The only way to beat Donald Trump in a primary, Republican strategist Mike Murphy told me recently, is for someone else to win Iowa and New Hampshire. (He hastened to add that it probably has to be the same person winning both states—a complicating factor, to be sure.)
As we enter September, it is perhaps time to be reminded that there is no national Republican primary election day. Instead, it’s 56 elections (every state, plus Washington, DC, plus five territories), spanning approximately six months.
Those of us who cover politics intellectually know this—but even we still need to be reminded that, although national polls are instructive, they fail to capture the dynamic nature of the primary process.
Sure, Trump is up by forty points nationally. But what would happen to those forty points if he went 0-for-2? This scenario is unlikely, but not impossible.
Of course, the odds only increase if candidates like Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, and Tim Scott, et al., campaign hard (you have to basically live in these early states) and are willing to actually run against Trump.
So far, only one of these candidates has demonstrated that she understands this. During the first Republican primary debate, Haley made the electability argument, saying: “We have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America.”
It strikes me that the electability argument has the most potential to hurt Trump in a Republican primary. To be sure, so far, it has not moved the needle. However, it has the benefit of allowing Trump’s opponents to criticize him without implicating the voters (or the candidates, themselves) for their past support of Trump.
What is more, as indictments and arraignments give way to imminent court appearances—and as voters in early states begin to accept the awesome responsibility they have been granted for selecting a Republican standard bearer—it may find more purchase.
Again, keep in mind that Trump’s lead in key early states is not as seemingly insurmountable as national surveys would lead you to believe. What is more, there is precedent for leads evaporating. For example, Barack Obama boasted a 13-point polling lead over Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, just one day before losing to her.
As NBC News’ Steve Kornacki recently noted, “Trump’s sizable lead is not the largest ever enjoyed by a Republican at this early point in a caucus campaign cycle. And, crucially, we have seen one previous GOP candidate—Bob Dole, in the 1996 election cycle—lose more than 40 points of support between roughly this point and the actual caucuses.”
It’s worth noting that Dole still managed to squeak by with an Iowa win. Still, these examples provide a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks the nomination is already over.
So, how do Trump’s opponents win? On the campaign trail, they can say that Trump was a good president, but that he is the most unpopular politician in America and that the stakes are too high to take a chance that he can win the electoral college again with 46 percent of the vote. They can say that Trump faces too many legal obstacles to run an effective campaign in 2024, and simultaneously make court appearances in four different states. They can say that Trump accomplished some good things, but that it’s time to pass the torch to a conservative who can serve eight years and appoint more Supreme Court justices.
That message may or may not work, but for me it’s the best they’ve got. And again, the numbers aren’t as daunting as people looking solely at national polls might believe.
The dream is that, by winning Iowa, you get a fundraising and publicity bounce that creates a bandwagon effect. “Now they will be after me, howling and yowling at my heels,” George H.W. Bush predicted when running in the 1980 Republican primary. “What we will have is momentum. We will look forward to Big Mo being on our side, as they say in athletics.”
The problem? Granite Staters are notoriously ornery contrarians who like to course correct Iowa, or at least not be a rubber stamp. (As for Poppy Bush’s prediction, Reagan won New Hampshire in a landslide, and then, the nomination.)
New Hampshire is more important, historically. As the saying goes, “Iowa picks corn, but New Hampshire picks presidents.”
Still, Trump can’t go 0-for-2 unless he first goes 0-for-1. Someone has to beat him in Iowa or else he has the Big Mo.
Henry Olsen, a conservative columnist for The Washington Post, recently visited Iowa; he came away concluding that the race is far from over.
“I talked to Iowa evangelical pastors and grass-roots leaders, who understand the nuances of their community better than any pollster. Their message was surprisingly uniform: Iowa’s evangelicals haven’t made up their minds yet,” he wrote.
Again, though, winning Iowa on the backs of Christian conservatives is a double-edged sword. As Mike Murphy says, if you win Iowa by solely playing up your evangelical credentials (think Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum), then you are likely to be rebuked by those contrarian (and typically, more moderate) Granite Staters.
The good news for those hoping for a Trump upset is that Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, and Tim Scott all have the potential to tap into evangelical support without alienating New Hampshire voters. The question is whether one of them will be able to thread this needle.
There are reasons to believe it’s at least possible. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, for example, continues to publicly say Trump will not be the nominee.
“The ‘soft’ Trump vote is real,” ABC News’ Kelsey Walsh wrote last month. “Voters are not convinced to elect Trump again. These voters are neither direct nor vocal Trump supporters. They aren’t shouting from the rooftops that he is their candidate; it’s not a hard ‘I am with Trump’—it’s a soft ‘maybe Trump.’”
A complicating factor may be that Chris Christie surged to second place in New Hampshire, eclipsing DeSantis, a few weeks ago. Christie may be a good fit for New Hampshire, but it’s hard to see him besting Trump, DeSantis, Haley, and Scott, in Iowa.
And while depriving Trump of victories in the first two states would surely prove embarrassing to the former president, it wouldn’t allow the GOP to coalesce around a single alternative—meaning that Trump would still be in the game.
But there is another complicating factor: the possibility that Democrats might interfere in the Iowa caucuses, which (depending on their goals) could either help or hurt Trump.
There are too many variables to game out every scenario, which is to say that it ain’t over, yet.
The bottom line is that Donald Trump is still likely to be the Republican nominee, but not as likely as national polling might suggest. If someone can deprive him of early victories in high-profile, key states, his daunting national lead could collapse, and someone else could catch fire.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Here’s hoping that someone cuts in line and leaves Trump in the dust.