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Early Contests Could Disrupt the Narrative That Trump Is the Inevitable Nominee

In the early primaries, perceptions of momentum are at least as important as raw delegate accumulation.

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley addresses guests during a campaign stop at the Nevada Fairgrounds community building on December 18, 2023, in Nevada, Iowa.

The first primaries and caucuses of the presidential election season are now just weeks away, and polls continue to show that Donald Trump is hugely outpolling his GOP rivals. In fact, his leads are so constant, and across so many states, that much of the mainstream media assume his nomination to be a fait accompli, and are focusing not on the early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, but on the general election. In that match-up, Trump continues to hold a narrow lead over President Joe Biden — whose coalition is both less united and less enthusiastic than it was in 2020 — both in one-on-one polling and when third-party candidates are added into the mix. Yet, a part of Trump’s support base is fragile, with his lead evaporating when those polled are asked whether they would continue to back him were he to go into the election with a felony conviction. Indeed, a recent New York Times/Sienna poll showed Trump’s narrow swing-state lead would be converted into a 10-point deficit were he to be convicted before the election.

Trump certainly is doing everything he can to fuel the narrative that he is the inevitable nominee; he desperately wants his bluster to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the autumn, the twice-impeached former president called for the GOP to cancel all its remaining presidential debates. He has also seeded a storyline that, with him as the nominee, the Democrats will attempt to steal the 2024 election. And Trump has repeatedly alleged that the multiple criminal trials he is facing this year are part of the broader “Deep State” strategy to neutralize him as a candidate and to disenfranchise his tens of millions of voters.

Yet, despite the efforts to portray the primary season as being over before it’s even begun, there is at least a small possibility, if anti-Trump GOP voters coalesce around either Nikki Haley or (a less likely scenario) Chris Christie, that the early contests could still scramble the inevitability narrative.

Here’s how it could play out.

The first caucus is on January 15, in Iowa, and in that contest — despite Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds having endorsed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — it’s pretty much impossible to see how Trump comes close to losing. After all, the in-person process of the caucus plays to Trump’s strengths, largely catering to the most fervent loyalists, the people willing to devote hours to the debate and nominating spectacle. And, unlike in primaries, participants cast a public ballot in caucuses — making it that much more difficult for those who privately may feel uneasy with Trump’s behavior to break with the ex-president and his intimidatory MAGA fans. Trump is polling at about 50 percent in Iowa; DeSantis and Haley each have less than 20 percent, Vivek Ramaswamy is at under 10 percent, and Christie isn’t cracking 4 percent. Realistically, the only way that Trump comes out of Iowa bruised politically is if he wins but by a considerably smaller margin than expected, and if either Haley or DeSantis crater, with the other one consolidating their status as a credible alternative to The Donald, a scenario that as of this writing doesn’t look particularly likely.

From then on, however, things get more complicated. In recent weeks, Haley has surged into a strong second place in New Hampshire, one of the few well-polled states where Trump isn’t breaking the 50 percent support threshold. One in four New Hampshire GOP voters say they intend to support Haley in the January 23 primary, and her numbers have, consistently, been improving in recent months.

An unexpectedly strong second-place New Hampshire finish for Haley — or, far more so, a surprise first-place finish — would overnight scramble the GOP calculus, revealing a chink in Trump’s armor and an opening for anti-Trump voters to coalesce around the South Carolinian. After all, in the early primaries, before the huge trove of delegates are awarded on Super Tuesday, perceptions of momentum are at least as important as raw delegate accumulation. There are only 40 delegates at stake in Iowa, and 22 in New Hampshire’s primary, making a grand total of a mere 2.7 percent of the total number of delegates that will ultimately be allotted during primary season; but there’s a huge well of media coverage to be gained by a candidate seen as outperforming his or her expectations. Recall that in 1992, Bill Clinton was anointed “The Comeback Kid” not because he won New Hampshire but because he came in second with a quarter of the vote, and because he held the winner, Paul Tsongas, to below 35 percent. Tsongas won the delegates but lost the PR battle.

Which brings me to Nevada, the next contest up after New Hampshire, and a state where one recent poll (admittedly seemingly an outlier) showed Trump with a double-digit lead over Biden in a general election match-up. In 2021, the Democrat-controlled state legislature voted to replace its vaunted caucuses with a primary election, hoping to become the “first-in-the-nation primary” (a dream that was blown apart once New Hampshire rumbled the Silver State and moved its own election forward).

In a blatant effort to protect Trump’s delegate haul, the MAGA-fied Nevada GOP subsequently announced that it would hold a caucus two days after the state-mandated primary; that if a candidate entered the primary they would be barred from also entering the caucus; and that all the state’s 26 delegates would be allotted from the caucuses.

As with Iowa, Trump is a shoo-in to win the Nevada caucus and its delegates in a landslide, with upwards of three-quarters of likely caucus-goers saying they intend to back the ex-president. Yet, the confusing dual primary-caucus process will likely muddy the waters of public perception around Nevada’s result. For with most of the GOP candidates opting for the caucus — and with other big names who decided for the primary, in particular Mike Pence and Tim Scott, having dropped out — Haley largely has the primary election to herself. Since everyone knows that Trump’s going to cruise to a caucus win, when he does, the headlines will likely be fairly muted. But when Haley runs away with the primary, perhaps by an even larger margin than Trump’s caucus win, it could provide her a slew of favorable coverage. If Haley is already riding high from a strong New Hampshire performance, that additional momentum from a largely symbolic primary win in Nevada has the potential to slingshot her into a pole position for the succeeding contest in her home state of South Carolina in early February.

None of this is, of course, a given. It’s certainly possible that everything will play out the way Trump’s team is saying it will, and that the GOP nominating process will essentially be finished even before Super Tuesday. But if Trump’s support declines a few key percentage points in both New Hampshire and South Carolina over the coming weeks, and if Haley’s increases from the mid-twenties into, say, the high thirties or low forties, then the GOP might actually have a race on its hands.

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