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The race for the Republican presidential nomination

A supporter of Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump hold up signs as he delivers remarks at a campaign event on Nov. 11, 2023 in Claremont, New Hampshire. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
A supporter of Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump hold up signs as he delivers remarks at a campaign event on Nov. 11, 2023 in Claremont, New Hampshire. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Presidential primary season is set to begin.

But with former President Donald Trump holding commanding leads in the GOP contest, is the race already over?

“It’s quite clear that Trump is trying to lock down the nomination before he gets convicted of anything,” Jess Bidgood says.

“His opponents who are really trailing him in the polls have an incentive to stick it out that they wouldn’t normally have.”

So what is the narrow path to victory for Nikki Haley – or some other Republican not named Trump?

Today, On Point: The race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Guests

Whit Ayres, president of North Star Opinion Research, a GOP polling firm based in Alexandria, VA.

Tim Miller, writer-at-large for The Bulwark. Former communications director for Jeb Bush 2016. Author of “Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell.”

Jess Bidgood, senior national political reporter for the Boston Globe.

Transcript

Part I

ANTHONY BROOKS: Ready or not, the 2024 presidential election season is about to kick off in earnest. Next Monday, the Republican presidential candidates face off in the Iowa caucuses. And then eight days later, they’ll compete in the New Hampshire primary.

Despite his deep legal jeopardy, 91 felony counts across four different cases that could land him in jail, former president Donald Trump remains the dominant force in the GOP and holds a big lead in the race to take on Joe Biden in November. So is this contest already over? Very possibly, but some Republican strategists say there’s a real, if narrow path for someone like Nikki Haley to secure the nomination, and we’re going to hear from one of them in a few minutes.

But let’s begin with just where the race stands, less than a week away from the Iowa caucuses. Joining us is Jess Bidgood. She’s senior national political reporter for the Boston Globe. And Jess, welcome back to On Point.

Great to have you.

JESS BIDGOOD: Hi, Anthony.

BROOKS: Hi there. So Iowa caucuses come first, but I want to start with you in New Hampshire because the Boston Globe has a new poll that’s just been published. It did it with Suffolk University. And again, at the risk of repeating a tired narrative in this campaign season, the former president, the poll looks pretty good for Trump among New Hampshire Republicans.

Give us some of the top lines from this poll. What stands out to you?

BIDGOOD: Absolutely. So the latest poll from the Boston Globe and Suffolk University and USA Today, we’ve found that Haley has either leveled off or her support has cooled in recent weeks. This poll finds her down 20 points to Trump, 46% points to 26% points.

And that’s from a poll that was conducted just last week from January 3rd to January 7th.

BROOKS: Two weeks before the New Hampshire primary, Trump holds a nearly 20% lead over Nikki Haley. There was also some interesting news for Democrats and President Biden.

Democrats have been wringing their hands a little bit about low poll numbers for Biden. We’re going to focus mainly on the Republicans in this hour. But while I have you, about this poll, give us that top line about President Biden.

BIDGOOD: Absolutely. So the poll found what Democrats may find to be heartening news, they found Biden with a lead over Trump in New Hampshire which is something that Democrats want to see.

There’s been a lot of hand wringing and worry about Trump’s strong poll numbers in swing states. And New Hampshire is perennially a very close swing state. And this poll finds Biden looking better than some might’ve expected.

BROOKS: So let’s return to Republican Nikki Haley.

She’s been surging of late. She’s moved into second place in New Hampshire. And when some Republicans, and we’ll hear from one later on this hour, say there is a narrow path from her, for her to secure the nomination. What’s your view on that? Is this race done? Does Nikki Haley have a chance? How do you look at this, Jess?

BIDGOOD: I think it’s possible for someone like Nikki Haley to have a chance, but I do think that we will know fairly quickly within the next couple of weeks how real that chance is.

We have seen a fairly static state of the race for months, particularly in Iowa, where you see Trump over 50% in polling averages right now, and having more than a 30-percentage point lead over DeSantis, his nearest competitor. New Hampshire, on the other hand, is a place where you see an actual surge taking place, if you look over the past months, and that’s from Haley.

It’s a reminder that a small and more politically moderate state like New Hampshire really can matter, really can be a place where a candidate breaks out, shows some movement. But the question for her is going to be what happens next? Because a poor showing in her home state of South Carolina, which is a little further down the timeline, further down the map. That would blunt her momentum.

And right now, Trump currently has, is almost 30 percentage points ahead of her.

BROOKS: In her home state in South Carolina.

BIDGOOD: Yeah, absolutely. So if Haley can show up, post a really strong showing in Iowa. Come in second and then post a very strong showing in New Hampshire. That would be a way for her to claim momentum, go into South Carolina with the wind at her back.

But if that doesn’t happen, it’s going to be really hard to see how anybody breaks away from Trump.

BROOKS: Right. I want to mention. I was really grateful to see this glow this poll in the Boston Globe and your paper done with Suffolk University. A CNN/University of New Hampshire poll also released today shows that Haley has a more narrow gap with the former president.

They show a seven-point gap. And that poll seems to suggest that she’s continuing to peak a little bit. So I just wanted to put that out there, because polls are often, obviously they’re not predictive. They’re just moments in time, and they don’t always agree. But still, we’ve seen this surge that Nikki Haley has been enjoying.

What are you seeing on the ground from folks that you talk to in New Hampshire at Nikki Haley events? I know she’s had the support of the governor, popular governor, Chris Sununu in New Hampshire. What are you hearing from voters about her?

BIDGOOD: So when I go to Nikki Haley events, I meet a lot of voters who are, they view her as a real breath of fresh air.

They see a candidate who they recognize as presidential, who they see as restrained. And they, in some cases, I speak with people who voted for Trump in 2016 and then voted for Biden in 2020, got sick of Trump, really giving Nikki Haley a close look. And excited about her candidacy. But at the same time, as scrutiny has increased of Nikki Haley, she’s had some wobbles.

She made a comment earlier this week. Or maybe it was last week. I’m starting to lose track of the days. Suggesting that New Hampshire voters correct what Iowa voters do. Florida governor Ron DeSantis is trying to draw a lot of attention to that comment in Iowa. And then late last year, when she was asked about the cause of the Civil War, she failed to mention slavery.

That drew a lot of criticism from her fellow candidates and from Democrats, too. People cautioning moderate voters against her. And so we’ll find out over the next couple of weeks whether or not those wobbles are something that bothers voters or if it’s something they’re willing to look past them.

BROOKS: Let’s hear from Nikki Haley. So you mentioned that wobble about the civil war. So for months, she did manage to avoid any major controversy on the campaign trail.

I covered a bunch of events in New Hampshire. She seemed very disciplined and adapted dealing with voters. On her feet. But that did change last month at a town hall in New Hampshire, when a voter asked about the Civil War. Here’s part of that exchange.

REPORTER: What was the cause of the United States Civil War?

HALEY: Don’t come with an easy question or anything. I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run. The freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do. What do you think the cause of the Civil War was? I’m sorry? I think it always comes down to the role of government.

And what the rights of the people are. And we, I will always stand by the fact that I think government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people.

BROOKS: So Haley took flack for that, for not even uttering the word slavery. She’s also largely avoided direct criticism of Trump, for whom she worked as UN ambassador.

She positions herself as the candidate with Trump-like policies, perhaps, but without the Trumpian chaos. So here’s what she said at a CNN town hall in Iowa last week.

HALEY: I personally think President Trump was the right president at the right time. I agree with a lot of his policies, but the reality is, rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him, and we all know that’s true. Chaos follows him, and we can’t have a country in disarray and a world on fire and go through four more years of chaos. We won’t survive it.

BROOKS: So Jess Bidgood, that’s her formulation. That’s as close as she comes, really, as taking on Trump directly, at least as I’ve heard her at campaign events.

Chaos follows him. Not so much that he creates the chaos, but he seems to be a magnet for chaos. Is that about right?

BIDGOOD: Absolutely. Absolutely. You’ve seen her sharpen her criticism of Trump ever so slightly, where before she was saying, “I think he was the right president at the right time.

I don’t think he’s the right president now.”

Now she’s starting to explain why that is. But as we’ve said, the Iowa caucuses are a week away. It’s a little bit late to be only now laying out your case against President Trump. And so we’ll see if that moves voters at all. At the same time, she and DeSantis have both said that they would pardon Trump if he was convicted of a federal crime.

So both Haley and DeSantis are walking a very fine line when it comes to Trump, and it’s one that has left the former president largely unscathed.

BROOKS: I’m wondering, Jess, because I’ve been thinking about this a lot. What’s it been like for you to cover this particular election cycle compared to past election cycles?

Because it has been overwhelmed by this narrative that Trump has this enormous lead. So as much as you try to focus in on these other candidates, it always comes back to this. ‘But Trump has a big lead. But Trump has a big lead. But Trump has a big lead.’ What’s that been like for you to follow as a political reporter?

BIDGOOD: So it’s been really interesting. Even when I spoke with voters at Haley events who are excited about her candidacy, who like her, who want to vote for her, they often didn’t think that she could win. And these are people who had showed up to see her and were sitting in the front row and planning to caucus for her.

They still didn’t really believe that her candidacy could go the distance. I think that this race with a really locked in leader, that’s unusual. When I covered the 2020 democratic primaries, there was a lot of movement. There were moments where one candidate overtook another, took attacks, things changed, things shifted, that hasn’t so much been the case this time.

Trump is running as an incumbent. And of course, another unusual thing about this primary is these trials of the front runner looming in the background.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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