Do the GOP Primaries Have a Real Non-Trump Lane?

By Rafael Hoffman

There is perhaps no better symbol of the present Republican primary race than its debates. These spectacles, which garner little interest, feature a set of sparring candidates while the man who seemingly makes all this talk irrelevant campaigns elsewhere.

A RealClearPolitics national average of major polls ahead of the Iowa caucuses showed that former President Donald Trump is supported by 62.1% of GOP primary voters, more than all his competitors combined. His closest rivals, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. and Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, each hold about 11%.

The nominating process will play out in state-by-state primaries and caucuses that began with Iowa and will kick off more officially in New Hampshire on January 23. While margins differ significantly in each of those races, Mr. Trump holds leads in each of them ranging from comfortable to dominating.

Mr. Trump confidently parades his command over the primaries at rallies and interviews. With the nominating contests near and little sign his base is movable, his self-assurance seems justified, leaving the public legitimately thinking that the race is not worthy of their attention. Still, with millions of dollars being spent to support alternative candidates, some are still asking: Is there a lane for a Republican presidential candidate besides Mr. Trump?

Campaign posters for former President Donald Trump before a commit-to-caucus rally, Jan. 5, in Mason City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The Enduring MAGA Wall

For much of 2021 and 2022, opinion pieces and political analysis of GOP politics bandied about variations of the term, “Trumpism without Trump.” Media and politicos promoted a narrative that while the GOP voter base had shifted demographically towards the working class and on policy towards Trumpist nationalism, the electorate was ready to move on from the former president.

This view picked up additional steam in the wake of the 2022 midterm elections when Republicans underperformed, winning the House of Representatives by a thin margin and leaving the Senate in Democratic hands. Many of those who failed in competitive races like Senate contests in New Hampshire, Nevada, and Pennsylvania shared the distinction of being MAGA favorites who beat out mainstream primary competitors using Mr. Trump’s endorsement as their main weapon. Perhaps those losses would convince enough GOP voters to consider an alternative, went the thinking.

Yet, as in 2016, this reasoning was out of step with actual voters.

“If you’re a Trump supporter, you’ve probably been in that camp since 2015,” said Stewart Verdery, lobbyist and former General Counsel to the Senate Republican Whip’s office. “That means you’ve been defending him with your friends and family for all that time. How many people change their minds after nine years?”

Polls show that a large portion of Mr. Trump’s support comes from voters without a four-year college degree. The data from Echelon Insights, a Republican-affiliated consulting company, showed that nationally Mr. Trump is favored by 61% of GOP voters overall. That divides into 67% of non-college educated voters, and 48% of college-educated ones. Polling also shows that Mr. Trump’s supporters are dedicated to him whereas those backing other candidates could be more easily persuaded to support another candidate.

“Trump support has been immovable,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the University of Virginia Center for Politics elections newsletter. “Trump does better among Republicans without a four-year degree, but he’s doing perfectly fine with college-educated ones also. Eight years ago, it was more conservative voters who were skeptical about Trump; now it’s more moderate ones that see problems, but not enough to change the race.”

Recognizing Mr. Trump’s enduring popularity, many of those opposing his attempt to re-take the White House advanced a pragmatic argument that no matter how much one admires the former President or his policies, he cannot win the general election against President Joseph Biden. For most of 2022 and early 2023, data backed that conclusion with the President easily besting Mr. Trump but losing to other leading GOP names.

Yet as President Biden’s popularity sank over the past year amid strong disapproval of his handing of the border crisis and inflation, that argument vanished. A recent national polling average gave President Biden 37% of the vote and Mr. Trump 38%. Polls show Mrs. Haley would lead President Biden by a larger margin, but only by a few points.

A study of how the electoral college would split still gives President Biden an advantage over Mr. Trump, but the latter can hardly be tagged unelectable.

“One argument against Trump was that he can’t win, but with Biden’s position so weak, the polls say otherwise,” said Mr. Verdery. “If that’s the case, why shouldn’t his supporters stick with the one who’s been their guy for nine years?”

A history of Republican failures and successes also play a role in challenging the electability contention.

“I don’t think the general election argument was ever persuasive,” said Mr. Kondik. “Trump won in 2016. Republicans were persuaded to back Romney and McCain on the grounds they were electable. That logic may be flawed because Trump won, and they didn’t.”

Another ingredient some say played a role in Mr. Trump’s dominance were the myriad legal challenges he faces.

Prior to the first indictment filed against him by New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the GOP presidential field looked more open. With that suit and others from federal Special Counsel Jack Smith and Atlanta’s District Attorney, Mr. Trump quickly consolidated his position. That was likely a result of a combination of the generous news coverage the former President got as well as bolstering an image of Mr. Trump as the object of a no-holds barred campaign by establishment power players to block him from returning to power.

David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, said that indictments together with high prices likely helped Mr. Trump.

“If you’re in Iowa, Trump is a good way of thumbing your nose at Washington,” he said. “Indictments have something to do with it, but I think inflation has even more… People 18-35 never saw high inflation and now some of them can’t pay their bills. It’s a time of crisis for them and whether Trump had anything to do with it or not, people remember better economic times when he was in office.”

Some thought that even though many GOP voters harbored suspicions about the motivations driving charges against Mr. Trump, they could be convinced that the prospect of a President tied up by legal battles was a fraught bet. That too, has not come to pass.

“DeSantis and Haley thought voters would turn on Trump before these cases where heard, but none of that happened,” said Mr. Paleologos. “The legal timetable is bogged down with motions and appeals. Why vote for DeSantis if there’s no conviction or if you see this as a politically motivated thing? Voting for Trump becomes an even better way to protest against the system.”

Commit-to-caucus cards at a meet-and-greet event at VFW Post 788 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Dec. 19.(Nick Rohlman/The Gazette via AP, File)

The Sunshine Dims

The popularity of the ideological shift Mr. Trump stood for is apparent in the strategy of all serious primary contenders. Since the Reagan years, robust national defense, free trade and low spending, and social conservatism were key supports of the party’s so-called “three-leg stool.” Under Mr. Trump, that list was rearranged to prioritize secure borders, a push-back against “woke” culture, and two items at loggerheads with old-time Republicans: economic nationalism and a hesitancy towards involvement in foreign conflicts.

Of Mr. Trump’s leading rivals, Mr. DeSantis and Mrs. Haley, the former is very much part of this shift, and the latter has done her best to publicly adjust to it.

GOP primary voters largely reject the idea of portraying the January 6 riot as an “insurrection” or tagging the former President with responsibly for it. They have also been trained by years of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric branding any Republican who attacks his personal or political actions as a “RINO,” Republican in name only.

That leaves few paths for rivals to differentiate themselves besides criticizing Mr. Trump’s brashness, which has not gotten them far.  

“Except for [Chris] Christie, they tried to attack him on personal behavior, but not goals,” said Mr. Verdery. “They’re presenting themselves as Trump without the bombast, but Republican primary voters like the bombast.”

Of Mr. Trump’s rivals, the one who entered the field with seemingly the most promise was Mr. DeSantis. In 2022, he won reelection as Florida’s governor by close to 20 percentage points, pulling support from Democrat dominated areas, cementing his state’s transformation from purple to red. He garnered a national image as a successful culture warrior pushing back against formidable institutional opponents including teachers’ unions. His efforts to resist extended COVID lockdowns attracted many to Florida, and even many moderates and Democrats gave Mr. DeSantis high marks for his deft management of the Sunshine State.

To many conservative pundits, Mr. DeSantis seemed a natural favorite for the nomination, a proponent of Trump-style policy without the former President’s legal and personal baggage.

Yet, shortly after entering the primary ring, the DeSantis ballon deflated, and polling averages now give him little more than 10% support nationally.

One problem apparent from the first weeks of Mr. DeSantis’ bid was a poorly organized campaign that failed to manage his donor base or to build necessary state networks. While effective in office, even supporters warned that he was not an especially charismatic or polished public speaker.

More than anything, Mr. DeSantis bumped into the reality of Mr. Trump’s durable popularity. 

“It’s tough to move the needle by saying, ‘I’m like Trump, but I’m a better guy,’” said Mr. Verdery. “To a lot of primary voters, [Trump’s] the incumbent.”

A campaign worker posts signs in the snow before a campaign event for Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley in Waukee, Iowa, Jan. 9. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Haley’s New Hampshire Hopes

As Mr. DeSantis’ hopes fizzled, Mrs. Haley emerged as the most likely alternative to Mr. Trump. Her tenure as South Carolina governor was viewed as successful by many, though traditionalist conservatives have been unimpressed by her hesitancy to stand on principle on contentious social issues. While serving as Mr. Trump’s ambassador to the U.N., Mrs. Haley distinguished herself as a strong voice for America’s interests and those of its allies, especially Israel, in a forum where neither are popular. For those looking to expand the GOP’s demographic appeal, a female candidate of Indian origin adds value to her run.

Since entering the race, Mrs. Haley distinguished herself as a vivacious debater sparring ably with contenders, especially businessman Vivek Ramaswamy.

“Haley’s the best alternative now,” said Mr. Paleologos. “Haley’s debate performances have a lot to do with it. Ramaswamy allowed her to show what she’s made of. She never backed down and gave clear explanations…She rose among voters concerned about Trump, but she still trails.”

National polling averages only give Mrs. Haley around 11% support. Still, in a game where momentum can play a significant role, she seems poised for a strong performance in New Hampshire. The Granite State is known for a high volume of moderate Republicans and independents voting in the primary. Polling averages there gave her 29% to Mr. Trump’s 32%. A CNN poll put Mrs. Haley within striking distance of the former President by a 39-32% spread.

The most significant recent development for Mrs. Haley’s bid was former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s decision to suspend his campaign, which was mostly focused on New Hampshire, where he was polling at around 12%. The polls referenced above were all taken before his exit. Mr. Christie’s was the only campaign to focus squarely on Trump skeptics and many expect his voters will migrate to Mrs. Haley, giving her a realistic shot at victory in New Hampshire.

“Christie said his main purpose was to defeat Trump, but in reality, he was a blocker for Trump, running interference against non-Trump hopefuls,” said Mr. Paleologos. “Now that he’s out, I expect it will give Haley a bump.”

A Fraught Path

Yet, even as Mrs. Haley’s chances rise, her campaign faces a steep climb.

One of those could come in the ironic package of attracting some of the GOP’s pre-Trump power brokers. One of those is libertarian-leaning philanthropist Charles Koch, whose network put its financial backing behind Mrs. Haley in November. Since around that time, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page put its weight behind her as well.

Yet, one of Mr. Trump’s victories in the GOP voter base was to awaken it to the threat those promoting globalist free trade orthodoxy present to America’s working class. Backing from the old Republican guard could prove a liability for Mrs. Haley.

“The donor class and some of the intellectual crowd might run to back Haley, but a 40-year-old white male in South Carolina or Iowa doesn’t care what the Super PACs do,” said Mr. Verdery. “In some ways, having the power base on your side is a negative.”

While Mrs. Haley has realistic chances in New Hampshire, the road for a good showing there to translate into future success is limited. She would next move on to her home state of South Carolina which has a more conservative base. Present polling averages there put her 30 points behind Mr. Trump and Mr. Christie has no significant backing to donate in the south. An embarrassing loss on home turf, which votes on February 24, could end Mrs. Haley’s campaign.

Another reason why even a win for Mrs. Haley in New Hampshire might not help much is tied to the rules that govern primaries in many states. New Hampshire holds “open primaries,” where all voters can cast a ballot for whichever party they choose, irrespective of their political affiliation. Especially in a contest with little excitement on the Democratic side, and high disapproval of Mr. Trump among Democrats and independents, pollsters expect many non-Republican New Hampshirites to vote for Mrs. Haley.

New Hampshire’s open model has become increasingly popular and is used by several states including Ohio, Iowa, Illinois, and New Jersey. Yet, most early nominating races restrict voting to registered party members.

“The lifeblood of the non-Trump lane is unaffiliated voters, but a number of states have no opportunity for unaffiliated voters to participate,” said Mr. Paleologos. “Trump is likely going to dominate closed primaries since he wins in a landslide with registered Republicans.” 

In 2016, many said Mr. Trump’s domination of GOP primaries was partially due to the wide field which spread support for a more traditional nominee too thin. By the time that group narrowed, Mr. Trump’s momentum and delegate count was unbeatable.

This time, even before any primaries were held, former Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Tim Scott, and Mr. Christie already exited the stage, leaving Mrs. Haley and Mr. DeSantis as the only non-Trump candidates with sizable support. Even if Mr. DeSantis leaves the race, there is skepticism whether that would help Mrs. Haley enough, as polls show a majority of his supporters list Mr. Trump as their second choice.

Another factor limiting chances for any non-Trump alternative is that while a small group of states award delegates proportionally, most are winner-take-all contests. As such, if Mr. Trump dominates early primaries, it could quickly become impossible for a challenger to catch up. Super Tuesday, which this year is on March 5, will be the date of 16 primaries. By then, the future of the GOP nominating process will likely be clear.

“There is a [non-Trump] lane, but it’s skinny and curvy and hard to imagine a car driving all the way to the end of it,” said Mr. Verdery. “At least half of the GOP electorate votes for Trump no matter what, even if he’s in jail. It seems implausible there’s a path to beat him.”

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