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Opinion: The real problem the DeSantis withdrawal poses for Haley


Opinion by David Mark

(CNN) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s exit from the Republican nomination fight Sunday gives his former rival, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, the one-on-one shot against former President Donald Trump she claimed to crave from the stage following the Iowa caucuses last week. But the former South Carolina governor is only likely to be hurt by the nomination race moving in that direction.

DeSantis’s supporters, limited though they were, comprise one more group of voters from which Trump can add to his already healthy lead over Haley. And DeSantis himself is no longer around as a political deflector shield as Haley heads into Tuesday’s crucial New Hampshire primary.

A CNN poll released Sunday, before DeSantis withdrew from the race, found he was the first choice of 6% of likely New Hampshire GOP primary voters. That put him far behind in the poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire, with 50% of likely New Hampshire GOP primary voters backing Trump and Haley garnering 39%.

When DeSantis’s supporters were reallocated to their second-choice candidate, however, Haley’s support widened slightly, to 41%. But Trump’s support ticked up to 54%. Another 3% of likely GOP primary voters said they’d vote for someone else.

This isn’t particularly surprising, since the whole concept of DeSantis’s campaign was being a Trump mini-me. In Florida, he picked culture issue fights over the content of social studies textbooks, played up Covid-19 pandemic issues and tangled with the state’s largest employer, Disney, among other actions that were likely to play well with the populist right.

In his GOP nomination bid, DeSantis — who endorsed Trump on Sunday — even tried to chastise the former president from the right for his administration’s supposedly insufficient results in converting MAGA policy proposals into law.

But Haley was eager to show that DeSantis, who was only able to eke out a second-place showing in Iowa despite camping out in the state and at one point leading Trump in the polls, was flagging at the same time she was rising. She seemed to think this would give her more momentum and credibility as the race turned to friendlier territory in New Hampshire.

The make-up of New Hampshire’s Republican primary electorate and Haley’s stronger showing in the polls there also likely factored into Haley’s possible miscalculation. Trump lost New Hampshire in the general elections of both 2016 and 2020. And the state, which doesn’t have as many of the evangelical voters who favor the former president, does have a large independent voter pool. In a reflection of how she’s potentially a better fit for the Granite State than Trump, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu has been a prominent endorser of Haley.

Some of Haley’s tactics also may have backfired, like pulling out of two debates with DeSantis in recent days unless Trump participated. The idea was to emphasize that her real opponent is Trump. But in doing so, Haley relinquished two high-profile chances to present herself to the undeclared part of the New Hampshire electorate her campaign is now courting so aggressively.

Haley risks being victimized by the “bandwagon” effect some researchers have identified in which voters want to go with the perceived winner. A 2014 paper by Neil Malhotra of Stanford and David Rothschild of Microsoft Research showed that some voters do switch sides to feel accepted and to be a part of the winning team. To them, DeSantis dropping out (and quickly endorsing Trump) wouldn’t make Haley look like the safer bet, but Trump.

Haley tried to make the best of DeSantis’s move.

“We’re not a country of coronations,” Haley said in a late afternoon statement. “Voters deserve a say in whether we go down the road of Trump and Biden again, or we go down a new conservative road.”

But with DeSantis’s departure coming a bit over 48 hours before polls close in New Hampshire on Tuesday night, she may be hard-pressed to do better than a second-place finish behind Trump if he indeed gets 50% or more.

While finishing a relatively close second would normally allow for bragging rights against a former president who is effectively a quasi-incumbent, she faces a serious calendar and geography challenge. The South Carolina primary, in Haley’s home state, isn’t until February 24. That gives Trump plenty of time to build on his already considerable Palmetto State Republican support, with lots of GOP elected officials, backing him and no other early states where she looks to have a shot at finishing first.

Moreover, it’s not just Trump’s campaign that is galvanizing against her. With DeSantis out, the Republican establishment is rallying hard behind Trump. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, who heads the Senate Republican campaign arm, made that point explicitly in an X post late Sunday afternoon less than two hours after DeSantis quit.

“Donald Trump is the presumptive nominee. I am encouraging every Republican to unite behind him because it will take all of us to defeat Joe Biden, take back the Senate, and hold the House,” wrote Daines, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

This rally-around-Trump message likely makes Haley supporters even more of an isolated minority in the GOP firmament. Heading into voting Tuesday, DeSantis’s withdrawal only exacerbates her challenge.

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