And Then There Were Two

[ Posted Wednesday, February 1st, 2023 – 17:02 UTC ]

That headline is somewhat of a misnomer, of course, since when the phrase "...and then there were [number]..." is usually used, it conveys a shrinking of the field -- a Hunger Games style announcement-in-the-sky to mark when a tribute (contender) dies (literally in the stories, metaphorically when it comes to politics). In this case, though, it refers to the fact that there will soon be two official major-party candidates for president of the United States, not just one: Donald Trump and Nikki Haley (both Republicans). Haley has not formally announced, but has scheduled an official announcement event for February 15th. Trump, of course, announced about twelve seconds after the midterm elections, in an effort to distract from the storyline that he backed a whole bunch of losing candidates and quite possibly cost the Republican Party control of the Senate (once again). President Joe Biden is widely expected to announce on the Democratic side, but this may not happen for weeks or even, conceivably, months, because being the sitting president gives you the luxury of choosing your own timing.

Trump, as mentioned, announced early for reasons of his own (mostly having to do with seeing an active campaign as some sort of "get out of jail free" card, which is magically going to save him from all the multiple investigations into his previous actions). But there are reportedly a whole passel of other Republicans champing at the bit to run for president as well. So what has stopped them from throwing their own hats in the ring? Well, it still is extremely early in the cycle, and announcing a run means subjecting yourself to all the campaign finance rules (which you can avoid right up until you do actually announce your intention to run). But those are really minor reasons in this particular contest -- the major reason is that many of the other candidates are downright terrified of Trump's wrath, plain and simple.

This time around, Trump already has a clear (if officially unannounced) contender for the Republican nomination: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. DeSantis is even beating Trump in some of the public-opinion polling among Republican voters. So for the time being, Trump is clearly focused on taking DeSantis down a few notches to undercut any growing momentum he may currently have. All the other hopefuls are fine with Trump and DeSantis in a two-way mudfight, because (1) they could wind up both being tarnished by such a tussle, and (2) if Trump is obsessed with DeSantis, then he is not attacking any other Republican hopefuls. A win-win situation for them, in other words, at least for the time being.

All these other possible contenders will be watching Trump's reaction to Haley's announcement very closely, no doubt, to see how hard and how much Trump attacks her. Will he try to fire up his base against her in a big way? Or will he continue to focus on DeSantis, since Haley (so far) hasn't made any noticeable inroads on the public polling, therefore Trump might not see her as much of a threat (yet).

Republicans all know what happened in 2016. Trump faced a large field of GOP candidates, and eviscerated them one by one, depending on who was either up in the polls or who annoyed him most in the debates. One by one, Trump took them all on: Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and all the rest. He used playground taunts and nicknames, to great effect. Because the field was so split, Trump was able to rack up convention delegates by winning states with only roughly one-third of the Republican primary votes. There was no coalescence around a single "not Trump" candidate (as happened in the Democratic primary in 2020, when Joe Biden became the acceptable "not Bernie Sanders" candidate and multiple other viable candidates all dropped out before Super Tuesday to clear the field for Biden).

This time, all the challengers are reportedly trying to turn the tables on this dynamic, with all the not-Trump candidates holding back until later in the year, when they'll all make sort of a group rush to announce all at once. "Safety in numbers," they figure, since if Trump is confronted with a whole bunch of challengers all at once his attention will be split between them and it will blunt the rage and wrath he might be sending their way. That's the theory, at any rate, although the existence of this theory is mostly hypothetical (pundits pondering "what is really going on" rather than actual insider reporting).

Haley's announcement should lead to a surge in rampant speculation about who else might decide to jump in, now that Haley's broken the ice. Since she's out there going first, perhaps two or three others might try to crowd into her shadow and thus avoid too many barbs and arrows from Trump, who knows?

My own speculation on why Haley chose now to jump in -- and it is purely that, speculation, based upon absolutely nothing but gut feeling -- is that she took a look at Trump visiting her own home state of South Carolina this past weekend and decided that if she didn't move fast, Trump might lock up a lot of her home-state donors and supporters. So far, the South Carolina GOP hasn't gone all-in on Trump and many of the state's politicians have adopted a "wait and see" attitude. But Haley's not the only one they were waiting to see -- South Carolina Senator Tim Scott has also been reportedly thinking about his own bid for the White House. So Haley has at least successfully gotten out in front of any possible Scott campaign announcement, and could thus gain an advantage in corralling some home-state support. We'll have to see how it all plays out, but that has to have been at least a major consideration in the timing of Haley's announcement.

Republicans who already have plenty of national name recognition will still likely decide they can afford to wait on any announcement. Several of them (including DeSantis) are sitting governors who have to navigate a legislative session before they would feel free to start a new campaign, and some (like Mike Pence) are just already so well-known that there is no reason to announce early "to build up name recognition." Love him or hate him or (more likely) feel completely bland about him, everybody already knows Mike Pence's name.

Nikki Haley's chances to become the sole "not Trump" candidate are anyone's guess. She has charted a path with Trump that others later tried to follow (people like Lindsey Graham, another South Carolinian, spring to mind), by occasionally taking Trump gently to task about something monumentally stupid he said or did, but then later returning to being a total Trump sycophant. Haley, of course, served in Trump's own cabinet, as his ambassador to the United Nations. She stayed in the job for two years and left on good terms with Trump, which simply can't be said of many of the other Trump cabinet members. Haley did an astoundingly good job of keeping on Trump's good side, even after some of those gentle rebukes. Some at the time speculated that this was because Haley was based in New York City the whole time, and thus had fewer personal interactions (or confrontations) with Trump than other cabinet members did. But for whatever reason, Haley always seemed the best of any of the Trump cabinet at walking a fine tightrope between reality and Donald Trump.

Of course, now that she is directly challenging him, that may wind up not being so true in the future. Haley has flip-flopped on Trump with incredible ease (for the most part) on all sorts of issues. But the most salient right now might be the fact that she went further than most other Republican hopefuls initially, by clearly stating: "I will not run if President Trump ran." And Trump is a fanatic about "loyalty" (as he defines it: when that word means "loyalty to Donald Trump" -- Trump's concept of loyalty is unidirectional, always flowing inwards and never outwards).

Nikki Haley is certainly going to reap some headlines by being only the second Republican to announce a 2024 presidential candidacy. She already reaped mine, today, and I fully expect to be writing about her again before the month is out. By being the first to attempt to bell the Trumpian cat (as it were), she is standing out from the pack in a big way. The only big question is how the big cat is going to react. Will he ignore her for the most part, as being so minor as to not even merit his scorn? Trump tends to live and die by the polls, in his own head, so maybe Haley can avoid any incoming playground taunts at least until she tops 10 percent in a poll? If she never catches fire with the Republican base, should could avoid the Trumpian wrath altogether. But once Trump sees her as a real threat, she'll have to weather that storm when it arrives.

Personally, as a political commentator, I welcome Nikki Haley to the race. The whole Trump/DeSantis dance was already getting a little boring to watch, so this will at least add a new flavor to the mix. First there was one... and then there were two. Let the 2024 GOP presidential race begin!

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


8 Comments on “And Then There Were Two”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    President Joe Biden is widely expected to announce on the Democratic side, but this may not happen for weeks or even, conceivably, months, because being the sitting president gives you the luxury of choosing your own timing.

    In order to prevent that phrase from being used on the Democratic side of things, I think Biden should announce as late as he practically can. Mostly just because announcing early has never really worked out for him insofar as another phrase, 'clearing the field', is concerned. Heh.

  2. [2] 
    John M from Ct. wrote:

    You're right that the commentariat is hungry for some other candidates to write about than Trump and DeSantis. Just today I read two other stories about Haley's non-announcement announcement.

    But one of them took it a little farther. That is, it pointed out that the odds of today's Republican Party nominating a woman of color for president, no matter how pro-Trumpy or anti-Trumpy she might be, are essentially zero, both on the color front and the gender front.

    It concluded that Haley is wasting her time and money on a vanity run, or at best has her eye on the Sarah Palin slot, that is a VP nomination with someone like DeSantis.

    I have to say I found this a more useful analysis than speculating at what point Trump will attack her as a viable rival. Can you comment on how you see her getting to 10% or more in a poll of actual Republican voters at a national level (i.e., not a subset from her state or some other primary state)?

  3. [3] 
    andygaus wrote:

    I admire Biden's work so far, but I really don't want him to run for a second term, he's simply too old. I almost welcome the coming investigations into Hunter Biden's laptop (remember, it does exist) and the possibility that it shows him successfully selling access to his father, plus the baggage of his classified documents, if all that finally adds up to his not running.

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Be careful what you wish for andygaus. :)

    Who would you want to see run in Biden's place?

    Harris is NOT the right answer.

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Here's a fun challenge for all of us, because it's just too damned early to start talking about Trump every single day. Let's see who can go the longest without mentioning this man's name!

    I'll go first. :-)

  6. [6] 
    Mezzomamma wrote:

    I'm too appalled by the Rs in general to think much about other R candidates. Although I would like there to be some honorable, competent candidates I suspect that none of them would get very far in the current party.

    So who is currently placed to be a realistic Dem candidate besides Biden? I don't honestly think Harris is at the moment. Just for the sake of argument, let's suppose Biden is unable to run again, or decides against it, for reasons of age and health. I think age probably rules Bernie out.

  7. [7] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    don't count the ugandan giant out just yet!

  8. [8] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    I’m inclined to believe that T**** is NOT afraid of a Haley candidacy and indeed welcomes it. The more hats in the ring the better his chances are of pulling a 2016 and prevailing with 30% of the vote. The woman of color thing dooms her in the GOP, anyways, but she would be nice window dressing as VP to the usual while male Presidential candidate, no?

    Remember how all of the main Dem contenders simultaneously dropped out and threw their support behind Biden to stop Bernie Sanders? It seems the Repug field may well face the same choice.

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