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The Final Showdown?
A tale of two trajectories. A special debate day extended Daily Saucer take.
Five candidates have qualified for the third GOP primary debate, to be held tonight in Miami. But the contest we will all be watching is that between Governor Ron DeSantis and former Governor and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley.
There are both similarities and differences between Haley and DeSantis. Both are scrappy and talented politicians with a knack for beating the odds. Neither has ever lost an election, despite both beginning their careers as underdogs. Both have clear philosophical roots in Reagan Republicanism, despite the supposed shift of the Republican electorate toward Trumpism. But the more intriguing considerations for the head-to-head confrontation now playing out in this campaign are their crucial differences.
DeSantis currently holds office and has used his position as Governor of Florida to involve himself directly in as many current issues and political questions as possible, even foreign policy, to the extent he can. He’s crafted an image as a culture warrior, a fighter, and a MAGAesque populist leader who nevertheless still pivots toward Reagan-style governance as often as not. DeSantis is a good administrator who is at his best when simply doing the job of governance.
To the extent DeSantis has pandered to Trumpism over the course of his career, it is largely in matters of optics and campaign strategy, such as a cringe-inducing commercial where he reads the “ABCs of Trump” to his children. But he did not serve in the Trump administration, his governorship, on the whole, has demonstrated more independence from than acquiescence to Donald Trump, and he’s unafraid to depart from Trump’s position on key issues, at least when he senses that Trump is out-of-step with his own base on something.
Haley, on the other hand, has been out of elected office since 2017, when she resigned her governorship to become part of the Trump administration as the UN Ambassador. This makes her far more attached to Trump’s leadership of the Republican Party, and she has far less evidence to show personal independence from Trump and Trumpism than DeSantis does. However, she was among the few to serve in the Trump administration who, when she left, neither initially cultivated the wrath of her former boss nor had engaged in any particularly egregious forms of Trump acquiescence so as to be determined wholly MAGA-damaged goods.
But Haley damaged herself to quite an extent in the wake of January 6th as she spent quite a few months bouncing back and forth over Trump’s future in the GOP. Shortly after January 6th, she made several statements signaling it was time for the Republican Party to move on from Trump. But by April of that same year, she changed her mind and said she would support Trump if he ran again, saying, “I would not run if President Trump ran.” And today, as we now see, she changed her mind again and chose to run against Trump anyway.
Both candidates clearly have some Trumpian stains on their hands, as so many Republican politicians do in the Trump era. One of the consistent themes of this primary election has been watching each candidate reckon with their past support of Trump and Trumpism and explaining why they feel the need to run against Trump now when they were more than happy to acquiesce to his leadership in the past. Even Chris Christie, no shrinking violet in the sun as he has made his campaign the bash-Trump-at-every-point campaign, has failed to offer fully palatable reasons for why he torpedoed Rubio, endorsed Trump, became part of his transition team in 2016, and aided Trump in debate prep in 2020 if he’s known Trump all along for who and what he is, as he claims.
So, when it comes to past acquiescence to Trump and when it comes to the various political strengths and weaknesses on policy, experience, showmanship, and likeability, it’s really a matter of personal preference between Haley and DeSantis. The intriguing differences between these candidates, the differences I sense will actually play the biggest role in which candidate wins the mantle of consensus non-Trump candidate, are their campaign strategies and trajectories.
The case for DeSantis is that he is a bona fide conservative governor with real and recent political victories under his belt, including the dramatic shift of a former swing state to a solid red state under his leadership, whose hybrid style of Trumpian Reaganism positions him to be a unifier of the various factions of the GOP. The claim is that he can win over Trump voters, unlike any other non-Trump candidate in the field, while still being palatable to Trump-disaffected Republican voters. And in the early stages of the race, there was strong evidence to support this narrative.
In the 2022 Florida gubernatorial election, DeSantis won re-election in a landslide, gaining 59% of the vote in a state that Trump only won with 51% in 2020. DeSantis even won Miami-Dade County, a traditional bastion of Democratic support in Florida. And he did all of this in an election cycle where Republicans elsewhere in the country fell flat despite their historic electoral advantages. These victories were followed by a Trump presidential election announcement that rang hollow in late November. Dramatically, in early December 2022 polling, DeSantis had the support of 52% of Republicans while Trump only had the support of 38%.
But things began to change for DeSantis in 2023. Due to a circle-the-wagons effect in the wake of the first Trump indictment in March, Trump began to edge up into the 40-50% range in most national polls while DeSantis fell to the mid-30% range. And from that point on, DeSantis has perpetually bled support in both national and state polls. By the end of an unforgivable summer, DeSantis had already faded into the teens nationally. Today, he’s held somewhat steady in national polling with around 18% support but has bled further in early state polls. He has currently fallen behind Haley with only 11% in South Carolina, trails her in New Hampshire with only 10% support, and ties her in Iowa at 16% support.
Regardless if you fully trust the methodology of most of today’s polling (which I don’t), the trendlines evident in the story of Ron DeSantis are unavoidable. He has gone from ascendant to competitive to just another horse in the race. It’s a precipitous collapse of support. The percentages themselves, and whether they’re fully accurate, don't matter nearly as much as the downward trend manifested in the data. It’s inevasible no matter how you look at it. If DeSantis were to turn things around, he not only has to win over new voters, he must win back voters who once seemed ready to move on from Trump with him as their champion but have now returned to the Trump fold.
Why did this happen? As already mentioned, the Trump indictments have served as a rallying cry for Republican voters, who are miffed at the perception that the criminal justice system is trying to interfere in the Republican primary by removing Trump from the equation altogether. If Trump was tired, used up, an old face with no chance of winning the presidency why, many Republicans ask, does everybody keep going after him?
But I think there’s more to the story. As I survey the choices of strategy and the rhetoric that have come out of the DeSantis campaign since he formally launched in May, I see a failure to run in a manner able to handle a revitalized Donald Trump. He thought he could contend directly with Trump for his MAGA base of support and assumed he could pivot toward building a broader coalition after scoring an early wound against Trump’s efforts. DeSantis overestimated his strength and underestimated Trump’s staying power as a figure under siege by leftist forces. In short, he got cocky. Not only did DeSantis fail to carve out a MAGA bloc of support of his own, he chased away the various non-Trump factions in the process. And thus, DeSantis’ downward trajectory has been consistent and pervasive.
The story of Nikki Haley doesn’t start out altogether different, at least when it comes to campaign strategy and her initial image after first entering the race. While she never had the overwhelming support DeSantis had scored early on, she nevertheless ran the same style of campaign. And she looked even more awkward doing it. Haley the populist, ranting and raving about socialism at CPAC, came off as a political act that undermined her honesty and turned a lot of people off, including myself. From March to the first debate in August, I wrote Haley off as simply running for veepstakes.
But the first debate proved to be a pivot point for Haley, both in terms of campaign strategy and also in terms of her strength in the polling. She proved to be the most refreshing surprise of the night at the first debate, presenting herself as well-polished and well-articulated. She deftly destroyed Vivek Ramaswamy, she carved out a strong foreign policy position, differentiating herself from DeSantis and Trump by voicing strong support for Ukraine’s defense of their country against Russian invasion, she put herself forward as the adult in the room by confronting the political realities of the abortion issue, and she challenged Trump in no uncertain terms on fiscal policy in ways every other candidate, except for perhaps Christie, shrunk from even approaching.
And the polling responded accordingly. Haley surged away from the also-rans and became a solid third place behind DeSantis, who neither rose nor fell post-debate. And Haley capitalized on the development. Her debate performance proved not to be a one-off but a dramatic pivot to a different campaign strategy. It became quite clear that she had chosen to change tactics, was now trying to build a broader non-Trump coalition, and had decided to challenge Trump and Trumpism more directly. Haley had picked up the mantle of Reagan Republicanism.
Her second debate performance was not as strong as her first, but she once again scored heavy hits against Ramaswamy, she held her own as both Scott and DeSantis trained more fire her way, and she again challenged Trump on several issues while the rest of the pack, minus Christie, largely left him alone. The surge continued, and, as discussed earlier, she is now in direct competition with DeSantis for the second-place position in the race, having surged ahead in New Hampshire and South Carolina and scoring a tie in Iowa.
Now, the great debate between Haley, on the one hand, and DeSantis, on the other, is a matter of ceilings. Sure, Haley has some momentum, and sure, DeSantis has got some work cut out for him, but how high can Haley actually rise, and how bad is the state of the DeSantis campaign really? On both cases, there is much left to be seen.
I cannot personally forecast any changing trajectory for DeSantis because I see no change in style, substance, or strategy. The response to Haley’s surge seems to have largely been that there’s nothing actually to see there, and I see very little public evidence to suggest DeSantis, his campaign, or his supporters are interested in discussing, let alone reckoning with, the way the contours of the race have dramatically changed since last Spring.
Meanwhile, there’s no evidence to suggest Haley has hit her ceiling, wherever it may be, and if she holds her own tonight in what is essentially a head-to-head confrontation with a few hangers-on cluttering up the stage, I see no reason why her surge won’t increase exponentially. There’s a very real possibility that if Haley knocks this third debate out of the park, she could easily be polling in the 20s or even the 30s by the end of November.
The final question, really, is one of the trajectories that I have discussed in this piece. Again, my trust in the polls is often tepid at best. I think the methodologies are faulty, there’s too much reliance on online surveys, and it looks to me that MAGA is being over-sampled as a way to compensate for the polling failures of 2016 and 2020. But trendlines are unavoidable pieces of data even in faulty polling, and the DeSantis decline and the Haley surge are inescapable facts of the race at this point.
My gut tells me that tonight's debate will either be an inflection point in the trajectories of the Haley and DeSantis campaigns or the point of no return for their permanence. This could very well be the last chance for DeSantis to turn things around, and if he doesn’t, this could be the night that Haley becomes the consensus non-Trump candidate.
Justin Stapley received his Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Utah Valley University, with emphases in Political Philosophy and Public Law, American History, and Constitutional Studies. He is the Founding and Executive Director of the Freemen Foundation as well as Editor in Chief of the Freemen News-Letter. @JustinWStapley
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