November 28, 2023

A Test for Trump and His Rivals

Can Republicans get out the vote?

A little more than six weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the race for the Republican presidential nomination looks like it’s over before it’s begun.

But one question critical to the GOP’s chances next year is still open, and the primaries will help answer it: Can Republicans get out the vote?

Polls testify to Donald Trump’s popularity with the base.

What they don’t show is whether he has the campaign organization to turn his lead on paper into an equally conclusive result when the ballots are counted.

His rivals, chief among them Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, need two things to be true to have a shot at overcoming him.

First, the polls will have to be wrong about who actually shows up for the caucuses and primaries.

It’s tricky enough to predict who votes in general elections.

In primaries and caucuses the electorate is much smaller — and in open primaries, independents and Democrats can cast ballots in the Republican contest.

In 2016, Trump was often the beneficiary of crossover voting in primaries, while caucuses — where only the most ideologically orthodox conservative Republicans tend to vote — rewarded candidates like Ted Cruz, who beat Trump in Iowa that year.

DeSantis has pitched his campaign to conservatives, both those who like Trump but question his electability or performance as president and those who think Trump was insufficiently principled.

The Florida governor’s strategy rests on the hope that voters will be more ideological than pollsters expect.

Haley, on the other hand, stands to benefit if the primary electorate is less Republican and ideologically conservative; she does well with independents and has crossover appeal with Democrats.

The second thing Trump’s rivals need to be true involves skill, not luck: They need their voter mobilization operations to be better than his.

If the electorate doesn’t reflect the mix of voters that pollsters assume; if some Trump supporters, overconfident of victory, don’t show up; and if his campaign doesn’t work to make sure its turnout matches or exceeds his lead in the polls, the outcome will be an upset win for a rival or a dispiriting victory for Trump.

The latter would be a grave warning about GOP readiness for next November.

This primary season will probably not be a long one, however.

For DeSantis, everything depends on Iowa; if he can’t beat Trump, he must at least finish closer to Trump than to Haley, to give him momentum going into New Hampshire.

The Florida governor ranks a dismal fourth in recent New Hampshire polls, trailing Trump, Haley and also Chris Christie.

If he places fourth, or even third, in the Granite State primary on Jan. 23, DeSantis’ campaign will be sunk, since the next major battle, on Feb. 24, is on Haley’s home turf in South Carolina.

Haley has more leeway; if she avoids embarrassment in Iowa, she can look forward to ascending prospects in New Hampshire and then South Carolina.

But after that?

Haley’s profile — hawkish on foreign policy, critical of government spending, circumspect about abortion and attractive to independents — is reminiscent of John McCain’s.

The late Arizona Republican won the nomination in 2008, but today’s party is very different from that of 15 years ago, and even in 2000 Republicans preferred George W. Bush to McCain.

On the issues, it’s hard to imagine DeSantis voters opting for Haley over Trump as their second choice — unless, in the end, Trump himself is the issue.

Trump has declined to have his mettle tested by taking part in the GOP candidate debates, which has kept him above the fray but has done nothing to reassure Republicans with doubts about his electability.

DeSantis, as Trump’s top rival early on, only lost ground by appearing alongside lesser challengers, even as his presence drew more eyes to the spectacle.

Now he’s set to debate the Democratic governor of California, Gavin Newsom, on Nov. 30 — but less than a week later he will again be just one contender among many at the Dec. 6 GOP debate in Tuscaloosa.

Haley, meanwhile, must wonder when Christie will give up the ghost.

He polls in double-digits in New Hampshire, but whatever Haley stands to gain from the possibility that Christie will humiliate DeSantis there, she loses by the fact that Christie’s support clearly comes at the expense of her own.

The path to the nomination for anyone other than Trump is exceedingly narrow.

Yet if Trump is annoyed that he has to fight for the nomination at all, and others are dismayed that voters won’t give them a chance, Republicans are still better off than the Democrats.

The GOP will test Trump before it nominates him again — but no one dares test Joe Biden, because Democrats know he would fail.


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