Vintage news outlets, with lots of time to kill and space to fill, are desperately trying to say the Republican primary contest is still open. It’s not.
Ron DeSantis’s campaign is already filled with embalming fluid. True, he finished second in Iowa, but that was his most favorable terrain, and he failed to win outright. DeSantis’s basic strategy was to draw away Trump voters by taking strong, socially conservative positions, such as banning abortions after six weeks in Florida. It didn’t convince primary voters. That spells the end for DeSantis nationally because it failed in a state where he spent a lot of time and money and where Republicans are very conservative. To invert the song, “New York, New York,” if he can’t make it there, he can’t make it anywhere.
DeSantis didn’t win a single one of the state’s 100 counties. Trump won ninety-nine, and Nikki Haley captured the remaining one by a single vote. DeSantis claims “he punched his ticket out of Iowa.” He was punched, all right. In the face.
He knows he can’t do well in New Hampshire, where the Republican base is less conservative and Independents can vote in the primary. So he decided to concentrate on the much more conservative state of South Carolina, the home of former governor Nikki Haley. If DeSantis finishes ahead of her there, he would humiliate Haley — but that’s not enough. He has to finish well ahead of Trump, not just ahead of Haley. Polls show DeSantis is far behind the former president in South Carolina. If real-life voters say the same thing, the DeSantis campaign is over. Given Trump’s popularity among Republicans, he’ll be forced to pull out. His own political future dictates that he do so gracefully and endorse Trump.
It’s unclear if the Florida governor ever had a chance, but if he did, it wasn’t by convincing Republicans he was more conservative than the former president, who flipped the Supreme Court, cut regulations and tried to close the border. Equally important, Trump has convinced average Republicans he will fight hard for them, take enormous punishment for doing it and refuse to buckle to establishment pressure.
DeSantis’s best shot — the one he didn’t take — was to say, “I agree with Republican voters on the kind of conservative government we need. I share that vision. The real issue is to put those policies into practice. We can’t let the bureaucrats and Democrats in Congress block us, as they did to Trump. In Florida, I’ve proven I can implement conservative policies. Not just talk about them. Get them enacted. And I’ve proven I can build a solid Republican majority in a state that was purple until I was elected. I can do all that nationally.”
That’s not the platform DeSantis chose for his presidential campaign. He chose to run as “I’m more conservative than Trump.” It wasn’t enough to draw away primary voters from a former president, who rebuilt the party in his image and whose four years in office are remembered fondly by those voters.
What about Haley? She’s not in the morgue, but she’s in the ICU and the hearse is pulling up to the hospital door. To survive, Haley must not only to win in New Hampshire but win convincingly. Then, she has to build on that momentum to secure a big victory in her home state.
New Hampshire is Haley’s best shot, just as Iowa was for DeSantis. Polls in the Granite State show Haley is within shouting distance of Trump. If she closes the gap and wins, even slightly, the media will anoint her. If she goes on to win in South Carolina, they will fill the front pages and cable news with her praise, not because they love her but because they loathe Trump.
If Haley does win in New Hampshire, Trump and DeSantis will slam her victory, saying she won only because Independents can vote in the state’s Republican primary. Actually, that’s Haley’s strongest argument. She will say that Republicans need those votes in November to reclaim the White House and carry down-ballot races. “I’m the best candidate to win those swing voters to our cause,” she will say, “and New Hampshire proves it.” She’s say that even if she loses but carries the Independent vote. Unfortunately for her, that won’t convince most Republicans.
Haley may well be correct that she is the strongest Republican in the general election. But that argument doesn’t persuade primary voters for three reasons. First, there is grave uncertainty about how conservative Haley really is, or, rather, how committed she is to an uncompromising populist agenda when she faces daunting opposition from the Washington establishment and entrenched bureaucrats.
Haley’s stance as the most moderate of the top Republicans has helped her among more educated, higher-income, centrist primary voters. But those are not the party’s majority, and they are certainly not its activist base. Trump reshaped the party in his image, and the median Republican voter is convinced Haley she is closer to Mitch McConnell than to Jim Jordan and James Comer… or to Donald Trump. They’ve been burned before, especially on Supreme Court appointments by Republican presidents. They simply don’t trust Haley to stand up to the formidable, entrenched opposition she would meet if elected.
Second, Haley’s argument for electability would be much compelling if President Biden looked much stronger. He looks weak and beatable. Poll after poll puts Biden’s popularity well below 40 percent and far below that on key issues like border security and the economy. He’s hurt by Hunter Biden’s troubles, too, because an increasing number of voters believe the president himself is corrupt.
Biden’s physical and cognitive problems have also become harder to hide. He’s signaling those troubles by disappearing from public view, refusing to answer questions, and never holding press conferences. Even his short, canned videos reveal the problem. His latest was only twelve seconds. Yet he couldn’t get through it without needing an editing cut, piecing two parts of his extremely brief talk. It’s painful to watch. The idea of a ninety-minute debate with Trump looks like a bridge too far. Biden will try desperately to invent some reason to avoid it. But voters will notice.
Biden’s visible decline raises the prospect that, if he is reelected, Kamala Harris would be sitting in the Oval Office sometime during the next four years. Voters hate, hate, hate that prospect. Time after time, the White House has tried to reintroduce her to the public. And time after time, the public has said, “Please stop.” Still, Biden cannot drop her because he fears it would insult the African-American voters he needs to win. Normally, vice presidential candidates don’t matter much in the general election, even when they are as dreadful as Sarah Palin. This time looks different. Voters have reached a firm conclusion that Harris is unfit to be president. Her presence weakens an already vulnerable ticket.
That weakness undermines Nikki Haley’s main argument, that she is the only Republican who can win the White House. Republican primary voters now believe Trump can win. They could be wrong, of course, but they are surely encouraged by polls in swing states.
Finally, Trump is winning the primaries because he has reshaped his party’s base. His voters are the ones who trampled through snow and ice to vote for him in Iowa. They would walk through tropical storms in the South. Those voters are why he is very likely to win the other contested primaries, although New Hampshire is still in doubt. If Trump does win in New Hampshire, the race is effectively over. Haley should concede then and avoid the embarrassment of losing in her home states. DeSantis may wait until after South Carolina. Both will endorse Trump to preserve their own political futures.
Trump has been aided, quite substantially, by not tweeting (or whatever it is called now) and by not appearing constantly on cable TV. Why? Because much as his fans love it, he conjures up just as much animosity, perhaps more. That’s why Trump’s best shot going into the general election is to make the election all about Biden, not about Trump himself or about a face-to-face comparison. His best campaign slogan would be Ronald Reagan’s in 1980. “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” That’s an easy argument for him to win.
Trump will drive home that “better off” message and enumerate Biden’s failures. He’ll talk about his record of strong economic growth, low unemployment, rising real wages, a strenuous effort to close the border and the lack of foreign wars during his term. The more he mentions revenge or the 2020 election, the worse he’ll do with Independents.
Biden will stay in the basement and go with his strongest argument: “Trump is a danger to our democracy.” That argument would be far stronger if most Democrats didn’t want to keep Trump off the ballot and blue states weren’t trying to do it. Centrist Independents may not be too happy about Trump, but they can’t be convinced you favor democracy if you want to keep your main opponent off the ballot and throw him in jail.
As the race stands now, Trump has effectively captured the nomination and reshaped the party in his image. He will run on a record that many Independent voters think is stronger than President Biden’s.
It’s a long way until November. But it’s even longer if you are a frail eighty-one-year-old incumbent with dismal poll numbers.