Super Tuesday: GOP picks Trump over Haley, their best bet in 2024

If Republicans ever figure out how to nominate a normal human, Democrats could be in trouble.

Presidential candidate Nikki Haley onstage waving to supporters.

Nikki Haley waves to supporters in Texas. Mark Felix/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Donald Trump and Joe Biden are among the most unpopular politicians in their respective parties. And yet, both routed their competition in Super Tuesday’s primary elections. Unless either man dies or abruptly retires, they will both be on the presidential ballot this November.

Although both parties are uniting behind weak standard-bearers, the Democrats’ apparent strategic failure has attracted greater scrutiny. Which is understandable. After all, it is Biden — not Trump — who is on pace to lose, if current polls are any guide. Given the president’s advanced age and extraordinarily low approval rating, it’s hard to believe that he is Blue America’s best hope.

And yet, when pollsters ask voters for their preference in a hypothetical race between Trump and various other prominent Democrats, no Biden alternative consistently outperforms the president. An Emerson College poll released last month showed Trump leading Biden by 1 point, besting Kamala Harris by 3 points, and routing California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by 10 and 12 points respectively.

These results likely reflect Whitmer’s and Newsom’s low national name recognition more than anything else (in Michigan, where Whitmer is widely known, she does much better than Biden against Trump). Nevertheless, it remains the case that there is no stack of polling data showing any given Democrat trouncing Trump. And there has also been no challenger in the Democratic primary field capable of winning a non-negligible share of the vote.

Things are different in Red America. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley never posed a serious threat to Trump’s renomination.

If she had beaten him, however, polls suggest that Republicans could all but guarantee their coalition’s triumph in November. Instead, they’ve settled on a candidate that a majority of voters disdain.

In national polls of a hypothetical 2024 race, Haley leads Biden by an average of 5 points, while Trump edges the president by just 2. And the gap between the two Republicans’ respective showings is more pronounced in some of America’s most highly regarded surveys. The latest New York Times/Siena College poll, for example, puts Trump’s lead over Biden at 5 points and Haley’s at 10. More remarkably, Haley’s double-digit advantage in the poll comes despite the fact that a quarter of Trump’s supporters wouldn’t commit to backing her. Were Haley to consolidate the support of voters who prefer Trump over Biden, her lead over the president would swell to 24 points.

Haley has also secured landslide margins in some battleground-state polls. Last month, a Marquette Law School survey showed Trump statistically tied with Biden in Wisconsin, even as Haley bested the president in the pivotal swing state by 15 points.

All this should make both parties uncomfortable.

By all appearances, Republicans have just forfeited the opportunity to secure a Reagan-esque national landslide. Beyond likely ensuring Biden’s defeat, a Haley nomination would have given the GOP an excellent chance of amassing large congressional majorities to boot. In today’s America, all politics is national. Voters tend to back the same party up and down the ballot. A Haley landslide would therefore have translated into massive Republican success in House, Senate, and state elections.

This in turn would have made many of the conservative movement’s longtime goals more legislatively feasible. Republicans came one vote shy of partially repealing the Affordable Care Act in 2017. At that time, they held only 51 Senate seats. With larger majorities, the GOP would likely be able to slash federal health care spending and top tax rates. More consequentially, a large Republican Senate majority would plausibly have the votes to abolish the legislative filibuster, and then enact nationwide restrictions on abortion, sharp cuts in legal immigration, and myriad other conservative aspirations.

A relatively narrow Trump victory, by contrast, could leave much of the right’s agenda unfulfilled. A close Republican win at the presidential level would even be compatible with Democrats winning a House majority, an outcome that would tightly constrain conservatives’ policy gains.

In other words, the conservative movement had a golden opportunity in 2024 to secure an electoral landslide with transformational policy implications. Republicans won’t get to run against an 81-year-old man with a 56 percent disapproval rating every election cycle. Widespread discontent with post-Covid inflation and distrust of Biden’s mental fitness has created an opening for the GOP to win big without making significant ideological compromises (Haley is a very conservative Republican, by any reasonable metric). Instead, Republicans decided to throw Biden a lifeline by mobilizing behind a serially indicted demagogue whom a majority of Americans dislike.

Thus, Democrats dodged a bullet. But that brush with electoral devastation should inspire more concern than relief. Trump won’t be around forever. A post-MAGA Republican Party is coming. And for the moment, the Democratic brand looks to be in dire shape.

Last fall, voters told Gallup that they believed Republicans would do a better job than Democrats on “keeping the country prosperous” by a margin of 53 to 39 percent. In the past three decades of Gallup’s polling, Republicans have never had a larger edge on economic management.

According to the same survey, the GOP also boasts a 22-point advantage on national security and an 8-point one on “the problem you think is most important” (whatever that may be).

Gallup’s findings are consistent with those of other recent surveys. An NBC News poll from late last year found voters trusting Republicans over Democrats on the economy by a 21-point margin and on immigration by an 18-point one. Other recent polling indicates that these are the most politically salient issues to Americans at the moment. Perhaps most alarmingly, however, NBC found Republicans nearly erasing the Democrats’ perennial lead on “looking out for the middle class.” Since the New Deal era, the perception that Democrats are uniquely concerned with the plight of ordinary Americans has been one of the party’s core strengths.

Democratic leaders are not fully to blame for their party’s damaged reputation. Virtually every country suffered a spike in inflation when their economies reopened following the Covid crisis. And virtually every party that happened to be in power when prices surged has seen its approval numbers collapse. Biden’s polling is terrible by historical standards but not by international ones. While Biden’s approval rating sits at a measly 38 percent, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s is at 32 percent, and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s has fallen to 21 percent.

Nevertheless, the costs of presiding over widely resented economic conditions can be long-lasting. As the political scientists Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen have shown, parties that found themselves in power when the Great Depression struck tended to struggle electorally for a generation, regardless of their ideological orientation. America has scarcely suffered an economic cataclysm on Biden’s watch, but the Democrats’ association with a period of anomalously fast price growth threatens to reinforce damaging stereotypes about liberals’ fiscal irresponsibility.

Democrats must therefore hope that Trump’s unique toxicity combined with the US economy’s objective strength allow Biden to overcome both the globe-spanning backlash to incumbents and his own personal liabilities. In the longer run, however, the party must somehow regain the American public’s trust on economic management before Republicans figure out how to nominate a normal presidential candidate.


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