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Why DeSantis’ departure isn’t likely to change the dynamic between Trump and Haley


Analysis by Ronald Brownstein, CNN

Manchester, New Hampshire (CNN) — And then there was one.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ withdrawal from the GOP presidential race Sunday placed former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in the kind of one-on-one match-up with Donald Trump that his Republican opponents have been thirsting for since the 2016 primary race. But even that looks unlikely to slow the former president’s march to his third consecutive GOP nomination.

DeSantis’ support in New Hampshire and South Carolina – the most important next states on the calendar – had dwindled to the point where his exit isn’t likely to significantly change the balance between Trump and Haley in those contests.

The real impact of DeSantis’ decision to quit may be that his endorsement of Trump – whom he had criticized with growing ferocity in the past few weeks – may reinforce the signal that almost all of the GOP leadership wants to wrap up the race so the party can focus on the general election against President Joe Biden. That message has already been sent by the quickening procession of GOP senators and governors who have endorsed Trump in the past few weeks.

If Haley doesn’t win New Hampshire, the chorus of Republicans demanding that she concede to Trump may grow deafening. The dynamic is reminiscent of the rapid coalescing behind Biden in the 2020 Democratic race, which abruptly ended the contest just days after he recovered from dismal showings in Iowa and New Hampshire to win the South Carolina primary.

The DeSantis and Haley camps each believed they would benefit if the other left the field and created an unambiguous one-on-one race with Trump. That, of course, was the dream of Trump’s opponents in the 2016 contest.

If that winnowing had occurred early in the 2016 race, it might have been a problem for Trump at a time when he could not expand his support beyond about 40% of the party. But it’s far less clear that such consolidation will hurt Trump now.

With DeSantis out, there’s no guarantee his supporters will mostly migrate to Haley. In fact, both the Trump and DeSantis campaigns believe that more of the Florida governor’s supporters will likely pick Trump. (A CNN poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire released Sunday found that Trump’s lead over Haley in the state grew slightly from 11 to 13 percentage points without DeSantis in the race.) DeSantis gave that process a nudge with his withdrawal video on Sunday in which he was much more energetic in denouncing Haley than praising the former president.

Any gain or loss for Haley among voters from DeSantis’ decision seems likely to affect the race only marginally, many GOP observers believe. The core issue for Republicans remains the same with two candidates in the race or three, said Whit Ayres, a longtime GOP pollster skeptical of Trump. “I don’t think it matters a whole lot,” Ayres said shortly before DeSantis’ withdrawal. “This whole party is defined so much by your attitude toward Donald Trump – whether you want to go with him again or whether you want to try something different.”

As New Hampshire prepares to vote, it’s clear the chances of denying Trump the nomination are dwindling under any circumstance. By every measure, Trump is a much more formidable opponent than he was in 2016, and even then, his nearest competitor, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, won only 12 states against him.

Trump won over 50% of the vote in Iowa last week, and in most late polls (including the new CNN poll), he appears poised to crack that impressive threshold again in New Hampshire. In 2016, by contrast, Trump did not reach 50% of the vote in any state until his home state of New York in mid-April. Even at that point in the 2016 race, Trump had won only a cumulative 40% of the votes cast in the GOP primaries.

Compared with 2016, “Trump has a lot more overall popularity” in the party, said David Kochel, an Iowa-based GOP strategist. “His share of the party in ‘16 was in the 30% to 35% range that was just going to be with him, ride or die. That is now much bigger and that’s in part because he’s been a big part of the entrance into the party of all these White working-class voters” who are now supporting him in big numbers. Trump won a resounding two-thirds of voters without a college degree in the Iowa caucuses, according to the entrance polls, and leads Haley among them by 20 percentage points in the CNN poll in New Hampshire.

DeSantis entered the race with a huge tailwind of interest from conservative leaders open to moving on from Trump, particularly after the former president’s endorsed candidates fared so poorly in the key swing states during the 2022 election. But the spectacular failure of DeSantis’ campaign – and the precarious position that Haley finds herself in even with him gone – demonstrates how difficult it is to pry the modern Republican coalition loose from Trump’s iron grip.

Throughout the race, DeSantis and Haley have looked as if they were trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces missing – or, more precisely, in the hands of a third player who has no interest in sharing them. Trump’s unshakeable hold on his core constituency of non-college-educated and nonurban Whites makes every attempt to build a coalition large enough to defeat him a perplexing exercise. Not only is Trump’s support among those voters in most polls even greater now than it was in 2016, there’s evidence that they may constitute a larger share of the primary electorate than they did then as Trump draws in more blue-collar voters and alienates more of those with advanced education.

When DeSantis entered the race last year, he was not only considered the strongest potential challenger to Trump. The Florida governor and his team also articulated the clearest strategy for how to beat him.

Wherever possible, DeSantis positioned himself to Trump’s right, in the hope of cracking the former president’s hold on the most conservative elements of their party. His camp’s vision was that DeSantis would build his support from the right toward the middle. If DeSantis could attract enough voters on the right to emerge as the last remaining viable alternative to Trump, they believed, more centrist GOP voters uneasy about the former president would eventually rally around the Florida governor, even if they bridled at some of his policy positions.

DeSantis’ descent in the polls through the second half of 2023 showed the limitations of that approach. No matter how hard he championed the latest wave of conservative cultural causes, and no matter how vehemently he claimed that conservatives could not fully trust Trump, DeSantis made little progress at eroding Trump’s base. “He was very focused on these weird niche issues that may play on conservative Twitter but don’t play with regular Republican voters,” said Alex Stroman, a former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party who’s supporting Haley.

But by positioning himself so far to the right, DeSantis simultaneously alienated many of the voters in the center of the GOP coalition most open to a Trump alternative. Unable to draw enough conservatives from Trump, and unacceptable to too many centrists, DeSantis was left with too narrow a coalition to truly threaten the front-runner. The entrance poll at the Iowa caucuses last week conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of media organizations including CNN measured that failure. Among the nearly half of Iowa voters who identified as part of Trump’s MAGA movement, DeSantis attracted just 11% – a testament to his inability to break into the former president’s base. But DeSantis also won only 30% of the voters who did not identify with the MAGA movement, finishing behind Haley. That testified to DeSantis’ retreat among the voters most open to replacing Trump.

DeSantis drew plenty of criticism for his performance on the campaign trail and in debates, but noticeably improved as the race went on. As the Iowa results demonstrated, the problem that doomed his campaign was not so much one of execution but of conception. His theory that he could peel away a meaningful number of previous Trump voters simply proved wrong.

“DeSantis had the opportunity in the beginning … and he made a strategic mistake,” said longtime GOP strategist Scott Reed, who served as the campaign manager in Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. “He tried to out-Trump Trump. Instead of trying to be his own guy based on his success in Florida and taking that nationally. He is going to go down as the John Connally of this cycle.” That was a reference to the highly touted former Texas governor who raised what were enormous sums for the time in the 1980 Republican presidential race and then flamed out while winning only a single delegate.

Haley’s camp has never publicly articulated a theory about how to beat Trump as definitive as that put forward by DeSantis. Her initial opening in the race derived from DeSantis’ choice to run so resolutely to Trump’s right. That left a vacuum among the segments of the GOP coalition most consistently dubious of Trump – especially moderates, college-educated suburbanites, and Republican-leaning independents.

Haley emerged as the choice for many of those voters through her strong performances in the early Republican debates, especially her skilled and contemptuous takedowns of entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who was running as virtually a Trump surrogate. But Haley has struggled to find a clear message that would allow her to reach much beyond that base – which is not big enough to win – or even to maximize her support within it.

Throughout her campaign, she has been extremely cautious about drawing contrasts with Trump. She has always appeared most comfortable differentiating from him on grounds that imply no moral judgment against him: Her central arguments have been that she is more electable than him, and that it is time for a generational transition. Her bet has seemed to be that if she survived long enough to become the last alternative to Trump, she could peel away some of his soft supporters who favored his policies but not his demeanor and behavior. “There are a lot of Republicans across the country who may have liked a lot of Donald Trump’s policies but they didn’t like the way he did things,” Stroman said.

Starting with her speech after the caucuses Monday night, Haley has somewhat turned up the heat on Trump, linking him to Biden as two aged symbols of a divisive past. But many of the Republicans who want to stop Trump fear she has not pressed that message with anything like the urgency required to dislodge his big lead. Even in this critical week before the New Hampshire vote, she has conspicuously refused to criticize Trump when asked about the civil judgment of sexual abuse against him in the E. Jean Carroll case and his false birther-style claims about her. (Haley, whose parents are Indian immigrants, is a natural-born American citizen.)

“Her on-again, off-again criticism of Donald Trump has been a dizzying Charleston dance of incomprehensible footwork, carefully criticizing him one moment and lavishly praising him another,” the longtime GOP strategist Mike Murphy, who has become a fierce Trump critic, wrote last week. “It has only fed perceptions of her as a pliable politician willing to say anything to fearfully inch ahead.”

Haley’s nuanced and muffled approach to Trump has left her, like DeSantis, caught in a squeeze-through from the opposite direction. He forfeited the center and then failed to crack the right; she lost the right early on, and has failed to consolidate enough of the center.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the intensity of Trump’s attacks on her as “weak” and “liberal” – particularly on immigration – Haley struggled badly with conservatives in Iowa and in the New Hampshire polling this week. She has polled much better in the center of the party, but not nearly well enough to truly threaten Trump.

The principal reason she fell to third place in the Iowa caucuses was that she failed to generate enough turnout in the white-collar urban and suburban areas where she was strongest. For instance, in Polk County, the state’s largest, she won only a little over half as many votes as Sen. Marco Rubio did when he appealed to a similar coalition in the 2016 GOP race. Though the brutal weather conditions depressed participation everywhere in Iowa, turnout compared with 2016 fell even more in those well-educated larger counties than it did in the blue-collar smaller places where Trump thrived.

Many observers sympathetic to Haley fear a similar problem in New Hampshire. Even as Trump pounds her among conservatives, her careful messaging about him seems unlikely to generate the massive turnout among center-left independent voters – or “undeclared voters” as they are known here – that she would need to achieve an upset. “In my opinion, she’s not doing what she needs to do to connect with independent voters,” said Mike Dennehy, a longtime New Hampshire GOP strategist, who was the state director for John McCain’s upset victory in the 2000 primary here.

Bill Kristol, a longtime conservative strategist who has also become a resolute opponent of Trump, sees a more positive possibility for Haley. DeSantis quitting the race, Kristol said, might cause voters disappointed in Haley to recognize that the race has now become a binary referendum on whether to pick Trump again. “Maybe just the dynamics of the race are making it a more stark choice than she herself says it is,” Kristol said.

The fact that two candidates as different as DeSantis and Haley have faced such similar dilemmas running against Trump suggests that their difficulties are less a function of their faults than his strengths in the party. At a rally with Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz on Sunday at Trump’s Manchester, New Hampshire, headquarters, voter after voter said they had never seriously considered any of the Republican alternatives to Trump. “I would listen to what they had to say, but never entertained it,” said Ginger Heald, the chair of the Merrimack Republican Town Committee. “I never changed my mind one iota. This MAGA movement is the biggest movement to hit this country ever.”

Ayres, the GOP pollster, said Republican voters in this race have viewed Trump more as an incumbent seeking another term than most strategists expected. Ayres joked that the only way to understand the solidity of Trump’s support now would be to examine “the exit polls from 1892” when Democrats renominated Grover Cleveland, who had won the presidency in 1884 and then lost it in 1888 to Republican Benjamin Harrison. (There were no exit polls, needless to say, in the 19th century.) “That’s the analogy: a former president running again to defeat the guy who beat him,” Ayres said.

Reed, the former Dole campaign manager, ran a super PAC that supported former Vice President Mike Pence in the 2024 race. Pence, Reed recalled, delivered “thoughtful … forward-looking speeches” on the issues that conservative voters in the GOP base say are their priorities: “economic growth, entitlement reform, life, Ukraine, Israel, the border, inflation, education – most of them in Iowa and New Hampshire.”

But the result was that “no one seemed to care,” Reed said. Pence dropped out of the race in October – a fate that came for DeSantis on Sunday. “We came to the conclusion that nothing matters until this Trump fever passes,” Reed said. “He’s got this fever grip on Republicans, and we’ll see if he is going to beat Biden this time.”

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