Here’s Why Nikki Haley Is Gaining in the Polls and Ron DeSantis Is Not

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero / The Daily Beast / Getty
Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero / The Daily Beast / Getty
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In her race to own second place in the 2024 GOP primary, Nikki Haley is seeking to dispel the “If you ain’t first, you’re last” adage.

Haley is now tied with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for second in Iowa, according to a new Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa poll. More importantly, the trend lines show DeSantis down 3 points and Haley up 10 points since August. What is more, Haley has already surpassed DeSantis in New Hampshire, where she is now in second place in the first-in-the-nation primary.

Haley is emerging as the alternative to Donald Trump, at least in part, because she is more likable than DeSantis. She’s a better debater. She is, as Pat Buchanan used to say, a better “political athlete.”

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Talent aside, DeSantis also mistakenly chose a lane that was already taken.

Instead of assembling a coalition of Reagan conservatives who never liked Trump and former Trumpers who are ready to move on, DeSantis chose to ignore (or offend) the former and focus on attracting current Trumpers who have no interest in quitting The Donald.

He also spent an inordinate amount of energy and capital wooing a very online, right-wing, intellectual faction that constitutes, at best, a small (if loud) sliver of the GOP electorate.

Conversely, after years of similarly oscillating between criticism and throne sniffing, Haley actually chose a lane once the campaign began in earnest.

She shocked everyone during the first 2024 GOP primary debate by criticizing Trump for “adding eight trillion to our debt” and calling him “the most disliked politician in America.”

Her strategy worked. As recently as this spring, DeSantis looked like the best-positioned Republican to take on Trump, and Haley seemed as unlikely to catch fire as Mike Pence (who dropped out of the race this past weekend).

Today, Haley is the one to watch, while DeSantis’ star seems to be fading (which explains why DeSantis is attacking her instead of Trump).

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You may be asking yourself why any of this even matters. Even if Haley secured 100 percent of the non-Trump votes in the 2024 GOP primary, according to polling, she would still lose to Trump by double digits.

But it ain’t over ’til it’s over. By my lights, there are three possible ways someone other than Trump could score the Republican nomination in 2024:

1. Trump dies or is otherwise incapacitated.

2. Trump goes to jail or some new revelation serves as a tipping point where his spell over the GOP is finally broken.

3. Haley wins the early (and idiosyncratic) states of Iowa and New Hampshire. And then, as Republican strategist Mike Murphy (who is urging Haley’s competitors to drop out of the race) puts it, “If she is able to pull off upsets in the first two states, Trump will be hobbled and she’ll have a real chance to administer the killing blow in South Carolina.”

At that point, Haley would have momentum to effectively make the electability argument that she floated in the first GOP primary debate.

The good news is that this electability argument is plausible; Haley probably does have the best chance of any Republican to defeat Joe Biden in the general election. A CNN/SSRS poll from early September supports this prediction. So does a more recent Partners poll of independent voters, which showed her beating Biden by 19 points among independents.

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Sure, the smart money is still on Trump winning the Republican nomination. That is precisely why the real action is in determining who will be the last person standing in case something happens to Trump.

Haley understood that there was only one way forward; rather than wasting her time trying to appease Trump stans, she needed to woo and consolidate conservatives who don’t like him or are ready to move on, and then pray for a miracle that may or may not materialize.

The final ingredient is exogenous. You can’t plan for it. You just have to be in the right place at the right time.

Based on where we are today, Haley looks to be the only candidate who might be up to the task of supplanting Trump. It’s a long shot, but at least she has one. And the first step is second place.

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