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Consolidation, Sort Of
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Consolidation, Sort Of

2024 isn’t 2016.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speak with Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader, at the Thanksgiving Family Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, on November 17, 2023. (Photo by Jim Vondruska/Getty Images)

It feels strange to celebrate the consolidation of the anti-Trump Republican field at a moment when a three-candidate race in Iowa has never seemed more certain.

After all, the point of consolidating the field is to produce a two-candidate race. Trump vs. Not Trump, right? When the frontrunner is polling at 46 percent in the early states, the only way to beat him is for a single challenger to win the other 55. When there are two challengers, each of them credible, the math is insuperable.

A prisoner’s dilemma among conservatives made consolidation impossible in 2016. On this date eight years ago, three Trump alternatives were polling north of 12 percent; the second-place candidate, Ben Carson, was just 9 points behind the frontrunner. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were each gaining ground in national surveys, and even prominent also-rans like Jeb Bush and John Kasich could argue, vaguely plausibly, that their numbers would rise as Iowa approached and Republican primary voters started getting serious about the race.

Everyone involved had reason to believe they might emerge as the One True Challenger to Trump, so no one had a reason to drop out early. And no one ever considered a serious contender, save poor Scott Walker, did. You know how that primary turned out.

Incredibly, the 2024 campaign has looked for months like it might be a replay of 2016. Watching Republican candidates let a collective-action problem pave Trump’s path to power once was maddening. Watching them repeat the mistake risked sending some of us to the loony bin.

The first Republican primary debate in late August featured eight candidates, six of whom (sorry Asa and Doug) looked hypothetically capable of gaining a bit of traction in one or more of the early states. There were no less than four credible-ish presidential nominees in former VP Mike Pence, MAGA heir apparent Ron DeSantis, Sen. Tim Scott, and former Gov. Nikki Haley. Even the wild cards, Chris Christie and Vivek Ramaswamy, were gifted performers with a knack for political pugilism.

It was easy to imagine each of them sitting at 8 to 10 percent in late November, just enough to feed their fantasies of emerging as Trump’s One True Challenger in the home stretch to Iowa and New Hampshire. Donors and early state kingmakers would stay on the sidelines, paralyzed by the muddle among the also-rans and fearful of alienating Trump by endorsing a rival. A prisoner’s dilemma was about to send him sailing to the nomination again.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

Mike Pence is gone. Tim Scott, too. Christie and Ramaswamy are hanging on, but any chance of either making a serious move in New Hampshire or Iowa, respectively, seems to have passed.

It’s late November and we’re effectively down to three candidates. Right-wing figures of means, whether in terms of influence or finance, are rallying behind the two semi-serious alternatives to you-know-who left in the race. It’s not the “Trump vs. Not Trump” dynamic that traditional Republicans crave—not yet, anyway—but we’re closer to true consolidation than we were in 2016. 

A little.

One reason consolidation is more likely in 2024 is because Trump has more than double the share of the primary vote that he had at this point eight years ago. Challengers back then could size up his 30 percent and tell themselves, somewhat convincingly, “I can catch up.” When Pence and Scott looked up and saw Trump sitting at 60 percent this time, the reality of polling in the low single digits crashed down hard.

Haley and DeSantis, meanwhile, are polling in the low double digits—so reality hasn’t quite landed yet.

On Tuesday, Americans for Prosperity Action—a political advocacy organization backed by Charles Koch—announced that it’s endorsing Haley for president. Endorsements don’t matter much in politics anymore; neither do organizations, frankly, at least on the right in an era dominated by the populist Trump. Go ask the DeSantis brain trust, which has been reduced to near-fistfights by its inability to turn more than $100 million in donations into anything resembling polling momentum.

Insofar as organizational muscle does still matter, though, AFP’s backing is a boon to Haley. She’s run a lean campaign so far, spending far less per dollar raised than the likes of DeSantis and Scott. AFP’s network will change that, per the New York Times, by giving Haley “access to a direct-mail operation, field workers to knock on doors and people making phone calls to prospective voters in Iowa and beyond.” The group will surely run ads on her behalf as well. The considerable manpower gap between her operation and DeSantis’, which has knocked on well over half a million doors in Iowa and counting, will shrink.

There are many tangible benefits to AFP’s support, but the intangible benefit may be more valuable. By endorsing Haley over DeSantis, they’ve publicly anointed her as the more formidable challenger to Trump. No wonder Team Ron sounds so grumpy about it.

The easy—and arguably wise—thing for AFP to do at this point would have been to endorse no one. Trump isn’t just upwards of 50 points ahead in national GOP primary polling, he’s become a slight favorite to win the presidency again next year. Political outfits don’t typically pick fights with politicians who’ll soon be in a position to punish them, particularly ones who are infamous for being vindictive. AFP has decided to risk it for the greater good of denying Trump a second term.

And they’re not the only ones. Some of Tim Scott’s donors have swung around to Haley since he left the race. Other movers and shakers like Ken Griffin and Ken Langone are intrigued. The donor class, still dominated by traditional Republicans, looks to be consolidating behind her.

The influencer class may be getting off the sidelines too—although more so on DeSantis’ behalf thus far than Haley’s.

The most coveted endorsement in Iowa belonged to Gov. Kim Reynolds. The state’s chief executive traditionally doesn’t endorse in the presidential primary, not wanting to put a thumb on the scale in such an important election. With Trump lapping the field, Reynolds could have cited that precedent to justify remaining neutral. Instead, she backed DeSantis and will campaign for him ahead of the caucuses. If you want prominent Republicans to be proactive in creating a “permission structure” for the party’s voters to stop Trump, here’s Kim Reynolds being proactive.

And here’s Bob Vander Plaats, possibly the second-most influential conservative in the state, doing the same thing by backing DeSantis himself.

The Republican candidate who received Vander Plaats’ support went on to win Iowa in 2008, 2012, and 2016. He’s doing what he can, against immense odds, to consolidate evangelical voters behind one of the two viable Not Trump challengers left in the race. So is Marlys Popma, a former president of Iowa Right to Life: She’s all-in for Nikki Haley as of 10 days ago.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu will also almost certainly endorse someone before his state votes and, with absolute certainty, that someone won’t be Donald Trump. I suspect he’ll land on Team Nikki, as her politics are more in line with Sununu’s traditional conservatism than with DeSantis’ turn toward post-liberalism. But if backing the governor of Florida looks like the best way to stop Trump, Sununu sounds plenty willing to do that:

Republican voters won’t be stopped from nominating Trump if what they really want to do is nominate Trump. All we can ask is that conservatives with significant political or financial capital use their resources to make sure he doesn’t get to coast this time above another splintered field. The coalitions of influencers forming around DeSantis and Haley are satisfying that request.

Of course it’s, er, suboptimal that influencers like Vander Plaats, Popma, and AFP are dividing their support between DeSantis and Haley instead of uniting behind one of them, which would be true consolidation. At National Review today, Dan McLaughlin and Jim Geraghty each have pieces out complaining that the field hasn’t winnowed to the degree we might have hoped, that in fact we’re seeing the same collective action problem we saw in 2016, albeit among slightly fewer candidates.

It’s a fair point. Hence my emphasis up top about a little consolidation.

But a little consolidation might be better than a lot at this particular moment.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the paradox of Haley’s modest surge in the polls. Namely, she may stand a better chance of overperforming in Iowa if DeSantis stays in the race than if he gets out early.

That’s because DeSantis has built a modest base of one part post-liberal populists and one part traditional conservatives. If you assume that the former is larger than the latter—a safe assumption, given how aggressively populist DeSantis’ campaign has been—then his exit as a candidate would leave that sizable populist bloc suddenly in need of a fallback option.

And we all know who that fallback option would be. Hint: Not Nikki Haley, the Reaganite—now endorsed by the remaining “globalist” Koch brother—who rose to political stardom in the reviled pre-Trump “establishment” GOP. That’s another way in which 2024 isn’t like 2016, in fact—this time, there’s a candidate in the field who’s pulling a meaningful number of populist votes from Trump himself. The splintering isn’t entirely on the traditional-conservative side.

I think Haley would prefer an outcome in Iowa in which Trump is held under 50 percent to one in which she scores a few points higher while he wins a clear majority. That is to say, an outcome of Trump 47, Haley 30, DeSantis 15 would serve her a bit better than a Trump 57, Haley 35 split with DeSantis already out of the race. Not only would Trump’s margin of victory be smaller in the first scenario, the fact that a majority of Iowa Republicans had preferred other candidates would be a nice talking point for her ahead of New Hampshire.

We may yet see further consolidation before the caucuses, though. It’s unclear to me how much of DeSantis’ remaining base is still with him because they’re true believers in his vision, and how much is clinging to him in the stubborn pragmatic conviction that he’s the only candidate who can unite the two Republican tribes of populists and conservatives and defeat Trump. That’s a fine theoretical basis for preferring him, as was believing last year that he was the most electable candidate in the race.

But that latter theory hasn’t borne out. Trump has routinely begun to outpoll Joe Biden head-to-head and Haley now reliably performs better against the president than DeSantis does. The former theory—that DeSantis can unite the tribes—also remains unproven. The governor has had six months as a declared candidate to show that he can build a formidable coalition of classical liberals and post-liberals. In practice, all he’s done since late March is shed support.

If he doesn’t start to move in the polls in the next two or three weeks, I think both wings of his base will take a hard look at his chances and begin to behave strategically. Haley doesn’t just look stronger as a general-election candidate, she’s also the only one of the two with an early-state strategy beyond Iowa. She’s ahead of DeSantis in New Hampshire, and will almost certainly fare better there than he will among independents who end up voting in the Republican primary. She’ll also outperform him in her home state of South Carolina, giving her a better chance to build sustainable momentum. 

If you’re a conservative for DeSantis whose top priority is simply to beat Trump, doesn’t that make Haley the better bet at this point? And if you’re a populist for DeSantis whose top priority is to have a populist as nominee, aren’t you better off swinging behind Trump than sticking with the also-ran—to ensure that the “neocon” Haley is crushed?

DeSantis’ base deserting him would effectively add up to true consolidation, pitting Trump against Haley in Iowa with the governor of Florida still technically in the race but a nonfactor.

But if nothing short of true true consolidation will do, with either Haley or DeSantis asked to drop out so that Trump is forced to face a single Not Trump alternative, shouldn’t it be DeSantis who takes the plunge? He had every advantage at the start of the campaign—hefty fundraising, oceans of conservative media hype, a scintillating reelection victory last fall, and a splashy list of policy achievements—and has done nothing but disappoint expectations.

He insisted from the start that the primary was a two-man race. Republicans in the early states took a good look at him and disagreed. It’s hard to believe that that verdict will suddenly be reversed in the final weeks before voting starts.

But if it is reversed and DeSantis ends up beating expectations in the caucuses, his surge will complicate the higher-polling Haley’s chances in New Hampshire or South Carolina. If true consolidation is the only way to beat Trump, nothing would make that less likely throughout the early states than a good showing for the governor of Florida in Iowa that convinces him to trudge ahead to Super Tuesday, continuing to splinter the Not Trump bloc.

How’s that for irony? Ron “Two-Man Race” DeSantis may now be the greatest stumbling block to a vaguely competitive two-candidate race in January and February.

Now, of course, comes the obligatory disclaimer: Almost certainly, none of this is going to matter.

AFP’s endorsement of Haley passes for “buzzworthy” only because the outcome of the primary has looked like a foregone conclusion for months. The closest thing left to excitement is the suspense of whether Haley can outlast DeSantis or vice versa, leaving the survivor as the party’s presumptive nominee just in case Trump chokes on a cheeseburger before Election Day.

When asked today what advice he’d give to AFP in aiding Haley’s effort, Jeb Bush 2016 alumnus Tim Miller told Semafor, “Start six months ago. Ten, maybe.” Right-wing opinion about Trump is notoriously immovable, but if there was any chance of moving it, one would think it must have arrived sometime before he was indicted. That’s when the primary became, for Republican voters, a nihilistic exercise in spiting the libs.

Having a libertarian outfit like the Koch network behind her might even hurt Haley on balance with populist voters who aren’t diehard MAGA but nonetheless prefer a nominee in the Trump mold. Haley’s been trying to figure out a way to woo them; unlike DeSantis, she doesn’t have a slew of dubiously constitutional anti-woke laws and executive orders she can point to as proof that she “knows what time it is.” The AFP endorsement will be treated as further evidence by the grassroots that she’s a creature of pre-Trump conservatism, not “one of us.”

I do hope she succeeds in consolidating the Not Trump vote, though, and not just because she’s a more admirable figure to carry that banner than the unsavory, illiberal DeSantis.

If the GOP is determined to nominate Trump again, no excuses should be made for Republican voters afterward. Many conservatives who can’t bear to shed their tribal partisan identity will strain to find some way to spare themselves from confronting the fact that the party writ large, not just the man who leads it, has grown perverse and corrupt. If Haley and DeSantis both insist on lingering in the race, some will rationalize Trump’s eventual victory by insisting that the outcome might have been different if only the civically responsible alleged majority of Republican voters had been given a single alternative to rally behind.

I hope they don’t get that excuse. True consolidation—especially if it’s Haley who’s left as the One True Challenger—will provide stark clarity about what Republican voters want in a leader when offered a binary choice between a classical liberal and post liberal. And stark clarity about the state of the GOP is realistically the most we can hope for from this process.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.