State of the Republican Race – Destiny or Detour

As the Iowa caucus nears, Trump leads polls but speculation arises on potential upsets by DeSantis or Haley, suggesting twists in the Republican nomination race. Photo Credit: Wikipedia


With the Iowa Caucus about a month away, all the polls indicate the Trump juggernaut steaming to victory. In the latest 538 poll, Trump leads DeSantis with 45.9% support to the governor’s 19.7%. Nikki Haley runs a close third at 17.5%, and the remaining candidates are all under 5%. Even with DeSantis having visited the 99 counties that make Iowa, receiving the endorsement of Iowa’s popular governor, Kim Reynolds, and gaining the support of Iowa’s most influential social conservative, Bob Vander Plaats, he still trails far behind the former president. Unless there is a political earthquake in the next thirty days, Donald Trump will win the Iowa Caucus and likely go on to win the New Hampshire primary and South Carolina before wrapping up the nomination on Super Tuesday. Most Republicans are either ecstatic about this or resigned to it. Are there any avenues that could derail this locomotive? Is Campaign’s ‘24 destiny already determined, or could there be a detour ahead? I count three, but they are longshots and should provide no comfort for those hoping that Trump may get his comeuppance.

In the first diversion, DeSantis has to surprise everyone and keep Trump’s vote below or around 40% in Iowa. If he can reduce Trump’s support and show him vulnerable, there is hope for himself or Haley coming out of the small midwestern state. If Haley can show well with a solid third-place finish, she will position herself for New Hampshire. Final results with Trump at around 40%, DeSantis at 30%, and Haley with 20-25% will turn this Trump victory tour into a bumpy road. If DeSantis managed to overtake Trump in the closing days, he would turn the race on its head. The same if Haley surged to victory. I would not count on either of those scenarios. If Trump scores 50% or above, likely at this point, the race moves on with the three candidates, but a Trump coronation assured.

In the second derivation, even with a DeSantis victory in Iowa or a Haley surprise, the race goes to New Hampshire, where Trump leads in recent polls 44.7% to Haley’s 18.9% and Chris Christie’s 11.6%. The undetermined factor in New Hampshire hearkens back to the results in Iowa. If Haley picks up steam in the Hawkeye State, she could take off in New Hampshire. Governor Sununu holds no affection for Trump. He would love to see Haley or DeSantis take Trump down in his state and will work to see it happen. If Trump looks vulnerable in Iowa, he becomes more susceptible to erosion in New Hampshire. While The Donald appears impervious at present, if the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire reveal his significant national lead to be softer than it looks, trouble could quickly arise for a campaign that has been sailing for most of 2023. It may sound far-fetched, and while I agree it likely does not happen, if these numbers played out in Iowa and New Hampshire, we would have a horse race, especially if DeSantis and Christie bowed out, reducing the race to Trump (the populist former president) and Haley (the establishment Republican).

In the third scenario, the Joker is wild. Trump’s lead proves to be a mirage. While many chose to support him after he faced the onslaught of indictments from Democratic prosecutors and the Department of Justice, suppose many abandon him when they recognize his vulnerability as a national candidate? He would maintain a devoted 30% of the vote. Still, many voters would see him as too risky and decide Nikki Haley owns a much better chance of winning a general election, sweeping in a Republican House and Senate, and ending the Democratic hold on the popular vote. The likelihood of this playing out looks improbable. The rabid profile of most Trump supporters means they would not desert him under any circumstances. His peccadilloes are well known. There are few surprises for voters when it comes to Donald Trump. His troubles are a known quality. But there are some examples to recall from the past.

The foremost illustration occurred in 1984 in the Democratic Party. In late 1982, Senator Edward Kennedy announced he would not run. That cleared the field for former Vice-President Walter Mondale. By early 1984, Mondale’s lead in most polls mirrored Trump’s dominance over his competitors today. In a December 1983 poll, Mondale led Senator John Glenn 50% to 23%. Jesse Jackson stood third at 9%. Five other candidates’ rankings slipped well into single digits. As the caucus and primary season opened, Mondale won Iowa, but Senator Gary Hart of Colorado finished a surprising second with 16% of the vote. Springboarding from that unexpected position, Hart quickly turned the anticipated coronation into a hard-fought battle for the party’s presidential nod. Hart stunned Mondale in New Hampshire, winning the first-in-the-nation primary by 10%. After that, every primary was a hard-fought tussle. By June, the campaign’s intensity left both candidates scrapping over every delegate. Mondale had won the endorsement of hundreds of Super Delegates (Democrats who held political office). Hart believed he could convert them if he won the five primaries held on Super Tuesday. A campaign gaffe in New Jersey probably cost Hart a chance to prove that theory. Mondale managed to pull out the victory, but the story serves as a reminder of how candidates’ fortunes can quickly change, even those with name recognition, a well-known record, and a seemingly strong lead.

My instincts tell me that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee. The evidence shows itself in the polls, the unshakeable devotion of his supporters, and the enduring lead he has held throughout 2023. Still, I would be careful about assuming this race remains linear. I would not be surprised if a twist and turn creates some suspense. Could Haley catch fire? Could DeSantis upset Trump in Iowa? Campaigns often spring surprises because pollsters can only provide a snapshot. The only votes that count are the ones cast. Once the voting begins, we will know if the pollsters have gauged the electorate correctly, or once again, the American people possess an independent streak and decide to take Campaign ‘24 on a detour.

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