Skip to content
The Silver Linings of a Short Primary
Go to my account

The Silver Linings of a Short Primary

Are there any?

Campaign signs in Loudon, New Hampshire, on January 19, 2024. New Hampshire voters will weigh in next week on the Republican nominating race with their first-in-the-nation primary. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In this job as in any job, some assignments are easier than others.

Explaining why the Republican frontrunner is a civic cancer is child’s play. A piece like that writes itself, especially after you’ve written variations of it 800 times before.

Explaining why it’s good that that civic cancer will wrap up his party’s nomination before the end of January is more challenging.

Today we’re going to boost the degree of difficulty to 11 and try to find an upside to Donald Trump annihilating Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley. It’s the only thing I can think to do to cope with the recent polling in New Hampshire.

Haley has been surging there for a month, cutting Trump’s lead in half while nearly doubling her share of the vote. A week ago it was possible to imagine momentum propelling her to victory next Tuesday. Then she finished third in Iowa and followed up by declining an invitation to debate DeSantis in the Granite State. Anecdotal reports, including from some of our own staffers on the ground, suggest that Nikkimania has begun to cool.

The polls bear that out. After months of bouncing around in the 40s, Trump has inched up to 52 percent in the last two surveys taken, both this week. Despite Chris Christie leaving the race and DeSantis slumping into irrelevance, Haley has yet to poll as high as 40 percent. Things look sufficiently grim that her surrogate-in-chief, Gov. Chris Sununu, claimed on Wednesday, “We always wanted to have a strong second. That’s the only expectation we ever laid out there.” He was lying, flagrantly: Just last month he told ABC News that he foresaw a Haley landslide.

The reaper is at the door. 

Haley and DeSantis might limp on to South Carolina in case the actual reaper pays Old Man Trump a visit in the next few weeks. But if he wins Iowa and New Hampshire and doesn’t keel over, it’s inconceivable that he’ll lose in a Southern conservative state where he’s always been popular. Whether his opponents admit it or not, a Trump victory next Tuesday is the end of the primary.

Is there any reason to be happy about that?

Well … sure? Kind of?

Sunny optimists like me can find silver linings in even the darkest clouds. Let’s see if we can convince ourselves that a short primary is a good, or at least not all bad, thing.

My theory of a Trump defeat in November has always depended on a significant crossover vote for Joe Biden from disaffected Republicans.

The president isn’t going to reassemble the coalition that produced a victory, barely, in 2020. Most of his voters will show up for him again but “most” isn’t enough when the difference between winning and losing is 44,000 votes across several swing states. Progressives are mad at him for supporting Israel over Hamas; the working class is mad at him for inflation; everyone apart from the fringiest wing of the American left is mad at him over the border crisis.

Parts of his base that he’s counting on to turn out for him won’t do so. Some swing voters who switched from Trump to Biden four years ago in the interest of ending the chaos will decide that 2020-style “chaos” is preferable to what we have now. Democrats will need to replace those votes. The obvious target is traditional Republicans who’ve stuck it out with the GOP for eight years despite growing chagrined at the direction it’s taken.

It would be wonderful for the party and for the country if Haley or DeSantis defeated Trump. But if that’s not in the cards, which it isn’t, and if I’m right that disaffected Republicans are key to defeating him in the general election, shouldn’t we want those disaffected Republicans to come away from this as disaffected as possible?

A Trump landslide in the primary could leave them feeling more disaffected than a drawn-out contest would.

In a drawn-out race, traditional conservatives might find enough hope in their preferred candidate’s performance to retain their tribal affiliation for one more cycle. Haley or DeSantis winning several primaries would encourage them to believe that there remains a meaningful constituency of people like them in Trump’s GOP. It’s still their party! So why not vote for Trump again this fall, as good Republicans will be expected to do, and look forward to 2028 for that hotly anticipated “new direction”?

All of that is up in smoke if Trump locks up the nomination before February. That’s not to say that all disaffected Republicans will make a clean break with the right in disgust and frustration; partisanship is a hell of a drug. But to the extent anyone still feels bound to the GOP by optimism that it might see the error of its ways, a resounding Trump win in the primary is the most efficient way to crush that optimism and sever that bond. And severance is a necessary precondition to voting differently in November.

Anti-anti-Trump partisans will try to prevent that by convincing unhappy conservatives that blame for the result rightly lies outside the GOP—with the media, who didn’t do enough to help Ron DeSantis; with Democrats, who haven’t governed far enough toward the center; with prosecutors, for having “driven” the right into Trump’s arms by charging him; and with Never Trumpers, just because. Those arguments would be more persuasive to disaffected Republicans, I suspect, if the frontrunner had prevailed narrowly after a long contest. But for the interference by nefarious liberals, Trump would have lost.

After a short primary in which Trump routed the competition, though, the excuses are destined to seem absurd. It’s one thing for your party to renominate a candidate with multiple criminal prosecutions pending against him; it’s another thing to do it so resoundingly that two impressive young challengers never once came within spitting distance of a victory. Trump won because his party has become a cult conditioned to treat his vices as virtues; forcing disaffected Republicans to confront that bracing fact squarely is good for the anti-Trump cause.

The size of his margins will make it easier.

Relatedly: If you believe that Nikki Haley is destined to turn around and endorse Trump when this race is over, it’s for the best that she doesn’t amass a ton of political capital before doing so, isn’t it?

Michael Brendan Dougherty made that point recently in a post at National Review provocatively titled “Haley Staying in Helps Trump.” His logic was straightforward: “The longer she stays in the race, and the more graciously both decide to end it, the more likely her people feel that they at least have a place in the Republican coalition, and a potential shot at the presidency as soon as 2028, unless health issues or other fates give them the White House earlier.”

The great fear all along with Haley’s surge in polling is that she would back Trump in the end and in so doing create a “permission structure” for traditional conservatives to support him in the general election, possibly with her as his running mate. (Or not!) The more primaries she won, the more meaningful that permission would have been. Overperforming in this primary against Trump could have made her the de facto leader of the GOP’s Reaganite remnant, someone whose benediction would be valuable to the nominee.

Forget all that if she ends up being steamrolled in New Hampshire, though. What does it matter if Nikki Haley endorses Trump now? Who looks for political guidance from a candidate who won as many races this cycle as Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson did?

To return to the theme of yesterday’s newsletter, we should all crave maximum clarity this fall about the state of the Republican Party and its nominee. A coup-plotter running the table in the primary provides more clarity about the threat than Haley pulling an independent-fueled upset in New Hampshire and then magnanimously endorsing Trump after Super Tuesday would have.

There’s another reason to find a short primary tolerable, if not quite preferable. Namely, Trump’s opponents weren’t exploiting the opportunity presented by the race to weaken him before the general election.

Incumbent presidents (which is what Trump is for the purposes of this contest) detest primary challenges because they lead inevitably to members of their own party airing their dirtiest political laundry. The base grows divided, swing voters grow skeptical, the odds of reelection grow longer. That’s why Joe Biden has escaped a serious primary challenge despite being the weakest incumbent in modern American history. Democrats knew that trying to unseat him would have improved the chances of a Trump restoration considerably.

Had Haley or DeSantis run hard at Trump with the same attacks that Biden is planning for the fall—he’s comprehensively unfit, he’s a threat to democracy, he’s very probably a criminal—then a long primary would have been useful. The longer it went, the more chances the non-Trump candidates would have had to press their case to the disaffected traditional Republicans supporting them.

But since they’re not prosecuting that case, who cares? How many disaffected Republicans are going to be tipped over into voting for Biden in November by hearing Haley complain about Trump running up the national debt? She’s not even willing to challenge Trump on the new racialized nickname he’s developed for her to remind Republican voters that she may sound like one of Us but she’s actually one of Them. Instead, at last check, she was promising to pardon him if he ends up being convicted of any felonies.

If she and DeSantis are doomed to lose and lose feebly, it’s better for all of us if they get out of the way early and let Democratic admakers get cracking on the actual reasons decent people shouldn’t consider voting for an illiberal miscreant this fall.

So there are reasons to prefer a short primary, you see.

Feel better?

No? Me neither.

That’s because no matter how many silver linings we might find in the Republican primary being short this year, the cloud remains unusually dark.

For starters, wrapping up the nomination before February means Trump will have extra time to try to unite his party by wooing those disaffected Republicans himself.

Last year it looked like we might plausibly see a reprise of the Democratic primary of 2008, when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton contested every primary en route to the convention. The length of that race and intensity of Clinton’s support created some very hard feelings when Obama eventually clinched. It didn’t matter in November—the financial crisis and Iraq fatigue made it easy for Democrats to come together and win—but lengthy wars that require both sides to continue investing emotionally as they play out are more likely to create lingering bitterness.

A long, ugly primary between Trump and DeSantis in the same mold could have caused a durable rift within the populist right, especially given Trump’s penchant for nastiness. Imagine him eking out the nomination in June after having gone scorched-earth on the governor and his family. How many DeSantis fans would have held a grudge?

How many might have secretly relished seeing Trump defeated by Biden again in the fall, partly as just deserts for the viciousness their candidate had to suffer and partly because another Trump loss would make the case for nominating DeSantis in 2028 that much more compelling?

Traditional Republicans might also have found a long primary dispiriting and off-putting. As much as a short primary will leave them with no illusions about Trump’s dominance of the party, a longer, angrier primary might have left them feeling more alienated. If clarity about the man and his methods is the goal for anti-Trumpers before November, nothing would have created more opportunities for him to show off his essential rottenness than a monthslong bloodletting in which he was credibly threatened with defeat.

If the daily Truth Social posts are this insane now, when he’s cruising to victory, imagine how insane they would have been if he and DeSantis were neck-and-neck deep into spring.

A long primary also would have sucked in various players in right-wing politics and caused them to waste resources attacking each other instead of diverting them to the general election. Many millions of dollars in donor money that might have been spent helping DeSantis and Haley run a long primary race will instead end up in Trump’s pockets for use against Biden this fall. “I’m left with a choice of, if I want to be inside the tent, I’ve got to crawl back to Trump,” one CEO who’s supporting a different candidate told NBC News on Friday.

Tons of populist media content that might have been devoted to making the case against Trump on DeSantis’ behalf will instead be applied toward advocating for a second term for the frontrunner. Disaffected Republicans will hopefully resist those appeals, but the effort to bring them around will begin much sooner—and with far more firepower—than it might otherwise have.

The short primary could even influence legislation. This week House Speaker Mike Johnson admitted that he’s consulting with Trump about the nascent deal on border security that’s developing in the Senate. Trump opposes the deal “unless we get EVERYTHING” and there’s no mystery why: As always in his brand of politics, his personal interests take precedence over the country’s. Controlling the flow of migrants might be good for America, but it would also be good for Joe Biden’s reelection bid, which means the soon-to-be GOP nominee will expect House Republicans to find some pretext to tank any bill that comes out of the Senate.

In a primary where Trump was struggling to hold off DeSantis or Haley, Johnson would have more freedom to ignore his wishes. In a primary where Trump is preparing for a coronation, the House will need to begin doing his bidding immediately.

All in all, a short primary is decidedly a bummer. If nothing else, extending it into spring would have maximized the chances of Trump’s many looming courtroom visits making Republican voters think twice about his electability this fall before it’s too late. Although, if you’re skeptical that the spectacle of seeing him sitting at the defendant’s table would have hurt him more than helped him, you have good reason to be.

That’s the best a sunny optimist can do to reckon with the reality of the moment.

Enjoy the final days of the race, then, from the “who coulda done it?” tabloid smears of Nikki Haley to the comic spectacle of Donald Trump engaging in psychological projection to the predictable capitulations by “principled” conservatives rushing to endorse him over the far more qualified Haley. It’ll all be over on Tuesday. Then the work begins.

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.