Iowa Kicks off Republican Primary Season

Trump clear leader, but surprises may emerge.

Iowa Kicks off Republican Primary Season

Trump clear leader, but surprises may emerge.

Opportunitas Advisors

January 11, 2024

The Iowa caucuses, on Monday, January 15th, officially mark the beginning of the Republican party presidential nomination process which will determine who will challenge President Joe Biden in the 2024 U.S. Presidential election. Former President Donald Trump is the clear frontrunner in the process as polling shows him with a wide lead over his two closest competitors, former South Carolina governor and U.S. United Nations Ambassador, Nikki Haley, as well as current Florida Governor, Ron DeSantis. In fact, the Real Clear Politics average of national GOP primary polls show Trump with lead of more than 50 points over his nearest rival.

This Republican primary is different from others in the past, as the frontrunner faces numerous legal challenges at the Federal and state levels in Georgia and New York, stemming from the January 6, 2021 incident at the U.S. Capitol, allegations of election fraud in Georgia, and even business fraud in New York. The impact of these legal cases on the primary process, at least until now, seem negligible, as poll after poll indicate that Republican voters appear oblivious to Trump’s legal troubles. However, what broader consequences Trump’s legal troubles may have in the presidential race is still to be determined. 

THE CANDIDATES

The Republican primary field started with 14 candidates, but has thinned out to five, each representing different ideological spectrums within the party.

 

  • Ron DeSantis. Governor DeSantis began the campaign as Trump’s most formidable foe, but his presence on the national stage has since weakened in what has been panned by analysts as a feeble campaign. His run so far has been marked by internal discord which has resulted in key staff changes along the way, including swapping out campaign managers. DeSantis has tried to position himself as a more electable and effective Trump-like figure while touting his record as Florida governor. However, Trump supporters have stayed loyal to the former president and Haley has been able to attract Republican voters seeking an alternative to the presumptive frontrunner.
  • Nikki Haley. The former Governor of South Carolina represents a more traditional Republican candidate in the spirit of former President George W. Bush, or even Ronald Reagan. A free market advocate with socially moderate opinions, and an activist in foreign policy, Haley encourages the Republican party’s move towards a more nationalist and less isolationist ideology. Haley has been surging in recent polls, both nationally, and in early, key primary states like New Hampshire. Former President Trump’s campaign has taken notice of Haley’s rise and has begun to directly attack her, both rhetorically and in television ads. Most recently,  Trump and his supporters have gone so  far as to question whether Haley, a daughter of Indian immigrants to the United States, could hold the presidency claiming she is not a “natural born citizen” as required by the U.S. Constitution, because her parents were not U.S. citizens when she was born. This claim has been branded “false” by numerous factchecking entities which have also confirmed that she was, in fact, born in South Carolina. 
  • Vivek Ramaswamy. An entrepreneur and founder of a pharmaceutical company, Ramaswamy has been a big surprise in an otherwise uninspiring Republican campaign. A successful businessman with a gift for oratory, Ramaswamy has sought to position himself as a “Trumpist” who adopted many of the former president’s ideological positions. He has emerged as a strong voice to Republican positions in the nation’s “cultural wars” adopting conservative positions on affirmative action, transgender issues, abortion, and other largely social and cultural battles, as well as doubling down on a nationalist and isolationist foreign policies such as ending U.S. financial support for Ukraine. While he has been an entertaining distraction and briefly surged in the polls some months ago, his support has remained stagnant, as his voters are naturally Trump supporters.
  • Donald Trump. The former president is the clear frontrunner in the Republican field and remains the candidate most likely to win the nomination. Recent polls, for the first time, show him beating President Biden in a general election rematch, though the various legal cases he faces now may create problems for him down the line. Trump has doubled down on many of his most notable policies such as cracking down on illegal immigration, reorganizing the Federal workforce, reducing U.S. involvement abroad, as well as imposing new tariff trade policies to bolster U.S. industry. His strong support among Republican voters remains formidable and largely unchallenged.
  • Asa Hutchinson. The former Arkansas Governor remains in the race but barely registers in the polls and is not considered a serious contender.
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THE PRIMARY CALENDAR

The Republican party will select 2,469 delegates to choose its presidential candidate, the vast majority of them will be picked through the primary process that begins in Iowa on January 15th and ends on June 4th.  However, from Iowa to so-called “Super Tuesday”, March 5th, when 15 states will hold their primary elections, the first two months of the calendar will be key in deciding the ultimate candidate or whittling the race down to a one-on-one contest.

 

To this end, the first two primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire this month will be key. Iowa is a strong conservative state and its caucus system, whereby voters meet in small groups around the state to debate and then vote, allow only registered Republicans to participate. New Hampshire, on the other hand, includes more moderate Republican voters, and importantly, is an open primary, which includes independent voters, not only Republicans in the voting booth. While President Trump is widely expected to comfortably take the win in Iowa, the key race will be for the second spot – likely up for grabs between DeSantis and Haley. Whoever garners second place in this important, first contest will both bolster their status as the Trump alternative and lead the way to New Hampshire.

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HALEY SURGES AT THE EXPENSE OF DESANTIS

Nikki Haley has emerged during the past few weeks as the strongest challenger to Trump’s nomination. Considered a more moderate, traditional Republican candidate, than both Trump and DeSantis, Haley has positioned herself as the alternative to the former president, in part because she attracts anti-Trump Republican voters and independents through her more inclusive and traditional rhetoric reinforced by a strong foreign policy, moderate social views and free market economic policies.

 

In New Hampshire, Haley could make the race more interesting. With a strong performance in Iowa, where she is running neck and neck with DeSantis in second place, she could bolster her chances in New Hampshire, a state more ideologically fit for her with independent voters, which represent 40% of voters in that state.  Recent polls there show her now in second place, just 7 points behind Trump, and some supporters of the former president are already expressing concerns about the result there, due to the primary mechanics and voter make-up. A Haley victory in New Hampshire, or a strong second place showing, is likely to confirm her as the Trump alternative, ahead of the South Carolina primary on February 24th, her home state where she served as governor.  While South Carolina is a conservative stronghold with steady support for Trump, a surging Haley could allow her to secure support in her home state, further complicating Trump’s perceived smooth road to the Republican nomination.

 

Iowa holds all the eggs for the DeSantis campaign. The Florida governor has spent substantial financial resources there to build a strong organization. If he finishes with a solid second, his campaign will gain new life.  If, however, he finishes third behind Haley, calls will undoubtedly increase for him to drop out of the race, as it is unclear which other state beyond Iowa, he would be able to deliver a strong performance. 

 

The recent decision from Chris Christie to leave the race is likely to further coalesce the anti-Trump Republican vote around one candidate, especially for whoever emerges in second place in Iowa. 

 

Lastly, Haley recently touted her much larger lead over President Biden in a head-to-head presidential race, presently won by Trump. For example, in a recent Wall Street Journal poll, Haley led Biden by 17 points, while Trump only squeaked out a 4-point lead.

BUT IT’S TRUMP’S NOMINATION TO LOSE

While the search for a formidable Republican alternative to Trump to emerge continues, and with Haley, presently, being the most likely to take that mantle, in reality, the race remains Trump’s to lose. Republican voters remain loyal to him, and national polls, for the first time, show him ahead of Biden in a hypothetical matchup.  The legal challenges Trump faces have, so far, not impacted his support in the primary. The next six weeks in the Republican primary process will reveal if the former president enjoys a smooth road to the nomination, or if serious challenges will emerge to derail his victory.

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