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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

How Trump’s opponents made Iowa easy for him

Former President Donald Trump, a Republican presidential candidate, speaks at his caucus watch party in Des Moines, Iowa, on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

By Ross Douthat

Donald Trump’s victory in the Iowa caucuses was resounding enough to make the race for the Republican nomination look essentially finished at the start. But it wasn’t resounding enough to remove the sense that it could have been otherwise, that yet again his opposition within the Republican Party made things ridiculously easy for his candidacy.

Trump is essentially running an incumbent’s campaign, presenting himself as the default leader of the party, declining to debate, rolling up endorsements. But his opposition combined, it appears, for reasonably close to 50% of the caucus vote. And for a normal incumbent, losing almost half the vote in an early state would be a sign of danger, weakness, disarray.

Eugene McCarthy’s 42% of the New Hampshire primary vote in 1968 forced Lyndon Johnson out of the race. Ted Kennedy’s 31% in Iowa and 37% in New Hampshire in 1980 betokened a long and bitter campaign for Jimmy Carter. Pat Buchanan’s 38% against George H.W. Bush in New Hampshire in 1992 was regarded as a political earthquake, even though Bush cruised thereafter.

Combine the Iowa vote for Ron DeSantis with the vote for Nikki Haley, and even granting most of the support of Vivek Ramaswamy — who dropped out of the race Monday night — to Trump, you still have a total as impressive as those past anti-incumbent showings.

But of course you can’t combine them, any more than you could combine the Ted Cruz-Marco Rubio-John Kasich votes in the decisive primaries of 2016. In that race, the splintered field handed Trump the nomination. In this one, he would probably win even facing a unified opposition — but it would be an interesting campaign, at least, instead of the coronation that we’re likely to get.

In one sense, it’s entirely understandable that there’s no unified opposition candidate. Like the divided field of eight years ago, Haley and DeSantis represent different constituencies with different visions of what the GOP should become, and the viciousness with which they ended up scrapping over second place in Iowa reflects the potential depth of those divisions.

But in another sense it’s absurd that it’s come to this again. If you paid attention to the wrangling on the debate stage last week, you could discern a few key areas of real policy disagreement — most notably over our Ukraine strategy. But just as notable was the extent to which their official positions were quite similar. DeSantis would accuse Haley of being insufficiently conservative or populist on some key issue, and instead of really defending a moderate or establishment position, she would insist that, no, she was just as conservative as him. Meanwhile, despite his populist affect, DeSantis wasn’t offering anything like the free-spending, almost-liberal promises that Trump made back in 2016; his squabble with Haley over the Social Security retirement age was not exactly a grand ideological battle.

So if the two anti-Trump candidates could converge that much on the issues despite their different constituencies, even in a debate they spent hammering at each other, it doesn’t seem that hard to imagine a single candidate running a unifying not-Trump-again campaign. It would be a little more populist than Haley’s candidacy has been, a little less ideological and Cruz-ish than DeSantis’ approach to date — but not so radically different from the race that we’ve watched both of them run.

If you wanted such a unifying not-Trump-again candidacy, you should blame DeSantis, first, for botching a chance to clear the field early and for failing to adapt thereafter. He lost his chance to be an actual front-runner when Trump began to be indicted. But a stronger start, a more effective operation and a sales pitch that emphasized his competence as much as his conservatism could have conceivably kept Haley in Tim Scott territory in the polling and brought many of her voters around to him in the end. Instead, as conservative writer Peter Spiliakos argues, DeSantis’ persistent weakness encouraged the party’s moderates to treat their votes as expressive rather than strategic — backing Haley because it felt good, even though her path to victory was obscure.

But then you should also blame Team Haley — not her voters so much as the big donors who sustained her and right-of-center media figures who have spent the past few months boosting her — for going all in on a candidate who clearly, clearly has less of a chance of winning a head-to-head battle with Trump than even the disappointing version of DeSantis.

I understand the establishment and moderate and Never Trump desire not to reward DeSantis for his imitations of Trumpism. But the anti-populist conceit that there was no real difference between the two men was never rooted in reality. The idea that a President DeSantis could somehow be a more dangerously illiberal figure than Trump seems risible after watching both of them campaign. And the notion that you can pull the GOP away from Trump without something like the DeSantis record and approach is a pleasant fantasy, not a strategy worth anybody’s time and resources.

Now exactly that implausible strategy, elevating Haley over DeSantis, will probably define the New Hampshire primary. It’s her best and only shot to become the not-Trump-again standard-bearer and to prove my skepticism wrong. But it’s more likely that every New Hampshire voter who picks her as their not-Trump option is just making Trump’s path to victory easier than it had to be.

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