Will stars align for Haley in bizarre GOP contest?

The political world spends a lot of time discussing former President Donald Trump's lead over the Republican field in national polls - currently at 45.4%, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls. But, of course, the race will unfold as a series of state contests, beginning in Iowa on Jan. 15, New Hampshire on Jan. 23, Nevada on Feb. 8 and South Carolina on Feb. 24. By then, Republicans should have a pretty good idea who their 2024 presidential nominee will be.

Of course, Trump is leading in the early-voting state polls, too - a 29.7-point lead in Iowa, a 27-point lead in New Hampshire and a 30.5-point lead in South Carolina. Something big will have to happen for Trump's huge leads to disappear. But there is a secondary race, too - the race to be the backup nominee should Trump somehow fail. Right now, the secondary race appears to be coming down to Ron DeSantis vs. Nikki Haley, and Haley is emerging with a strong hand, at least for the moment.

As is always the case, there's been a huge amount of campaigning in Iowa. It's important to all the candidates, but even more important to candidates who are slipping in the polls and see a good finish in the first-voting state as a way to revive their fortunes. Currently, DeSantis is going "all in" campaigning in Iowa in a move widely seen as an indicator that he believes a poor showing there would not be survivable.

But here's the problem with Iowa, even for candidates who manage to do well there. It's been 23 years since a Republican hopeful won the Iowa caucuses and then went on to win the Republican nomination. You have to go back to 2000, when George W. Bush won both the caucuses and the nomination, to find an Iowa winner who became the GOP's standard-bearer.

New Hampshire has been a different story. In 2016, Trump won the primary and then the nomination. Mitt Romney did it in 2012, and John McCain did it in 2008. The last GOP candidate to lose the New Hampshire primary but still win the nomination was Bush in 2000.

Which brings the story back to DeSantis. Say his efforts pay off and he does well in Iowa. (As for all the other candidates, "does well" means "finishes second to Trump.") He will then have eight days to do well in New Hampshire, where of course Trump is also leading. That's where Haley's strength could kick in and do some serious damage to DeSantis.

A recent University of New Hampshire poll found Trump leading Haley by a 42% to 20% margin, with Chris Christie in third place at 14% and DeSantis in fourth with 9%. News coverage of the poll focused on Haley's rise from 12% in the last UNH poll in September to 20% today.

New Hampshire voters can register as Republican, Democrat or "undeclared," and undeclared voters are allowed to vote in the Republican primary. The UNH poll showed Haley doing very well with undeclared voters. Among registered Republicans, Trump led Haley by a margin of 55% to 17% - a 38-point lead. Among undeclared voters, Haley led Trump by a slim margin of 25% to 24%. In the new poll, undeclared voters made up 43% of the group of likely GOP primary voters surveyed.

Of course, even with the undeclared support, Haley is still 22 points behind Trump. But the survey does point to the importance of undeclared voters in New Hampshire, and it raises the subject of mischief voting. In the past, some Democrats have urged fellow Democrats to re-register to undeclared temporarily in order to vote in the Republican primary. On the other side, in 2008, the late Rush Limbaugh famously created "Operation Chaos" in which he urged Republicans to vote in the Democratic primary race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Now, there are special concerns about possible mischief voting in the 2024 New Hampshire primary because President Joe Biden has offended many in New Hampshire by throwing the state out of the first group of Democratic primaries, choosing instead to start with South Carolina, where Biden won in 2020. So what will New Hampshire Democrats, facing a new situation in January, do? Would the Republican primary be a perfect place for a Democrat to cast a protest vote against Trump - and for Haley - in the Republican primary?

Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire poll, downplays the possibility, saying mischief voting has never been a serious factor in a New Hampshire primary. "Regarding independents, very few, about 3% of voters, move from one party to another over primary cycles," Smith said in an email exchange. "Most independents who are really Democrats will vote in the Democratic primary or stay at home. It's hard enough to get people to vote in their own party's primary, let alone the other party."

If the New Hampshire Republican primary were held today, it seems clear that Haley would beat DeSantis. And then the campaign would move on to South Carolina, where Haley happens to be the former governor and where she leads DeSantis 18.8% to 10.5%, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls. If a candidate wins New Hampshire and South Carolina, no matter what happened in Iowa, that candidate is probably on the way to the nomination.

Of course, right now, that candidate looks to be Trump. But the secondary race is important, too, given Trump's legal situation and the always-there possibility that something weird could happen in a very unusual Republican campaign. In that event, the winner of the secondary race could become the Republican nominee. And at the moment, Haley is coming on strong.

© 2023, Universal

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