Three loosely connected things are happening at once.
Donald Trump is facing a number of threats to his freedom and business, from scores of criminal charges at the state and federal level to the ongoing fraud trial in New York that has already led to a determination that he had misrepresented the value of his assets.
He’s also leaning into extreme rhetoric against those involved in the above efforts and against his political opponents. Trump has offered policy proposals — formally and informally — that expand on some of his most controversial policies, pulling them more to the fringe.
And, in poll after poll, he retains a huge lead in the 2024 Republican primary, relegating the interesting developments to the race’s second tier. Were it not for those ongoing legal fights — the effects of which seem hard to predict — and probably for Trump’s own surprise overperformance in 2016, any reasonable observer would look at the 2024 nominating fight and declare it over.
On Monday morning, the Des Moines Register and NBC News released a new poll of likely caucus participants in Iowa. It measured an interesting development: former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley has pulled even with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the state. It’s another demonstration of the way that DeSantis’s once formidable position as the primary threat to Trump has evaporated — something that happened not dramatically but, instead, slowly and visibly and with lots of cringing for anyone paying attention.
In the August iteration of the poll, conducted by top Iowa pollster Selzer & Co., Haley was at 6 percent. In the new data, she’s jumped to 16 percent, tying DeSantis. And for every Iowa caucuses-goer who plans to vote for DeSantis or Haley, more than two plan to vote for Donald Trump. Which is how things have been for a while.
Three of the first four states to vote in the Republican primary are Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. And, in each state, Trump has a lead of about 30 points in 538’s average of polls. In all three states (and nationally), that lead has stayed fairly steady since late summer.
The Iowa numbers above don’t yet include the new poll, but it doesn’t matter that much. The August poll showed Trump in a similar lead. Since that survey, pollster J. Ann Selzer told the Register, Trump hasn’t lost ground.
“If anything,” she explained, “he’s showing improvement.”
For example, 3 in 10 likely caucus-goers say they’re extremely enthusiastic about the candidate they prefer. Among Trump supporters, about half do.
For example, 41 percent of respondents say they definitely won’t change their minds before the caucus. Among Trump supporters, 63 percent say they won’t. It’s worth noting that DeSantis’s argument for months now has been that Trump’s support is soft, offering the Florida governor an opportunity. But DeSantis’s support didn’t change significantly since August while Haley’s surged — and only 3 in 10 DeSantis supporters say they won’t change their minds.
This undercard scrap for second place is the interesting part of the 2024 primary fight at this point. Haley has passed DeSantis in New Hampshire and South Carolina polling already (less surprisingly in the latter state, where she served as governor). Now she’s caught up with him in Iowa, according to Selzer.
As of Monday, there are 77 days until the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15. Seventy-seven days before the 2016 caucus, 538’s polling average had the eventual winner, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), in fourth place. But he was only 15 points behind the then front-runner, Ben Carson. (Carson endorsed Trump’s 2024 bid this weekend.) DeSantis trails by more than twice as much.
The theory driving second-tier candidates — which is to say, everyone not named Trump — is that some combination of things will happen. There will be a exogenous event that damages Trump, like a new legal development or maybe even a conviction. Trump will underperform in Iowa, revealing him as vulnerable and heightening Republican concerns about the 2024 general election. Support will consolidate around someone else as an alternative, with each candidate arguing to themselves and their donors why it will naturally be them.
Maybe. Or maybe Trump’s lead will continue and he’ll be the nominee and the jostling for second place will be as important to historians as are the names of the place and show horses running against Secretariat.