Monday, May 20, 2024

If you dozed off while following the Republican primary, I wouldn’t blame you. But it might be worth perking up for a moment.
Over the last few months, Nikki Haley has gained enough in the polls that she might be on the verge of surpassing Ron DeSantis as Donald J. Trump’s principal rival in the race.
With Ms. Haley still a full 50 percentage points behind Mr. Trump in national polls, her ascent doesn’t exactly endanger his path to the nomination. If anything, she is a classic factional candidate — someone who’s built a resilient base of support by catering to the wishes of a minority of the party. So if you were reading this only on the off chance that Mr. Trump might be in jeopardy, you can doze off again.
But even if it’s still hard to imagine a Haley win, her rise may nonetheless make this race more interesting, especially in the early states, which will begin to vote in six weeks. Ms. Haley is now neck-and-neck with Mr. DeSantis in Iowa, a state he is counting on to reverse a yearlong downward spiral in the polls. She’s well ahead of Mr. DeSantis in New Hampshire and South Carolina, two states where a moderate South Carolinian like her ought to fare relatively well.
Ms. Haley finds herself in an intriguing position. Even without any additional gains over the next 40 days, a result in line with today’s Iowa polling could be enough for her to claim a moral victory heading into New Hampshire and potentially even clear the field of her major rivals. Mr. DeSantis would be hard pressed to continue in the race if he finished 27 points behind Mr. Trump, as the polls show today. And Chris Christie would face pressure to withdraw from the race or risk enabling Mr. Trump, just as he did at this same time and place in 2016. If the stars align, it’s not inconceivable that Ms. Haley could become highly competitive in New Hampshire, where today she and Mr. Christie already combine for around 30 percent of the vote.
The idea that Ms. Haley might win New Hampshire might seem far-fetched but, historically, much crazier things have happened. Late surges in Iowa and New Hampshire are so common that they’re closer to being the norm than the exception. Of course, there’s still a chance that such a surge could belong to Mr. DeSantis, who has earned important Iowa endorsements from the prominent evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats and Gov. Kim Reynolds. It’s also possible that nothing really changes in the next 40 days. But there’s no reason to be terribly surprised if Ms. Haley simply keeps gaining. She’ll have the resources to compete, especially having recently earned the support of the political network founded by the Koch brothers. For a precedent, John McCain is probably the best analogy. By the numbers, George W. Bush is a strong comparison to Mr. Trump. Both held 60 percent or more of the Republican vote nationwide and started with a seemingly comfortable lead of around 45-15 in New Hampshire. At first, Mr. McCain did not seem to be Mr. Bush’s strongest challenger. But in the end, he won New Hampshire, 49-30, cleared the field, and ultimately won seven states. Winning seven states would be very impressive for Ms. Haley, just as it was for Mr. McCain. It would also represent a fairly marked shift from today’s currently uncompetitive Republican race. (Mr. Trump would probably win all 50 states if we had a national primary today.) But to state the obvious: Winning seven states would leave her much further from winning the nomination than it probably sounds.

And while caveats about Mr. Trump’s legal challenges are worth flagging here, it’s probably something pretty close to the best case for Ms. Haley. That’s because she has gained traction only by catering to the needs of a party wing, especially one that’s dissatisfied with the party’s front-runner — in other words, an archetypal factional candidate.

These kind of candidates are a common feature of contested primaries, as even the most formidable front-runners struggle to appeal to every element of a diverse party. George W. Bush, for instance, was one of the strongest primary candidates on record, but as a Southern evangelical conservative he was always an imperfect fit for Northern moderates, leaving a natural opening in 2000 for a candidate who appealed to that faction: Mr. McCain.

If you look back, you can probably think of a factional candidate in almost every presidential primary cycle. Bernie Sanders, John Kasich, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Howard Dean, Pat Buchanan and Jesse Jackson are only the beginning of a very long list of candidates who gained a foothold by offering an often-but-not-always disgruntled faction exactly what it wanted.

If you haven’t noticed, all these factional candidates lost their races. That’s not a coincidence. It’s very challenging to make a powerful appeal to a faction and somehow still become the favorite of the rest of the party. It’s not impossible to pull off, but it takes a special set of circumstances — like an unpopular front-runner, or a faction that’s so large and popular as to blur the distinction between a mere “faction” and the “mainstream,” like the conservative movement in the 1970s.

But if factional candidates usually lose, under the right circumstances they can have a big advantage in gaining a toehold in the race. By definition, these candidates have a powerful appeal to a narrow but often still quite sizable base of support. Broadly appealing candidates, on the other hand, can struggle to become anyone’s favorite — especially if there’s already a strong, broadly appealing front-runner like a Mr. Trump or Mr. Bush.

Just consider how often factional favorites outlast more conventional, mainstream candidates who, in many respects, seem to be stronger candidates. Was Jesse Jackson stronger than John Glenn in 1984? Was Rick Santorum vastly stronger than Tim Pawlenty in 2012? Probably not. In a hypothetical one-on-one matchup, Mr. Glenn and Mr. Pawlenty would have probably defeated the likes of Mr. Jackson and Mr. Santorum. But these losing mainstream candidates couldn’t find a distinct base in a race against a broadly appealing front-runner, whereas the factional candidates built resilient and insulated bases of support.

The same can be said of Ms. Haley today. Is she a stronger candidate than Mr. DeSantis? It doesn’t seem so. A HarrisX/The Messenger poll shows Mr. DeSantis with a two-to-one lead over Ms. Haley if Mr. Trump dropped out of the race. But Ms. Haley appeals squarely to the relatively moderate, highly educated independents and Republicans who do not support Mr. Trump, giving her the inside path to a resilient base. It’s a base that, almost by definition, even Mr. Trump can’t touch.

Mr. DeSantis, on the other hand, has done surprisingly little to appeal to the voters who dislike Mr. Trump. He’s running as an orthodox conservative — another Ted Cruz, except this time against a version of Mr. Trump with far stronger conservative credentials than the one who lost Iowa eight years ago. If Ms. Haley weren’t in the race, perhaps Mr. DeSantis would grudgingly win many of her supporters, but his transformation into a Cruz-like Republican is part of what created the space for a Ms. Haley in the first place.

As with factional candidates before her, the same attributes that help Ms. Haley appeal to Mr. Trump’s detractors make her a poor fit for the rest of the party. Most Republicans agree with Mr. Trump on immigration, foreign policy, trade and other policies that distinguish Mr. Trump from his skeptics. This is a conservative, populist party. A moderate, establishment-backed candidate might have the path of least resistance to earning 25 percent of the vote in a race against a populist, conservative like Mr. Trump. But the path to 50 percent is far harder.

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