote.
Chris Christie’s departure from the race Wednesday was the necessary first step. With the most vocal anti-Trump Republican gone, now there is a possibility she can consolidate the vote against the frontrunner; together, their support surpassed Trump’s in the latest Granite State poll. And two-thirds of Christie’s supporters indicated Haley is their second choice. A Haley victory in New Hampshire isn’t out of the question; the Granite State poll shows her within seven points of Trump.
Then comes her home state, South Carolina, which is scheduled to vote almost exactly a month later. Technically, Nevada looms in-between, but the confusing details — a non-binding state-run February 6 primary that the Trump-dominated local GOP refuses to acknowledge, followed by a state-party-run caucus two days later — makes it likely that, for momentum purposes, the results of both will be a wash.
In South Carolina, Haley trails Trump by a wide margin in the polls. And the state’s rapid growth — and Trump’s grip on the party — means it’s a different state than when Haley first won the governorship in 2010. But no candidate who’s won statewide twice can be easily dismissed, especially if she’s riding the tiger out of Manchester.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Haley doesn’t have to win New Hampshire, or even South Carolina — she just has to keep it close enough to keep donors and voters convinced there might be a real nomination fight and move forward. Keep in mind that through the end of February, only 142 of the 2,429 delegates will have been allocated, just under 6 percent.
Which means Super Tuesday on March 5 looms as Haley’s moment of truth, the proving ground when the GOP learns once and for all if she’s the viable Trump alternative DeSantis was supposed to be. Roughly two-thirds of all GOP delegates will be allocated in March, the bulk of them on March 5. Among the fifteen states up for grabs that day: California, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
Again, this is not going to happen. But it’s where some people’s heads are. Reminder about keeping yours screwed on straight.
One more thing
The biggest story of the week outside of politics is the departure or retirement of three of the biggest names in the history of coaching football: Nick Saban, Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick. The three had incredible tenures — and it’s hard to think we’ll see the likes of Saban’s dominance in an increasingly disrupted college football space ever again. Belichick plans to continue coaching — he’s a mere fifteen games away from the all-time winning record — but the three men stepping down within a week, all in their early seventies, likely marks the passing of an era when coaches stayed in the job that long. Keep in mind that the two presidential nominees come this summer are likely to be nearly a decade older. This is America, where football is king, and we demand more of our head coaches than our commanders-in-chief. In the long and short term, that is an increasingly risky proposition.