Republican White House candidate Nikki Haley is making a final push to overtake Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in Iowa before the Hawkeye State’s caucus kicks off the party’s presidential nominating cycle in January.
DeSantis has long been considered the party’s top challenger to former President Trump, who has held on to a significant lead over the rest of the field — but momentum from standout debate performances has appeared to boost Haley, raising questions about which challenger will secure the second-place slot in Iowa.
“Iowa is the first and best shot Govs. Haley and DeSantis will have to emerge as the clear alternative to President Trump,” said Michael Zona, a Republican strategist and former staffer for Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley (R).
“One of the two will have to either win Iowa outright or earn a clear and convincing second place to take on the mantle of Trump alternative in the primary,” Zona added.
Haley’s campaign is touting recent polling showing her on the rise in Iowa. She also announced plans for $10 million in TV, radio and digital advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire starting in December.
In a sign of her apparent surge in these early voting states, an Emerson College Polling/WHDH survey released Wednesday found Haley surpassing DeSantis for second place in New Hampshire.
“The Iowa Caucuses are in just over two months. The New Hampshire primary is just 8 days after that. And Nikki Haley is the only candidate who is positioned to do well in both,” Haley’s campaign manager, Betsy Ankney, said in a memo obtained by The Hill.
DeSantis’s campaign, on the other hand, has said it’s “confident the Iowa voters will see who will best represent them and their values.”
Trump, with his quasi-incumbent status and significant polling lead, has loomed large over his fellow competitors’ bids.
Iowa-based Republican strategist Jimmy Centers predicted Trump will win “by a large margin” in Iowa, and that the Jan. 15 GOP caucus will be “far more like a coronation” for him.
“The real race, in my opinion, is for second place. And that is focused on Gov. DeSantis and Ambassador Haley,” Centers said.
Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and a former United Nations ambassador, has seen a “tremendous surge in support since late summer,” Centers said, which coincided with her debate performances.
At the third debate in Miami earlier this month, she drew direct attacks from her fellow competitors, which seemed to underscore her status as a perceived threat in the 2024 field.
A 538/Washington Post/Ipsos poll of likely Republican primary and caucus voters who tuned into the third debate said Haley performed the best, while DeSantis came in second. But both Haley and DeSantis reported raising more than $1 million in the 24 hours after the third GOP debate.
In Iowa, Haley jumped 10 points between August and November, according to a Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa poll released in late October, while DeSantis ticked down 3 points.
The poll showed Haley and DeSantis at a tie in the state, with 16 percent each among likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers. Trump had 43 percent, compared to 42 percent in August.
“Nikki is now second in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and second in South Carolina,” Haley campaign spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas told The Hill.
Haley’s campaign manager said in the memo that “EVEN IF DeSantis were to do well in Iowa, which is a big ‘if’ given his current decline, he is in such a weak position in New Hampshire and South Carolina that it doesn’t matter. He has no end game.”
But DeSantis just scored a coveted endorsement from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), who had previously said she would stay neutral in the 2024 primary. He’s also going for what’s colloquially referred to as the “full Grassley” — visiting all 99 Iowa counties.
Centers posed the possibility that Reynolds’s endorsement of DeSantis could slow Haley’s momentum in the state — but he also pointed to other Iowa events in the coming weeks that could help candidates get face time with voters and secure additional endorsements.
DeSantis’s campaign has expressed confidence in his ability to win in Iowa and other early states.
“This has always been and remains a two-person race in Iowa between Trump and DeSantis,” a Team DeSantis memo reads.
Though strategists have largely downplayed the importance of GOP presidential debates held without the front-runner participating, the upcoming fourth debate could potentially be a moment for candidates to snag a final boost of momentum just weeks ahead of Iowa voting.
With higher polling and donor requirements for candidates to qualify for the Tuscaloosa, Ala., stage Dec. 6, the Republican National Committee will announce next month which of the GOP contenders make the cut.
Former Vice President Mike Pence exited the race after the second debate, and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) ended his bid just after appearing at the third.
J. Ann Selzer, the Iowa-based pollster whose firm conducted the new Iowa polling, noted in an email to The Hill that neither Haley nor DeSantis appeared to benefit more than the other from Pence and Scott exiting the race.
“As for the importance of Iowa, it is the first chance for a candidate to secure second place — not the last chance,” said Selzer, who said she’s seen “too many unexpected things happen” in the Hawkeye State’s caucuses to make a call on what happens in January.
Timothy Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa, said a loss in Iowa doesn’t mean a loss in the other early states, and that a state like South Carolina — Haley’s home state — could be a “backstop” for her if she doesn’t fare well in the Hawkeye State.
But Centers said he thinks Iowa is “their first and last chance” to secure second place and stay competitive as the race heats up with subsequent primaries and caucuses.
“I think there are two tickets out of Iowa, and it’s the first and last chance for anyone not named Trump — because Trump, in my opinion, has already punched his ticket out of Iowa,” Centers said.
Dave Peterson, a political science professor at Iowa State University, said he has trouble seeing either Haley or DeSantis pulling significantly from voters already siding with Trump.
Though the former president is embattled by a variety of ongoing legal fights, including multiple criminal indictments, his supporters are largely sticking by him. DeSantis is drawing more from voters skeptical of Trump, Peterson said, while Haley is drawing more from voters directly opposing Trump.
Iowa could “answer a lot of questions” as it kicks off 2024 voting, Peterson said, as the “first place” to provide signals of which candidates are viable and competitive when ballots are cast.
“For candidates who underperform, it’s a reality check. It’s a time where candidates can make a graceful exit. … For the candidates who overperform, they become the story,” he said.
In assessing how meaningful a second-place finish in Iowa could be for any given candidate, strategists and experts pointed to the question of how big of a gap there is between second and third once the results are in.
If Haley and DeSantis finish just a point or two apart, Hagle said, it could be easier for the third-place finisher to argue they’re still in the race — whereas a bigger difference could be a bigger signal to voters of the second-place finisher’s staying power.
Zona said that if neither Haley nor DeSantis can beat the other “by large margins” in the early states, neither is likely to have a strong incentive to drop out.
“At this point, the 2024 Republican primary is looking a lot like 2016. A few strong candidates are splitting the non-Trump primary vote, making a path to victory for any of them difficult to see,” Zona said.
“What I’ll be watching on caucus night is: How much is there between second and third place in the Iowa caucus?” Centers said. “Will either Gov. DeSantis or Ambassador Haley win by a large enough margin to be able to look at Republican primary voters in New Hampshire and beyond with a straight face and say, ‘It is time to consolidate this field to a two-person race?’”