Tonight's Debate isn't about '24; it's about '28
Haley and DeSantis have essentially conceded and are now fighting to see who will lead the post-Trump GOP
Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis will gather in Tuscaloosa with a dwindling collection of also-rans and never-weres for the final Republican primary debate of the year. I could sit here and try to tell you the debate will somehow be consequential in the 2024 race for the GOP primary, but that would be a waste of my time — and, more importantly — yours.
Sure, DeSantis and Haley have their names on ballots that will be cast next year. They are running through the motions of visiting Iowa diners and New Hampshire coffee shops. They grip and grin. Haley is kissing babies (no one would ever hand their baby to DeSantis). But the obvious reality is that neither Ron DeSantis nor Nikki Haley are running for president in 2024. Their strategies indicate they are using the 2024 presidential campaign to position themselves for the post-Trump GOP whether that happens next summer (if Trump is sent to jail) or in a primary for the 2028 nomination.
But let’s not pretend tonight’s debate is about trying to defeat Donald Trump.
To Be the MAGA King, You Have to Beat the MAGA King
According to FiveThirtyEight, Donald Trump is leading the Republican primary by more than 45 points. It’s a little narrower in Iowa and New Hampshire, but not by much. The Iowa Caucus is less than six weeks away. It is do-or-die time for anyone not named Donald Trump. You have to make a case against him to win and yet here is Ron DeSantis on Meet the Press absolutely whiffing at a chance to go after Trump for using the term “vermin” to describe his political enemies.
Kristen Welker gave DeSantis opportunity after opportunity to hit the political layup and he simply refused to make a real argument against the guy kicking his ass in the polls.
Nikki Haley launched her first ad of the campaign this week.
The ad has some subtle contrasts with Trump (chaos bad!). Of course, you would need a high-powered microscope and a Ph.D. in the parlance of the Lincoln Project to find an argument against nominating the guy with 91 felony charges and an attempted insurrection under his belt.
In every previous debate, DeSantis and Haley largely pretend like Donald Trump doesn’t exist. Sure, they may offer a mild critique or criticize him for not debating, but they seem more concerned about angering Trump’s voters than winning them over.
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Haley’s Bizarre Strategy
Nikki Haley is having a moment; the “Haley surge.” She recently received the endorsement of Americans for Prosperity — the main political organization funded by GOP billionaire Charles Koch. Haley even passed DeSantis in some of the early state polls to take hold of very distant second place. Some of the coverage is absurd. The media really wants this race to be competitive for the clicks and the ratings, so they are trying to make Haley happen. And she gained momentum. How is Haley using that momentum to make inroads against Trump?
She is attacking Ron DeSantis on the stump at every opportunity. Her SuperPac is spending millions to hammer the Florida governor.
This strategy is nonsense. It may sound counterintuitive, but for Haley to win, she needs Ron DeSantis to be strong, not weak. Nikki Haley is, as Nate Cohn recently wrote:
a classic factional candidate — someone who’s built a resilient base of support by catering to the wishes of a minority of the party.
She rose to second by consolidating the anti-Trump wing of the GOP. DeSantis is much more appealing to Trump voters. In most polls, he is their second choice. In a recent NBC poll, they asked GOP voters who they favored. Trump’s combined 1st and 2nd choice is 74 percent, DeSantis’ is 54 and Haley's is 28. Trump voters are open to DeSantis. To beat Trump, she needs DeSantis to divide the MAGA wing. Therefore, attacking DeSantis makes no sense… unless her goal is to get second place in case Donald Trump gets sentenced to prison later this summer.
DeSantis and Haley are fighting each other, not Trump, because they are fighting to be the future of the post-Trump Republican Party.