Patrick Healy: Katherine, the Iowa caucuses are 12 days away — the first chance some Americans will have to vote again for Donald Trump or decide if they want to go in a different direction. Trump has a lead of roughly 30 percentage points in several Iowa polls over Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley. What do you see driving the race in Iowa right now? Can anything stop Trump?
Katherine Miller: This is the part of an election cycle where the stakes and ideas really get tangled up with who voters think has the best shot of winning, polls, money and so forth. If a candidate runs out of money, for instance, it’s hard to campaign for president. If you zoom out and look at polling and the apparatus of support surrounding Donald Trump, it’s really much more likely than not he will be the Republican nominee. He’s polling extremely strongly nationally, but also in Iowa, where his campaign has built what looks like a real operation to make sure he wins.
Patrick: He looks like an incumbent president running for re-election, driving the conversation in the party about immigration, security, Biden’s flaws — and treating rivals like protest candidates he wouldn’t deign to debate.
Katherine: A lot of Republican voters also just support Trump and what he’s promised: The Des Moines Register published polling before Christmas showing that, on the subject of his grim commentary about immigration or when he compares people to “vermin,” many likely caucusgoers either said that those remarks made them more likely to vote for Trump or that they did not matter.
Patrick: A lot of Republicans really like Trump as he is — they already know he will do and say Trumpy things and don’t punish him for it.
Katherine: Still: There really is still time for another candidate to seriously challenge Trump. It’s not inevitable. In January of presidential election years, each week starts to feel a lot longer and the result of each caucus or primary can really shape the ones that follow. If you look at national polling, he’s dominating the Republican field. But if you look at New Hampshire’s polling, it’s a much tighter race, and if an “inevitable” front-runner loses one of the first two contests, that can change how voters elsewhere view a race and the choices in front of them.
Patrick: It definitely did for Hillary Clinton in 2008 and Howard Dean in 2004.
Katherine: There are some people who feel Haley and DeSantis can lose Iowa and the Jan. 23 New Hampshire primary and still win the nomination — I am not one of them. The argument I’ve heard around this relates to the possibility that Trump will be convicted in the federal Jan. 6 trial, or that those trials would depress enthusiasm for him as the trials went on. I am a little skeptical that the party would actually switch gears over the summer even if both those things happened. What happened in 2020 with Joe Biden, where he lost the first two contests, was pretty unusual. Nikki Haley, for instance, really needs to prove quickly this is real and she can actually beat Trump.
Patrick: The political question I heard most over the holidays was, “can she do it?” — can Haley beat expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire and have a shot to beat Trump for the G.O.P. nomination? But then came her answer about the cause of the Civil War, where she didn’t mention slavery. You’ve been watching her — before we discuss the Civil War, I’m curious how you see Haley’s chances?
Katherine: I’ve been wildly wrong before, but I do think Haley needs to win New Hampshire and then somehow hang on in South Carolina. If both of those things happened, that’s a very different race.
Patrick: That reminds me of John Kerry in 2004. The Massachusetts senator needed a big combo victory too — more than just winning the next-door New Hampshire primary. Kerry won Iowa and New Hampshire, and it gave him momentum he needed to triumph over Dean.
Katherine: Right. So with this in mind, I think Haley needs to come in second in Iowa, presumably behind Trump, and she would need that second-place result to be “better than expected.” What does “better than expected” mean? That’s kind of nebulous. She can’t just narrowly beat Ron DeSantis by a point or something, though; she’d want something where she’d be able to get on TV that night and frame the New Hampshire primary to voters and the media as a “Trump vs. Haley” one-on-one race, with an actual choice in vision and approach that she’s offering.
Haley has tried to imply contrasts — that she is more temperate, that she is more “electable” against Biden — and some of it is about policy. Her viewpoint involves a much more expansive American foreign policy than Trump wants, and a return to the fiscal austerity of the 2010s, in addition to a more kitchen-table approach. That austerity ended up being pretty unpopular during the 2012 election, and populism on the right and a return to more assertive liberalism about the value of government has really changed that conversation — but perhaps inflation has changed how voters view fiscal matters. She has not been especially critical of Trump beyond a generational or electability critique, versus, for instance, his trying to overturn the 2020 election. How do you see the expectations for her in Iowa?
Patrick: I’m a little torn, and this is why: Second place for Haley in Iowa would give her momentum and knock against the image that she has only narrow appeal with moderates and independents. But if DeSantis comes in a humiliating third place in Iowa, I could see him dropping out a day or two later — and a lot of his support in New Hampshire could move to Trump, who is already ahead in the New Hampshire polls. In the final analysis, though, a second-place surprise upset is better for Haley. Can she pull that off, though?
Katherine: Her campaign and the affiliated groups have spent a lot of money the last few weeks on TV ads in Iowa and in New Hampshire, and are reserving more; she’s also campaigning a lot.
Patrick: Iowa is famous for late surges — Kerry 2004, Obama ’08 and Mike Huckabee ’08, Rick Santorum ’12, Cruz ’16.
Katherine: Only two of those people won the nomination, though. But go on…
Patrick: True. And right now, the odds are long that Haley will win the nomination. I am curious to see if Republican voters will be affected by Haley’s comments about the Civil War. I doubt that any large numbers of voters will move away from her simply because she didn’t say right away that the cause of the war was slavery — most Republicans aren’t making up their minds on Haley based on one gaffe in an otherwise pretty gaffe-free campaign. Her answer did remind me of the university presidents who couldn’t say that genocide against Jews was bad, unacceptable, wouldn’t be tolerated. What I do know is she has disrupted a good moment for herself with a bad moment. You?
Katherine: I don’t know, it was just a depressing, bad answer. The cleanup also had some confusing parts about freedom in it, as well; she should have just stopped at, “By the grace of God, we did the right thing and slavery is no more.” Maybe it’s partly a reflexive impulse from the days when she was running for governor and people believed she had to say she wouldn’t take the Confederate flag down at the state capitol in order to win, but that’s also depressing in and of itself.
Patrick: Then there’s Ron DeSantis, who has really thrown himself into Iowa, visiting all 99 counties. Last spring, he started off in the Iowa polling at around 28 percent, according to the Real Clear Polling average; today, he’s around 19 percent. He seems like the example of, “The more you get to know him, the less you like him.” You’ve been on the trail with him a few times this year — why didn’t he catch fire? Why didn’t he “wear well” with more voters, as they say?
Katherine: I think it’s still a little unclear what exactly the problem is. On a pure affect level, he’s definitely intense in person, he speaks at a pretty relentless pace, and he’s not a politician with a natural affinity for mixing it up with voters.
Our colleagues in the newsroom mentioned in a story last month how, in Iowa over the summer, he interrupted a 15-year-old who was asking about mental health and the military by making a joke about her age. I was actually there for that exchange. The voter had self-deprecatingly mentioned that maybe her question didn’t matter because she was too young to vote, then he cut in to make a joke that this didn’t stop the Democrats from trying to let her vote, just as she was saying she has depression and anxiety, and started asking a thoughtful question about mental health and military recruitment. Mental health for young people and military recruitment are huge problems! But he started talking about how the military has requirements for a reason, before finally saying that in his experience people were still able to serve well and he’d take a look at the issue. In my notes, I just wrote “BAD ANSWER.”
Patrick: All caps. I know you — you’ve seen a lot over the years — that’s bad.
Katherine: So I think the persona is probably part of it. But I also really wonder about the policy platform itself. The idea is supposed to be “getting all the meat off the bone,” as DeSantis puts it, and turning all the stuff Trump talks about into a reality. I think there’s a theory of the case that people just don’t like the idea of stuff being banned by the government, whether that’s about abortion or books or choices for their kids — even if a voter, for instance, might disapprove of abortion as a practice. If DeSantis were in this chat, I’m sure he’d dispute the idea that there’s book banning in Florida, but that’s its own kind of issue in campaigns — if you’re explaining and defending in lawyerly ways, that’s not always what a voter wants to hear.
Or maybe it’s that people who love Trump love Trump and don’t need an alternative. What do you think?
Patrick: DeSantis has a high opinion of himself and started off the race amid great expectations for his candidacy, and I think he’s sort of the classic candidate who doesn’t live up to the billing. He won a big re-election victory in 2022 against a very weak Democratic opponent, and looked like a guy who relished picking fights and winning ruthlessly (Disney, educators, pro-choice people, gay and trans kids). Then he got in the race and quickly showed himself to be stiff and awkward and, perhaps worst of all for his brand, a wimp in the face of Trump’s attacks. He got trolled by that plane at the Iowa State Fair; he would say benign things about Trump while Trump would basically label him as a pedophile in high heels. He kept up that weird grin and little feints as Trump executed brass-knuckles, full-Jeb takedowns.
In our most recent Times Opinion focus group, two voters said they were interested in DeSantis early on but found him too conservative and too stilted in the end. Now maybe Iowa Republican caucusgoers will surprise us, but DeSantis came in wanting to beat Trump and now is trying to hang on against Haley.
Katherine: With DeSantis, the perception that he’s too conservative, when in many ways he’s promising almost exactly what Trump promises is this weird feature of politics right now — there’s very little daylight between them, for instance, in their actual approaches on foreign policy, or the idea of an administrative/deep state, or immigration, or trans rights. Abortion policy is an exception, and that can’t be discounted as a perception of “conservatism,” but in a lot of ways, DeSantis is offering similar policy to Trump. Maybe it’s purely about those voters just liking Trump.
The thing is, there clearly was some space for a challenger to make a run at Trump. Who knows: Maybe we’re about to witness a stunning last-minute surge by DeSantis. The hard part was and is, candidates needed to be critical of Trump in a way that meant something to voters, that also created a choice for them vs. Trump, and for that criticism of Trump to not become their entire political identity. DeSantis clearly wanted to evade Trump’s attacks, but that didn’t really work, and his main criticism of Trump is that he did not live up to his word as president. It’s just not clear that people really feel that Trump didn’t live up to his word, or that if they do think that, they really care.
Patrick: See you next week in Iowa, Katherine!
Patrick Healy is the deputy Opinion editor. Katherine Miller is a staff writer and editor in Opinion.
Source photograph by Anna Moneymaker, via Getty Images.
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