Donald Trump’s victory in the Iowa caucuses was resounding enough to make the race for the Republican nomination look essentially finished at the start. But it wasn’t resounding enough to remove the sense that it could have been otherwise, that yet again his opposition within the Republican Party made things ridiculously easy for his candidacy.
The Sign of Danger, Weakness, Disarray
Trump is essentially running an incumbent’s campaign, presenting himself as the default leader of the party, declining to debate, and rolling up endorsements. But his opposition combined, it appears, for reasonably close to 50 percent of the caucus vote. And for a normal incumbent, losing almost half the vote in an early state would be a sign of danger, weakness, disarray.
Eugene McCarthy’s 42 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote in 1968 forced Lyndon Johnson out of the race. Ted Kennedy’s 31 percent in Iowa and 37 percent in New Hampshire in 1980 betokened a long and bitter campaign for Jimmy Carter. Pat Buchanan’s 38 percent against George H.W. Bush in New Hampshire in 1992 was regarded as a political earthquake, even though Bush cruised thereafter.
Impressive Anti-Incumbent Showings
Combine the Iowa vote for Ron DeSantis with the vote for Nikki Haley, and even granting most of the support of Vivek Ramaswamy to Trump, you still have a total as impressive as those past anti-incumbent showings.
The Splintered Field
In one sense, it’s entirely understandable that there’s no unified opposition candidate. Like the divided field of eight years ago, Haley and DeSantis represent different constituencies with different visions of what the G.O.P. should become, and the viciousness with which they ended up scrapping over second place in Iowa reflects the potential depth of those divisions.
Policy Disagreements and Resemblances
If you paid attention to the wrangling on the debate stage last week, you could discern a few key areas of real policy disagreement. But just as notable was the extent to which their official positions were quite similar. DeSantis would accuse Haley of being insufficiently conservative or populist on some key issues, and instead of really defending a moderate or establishment position, she would insist that she was just as conservative as him.
Lack of Unifying Candidate
So if the two anti-Trump candidates could converge that much on the issues despite their different constituencies, even in a debate they spent hammering at each other, it doesn’t seem that hard to imagine a single candidate running a unifying not-Trump-again campaign.
Missed Opportunities and Failures
If you wanted such a unifying not-Trump-again candidacy, you should blame DeSantis, first, for botching a chance to clear the field early and for failing to adapt thereafter. He lost his chance to be an actual front-runner when Trump began to be indicted.
But then you should also blame Team Haley — not her voters so much as the big donors who sustained her and right-of-center media figures who have spent the past few months boosting her — for going all in on a candidate who clearly has less of a chance of winning a head-to-head battle with Trump than even the disappointing version of DeSantis.
Elevating Haley over DeSantis
Now exactly that implausible strategy, elevating Haley over DeSantis, will probably define the New Hampshire primary. It’s her best and only shot to become the not-Trump-again standard-bearer and to prove the skepticism wrong.
In conclusion, the lack of a unified opposition candidate paved the way for a resounding victory for Donald Trump in the Iowa caucuses. The failure to adapt and the missed opportunities from the opposition candidates accentuated the ease of Trump’s victory, raising questions about the decision-making process within the Republican Party. As the primaries progress, it remains to be seen how the opposition will strategize and whether they will unite to pose a more formidable challenge to Trump’s candidacy.