Today is the day that the Supreme Court considers whether former President Donald Trump can remain on the ballot. And considering that it is also 9 months before the 2024 Presidential election, it seems like a good time to check in to see where we are.
We are in a weird place. The Republican race is down to a former President who is facing a year filled with court time (hopefully) and his former acolyte and current nemesis. The former is seemingly running away with the nomination and on February 24 is likely to beat the latter in even her home state where she was a popular governor.
So why is Nikki Haley still running if the odds seem so stacked against her? It seems like there are two possible paths for her. Either Trump stays on the ballot and is the GOP candidate through election day, in which case, she is brushed aside as a footnote, or she is waiting for Trump to end up out of the race so she can jump right in. But in each of those paths, there is nuance, and I think there may be a third path that hasn’t been given much (any?) attention.
First, let’s talk about what happens if Trump really does get pushed out. It could happen any time, theoretically from today up to the inauguration. Starting with today…
If the Supreme Court decides that Trump was an insurrectionist and if they find that the 14th Amendment is clear in the applicability to his situation, then things may actually start to turn against Trump and that may be the beginning of breaking his spell over the GOP. But that prior long sentence is full of unlikely what-ifs. The most likely outcome is that the Supreme Court majority rules that Trump did some bad things but that for some reason, the 14th Amendment doesn’t apply to Presidents or to events after the Civil War or to former reality TV stars or whatever it takes to make it so they can excuse him from accountability. Thomas will dissent saying that there was no insurrection (and he is sure of it because his wife wouldn’t do anything wrong). And the liberal justices will dissent saying “duh!”. But the rest will play ball with their Heritage Foundation friends and Supreme Court Historical Society donors to ensure nothing happens.
But, on the off chance that something does happen… and I suppose it is possible, Trump not being eligible in one state could actually start people like Mitch McConnell shifting to say that maybe Trump can’t be the nominee. Ronna McDaniel is doing what she can for Trump but even she might not be able to push back against a tide from the GOP elders. And I suppose Trump could try and fight the ruling but this is one place where there are no appeals which means no stalling for Trump on that one. And that means suddenly Haley could slide her way in to being the nominee. Trump would still be campaigning because that’s all he knows how to do (he’s a showman and the campaign is the perfect show for him). But the GOP might actually realize they need to shift to Haley. Odds? I give that maybe 5%. But 5% is more than 0% so I’ll be anxiously watching the news alerts today.
Assuming that nothing big happens today, that means Trump remains the GOP candidate for now but he’s got a gauntlet of a 2024. While any minor goof from Joe Biden is considered proof that he’s senile and unfit, Trump’s base gives him the benefit of every doubt. I’ve seen firsthand how my grandparents and now my parents have a tendency to conflate people – I’ve been both myself and my father to my grandmother – so when Trump confused Nancy Pelosi and Nikki Haley, that wasn’t so surprising. On the other hand, generally the people being conflated are at least similar in some regard so the only thing these two women had in common was that they were, well, women. And we know that Trump has a problem with women questioning his authority. So the confusion between Haley and Pelosi was really entertaining and revealing. And no matter how much his supporters and media friends tried to clean that up after the fact, Trump came out looking bad. That’s not enough for his base to give up on him, obviously, but two more big goofs like that and then he will start to lose support from at least the softer supporters. And if he starts looking vulnerable, the remaining primaries may start voting for Haley. People don’t like to vote for losers, they prefer winners; that will help swing the primaries towards Haley. But Super Tuesday is coming up on March 5 so that gives Trump only 4 weeks to do things that show his cognitive decline.
Which means we have to assume Trump wins the nomination on Super Tuesday. And it’s possible that Haley drops out when she fails to win South Carolina. My guess is that she will overperform the polls that show her losing significantly but she will still lose by 5 to 9 points and that will be enough to push her out. Which means Haley is hanging on primarily in the hopes that Trump gets pushed out later, potentially by court cases. However, as I’ve written before, I just don’t think the court cases are happening soon enough especially when factoring in his legal team’s delay tactics and inevitable appeals.
By the way, keep in mind that even if Trump is somehow forced out of running, and it is after he has won enough delegates to be the presumptive nominee going into the convention, it is up to the GOP to choose his replacement. Obviously there will be a lot of pressure for that replacement to be the one who came in “second” in the race, which would be Haley. But it’s also quite possible that the GOP would choose somebody else who they think could keep the MAGA crowd voting?
And therefore, odds are still looking good that Trump goes all the way to election day as the GOP nominee. I’m thinking 85% odds of that happening.
And my grave concern is the prediction of the polls showing a tight race between Biden and Trump. It is stunning that there could be a tight race between these two but that is where this country is. I think Biden is a great President who has done great things but his messaging team fails to get that word out. Somehow they keep losing the messaging battles to Trump’s nonsense. And in elections, it is perception that decides the results, not truth and reality. Fox News and their ilk have done a really good job of helping Trump, Jim Jordan, and the rest of the GOP disinformation army spread nonsense about Biden. That has legitimately hurt Biden’s public impression. Obviously, they would deploy the same attack against any Democrat in the White House but the fact that Biden doesn’t/can’t fight back effectively is a real problem. So the polls that show the tight race are a sobering reminder that the election is going to be close and that people voting for Biden because they like Biden are a smaller number of people than those voting for Trump because they like Trump. And both candidates have high unfavorable ratings – the graph shows what the coordinated disinformation attack against Biden has accomplished.
With all of the above pointing to Haley not winning the GOP nomination, what would that mean for her? If she gets brushed off as a footnote – the winner of the losers in the GOP campaign, is that what she wants to be her legacy? No, it is not. And when you consider that the race at that point is then between two really old white guys that are generally disliked by voters, it’s why there is so much attention to third party candidates.
And this is where Haley’s third possible path comes in. What if she is that third party candidate? What if she and Joe Manchin are the No Labels ticket? No Labels has said they want the top of the ticket to be a Republican so that would fit. And rather than trying to get the country excited about Larry Hogan, Haley would be able to just carry her momentum with her into the new label. If the GOP remains Trump’s party, then there is no space for her anyway, so she wouldn’t have anything to lose. And even if she has hopes of future GOP candidacy, a bid in the No Labels party could really bolster her national reputation. The longer she stays in the conversation, the better her future political career.
But the scarier thing to me is that she could actually win. Assuming No Labels (or whatever third party would host her candidacy) could get her on enough states’ ballots, a three way race between her and the two old white guys? She could win that. I see it as a race between a competent incumbent President, a former reality TV star who conned his way into the Presidency before and didn’t actually do President things while he was in office, and a former governor who seems to say whatever it takes to get elected. But the optics and the perception will be two old white guys in blue suits with a red or a blue tie up against somebody who looks very different and might be “the change the country needs”.
I’ve been saying for a year now (most recently here) that the Democrats need a backup plan. They need to have somebody that can jump in to be the candidate at the last minute. I’ve written that it’s in case Biden has a health emergency or in case Biden mentally stumbles such that he damages his chances. And I’ve written it’s in case Haley won the GOP nomination, which as I described above, is unlikely but could still happen. But now I think the Democrats have yet another reason why they need to have a backup plan. I think the likelihood that there is a credible 3rd party threat to Biden is increasing the more Haley’s chances of being the GOP nominee are decreasing.
I desperately want a Democrat to win the Presidential election. And it is imperative that winner of the Presidential election not be Donald Trump. So the Democrats need to figure out how to ensure that they don’t get Donald Trump re-elected but also need to make sure they don’t inadvertently get Nikki Haley elected. If Joe Biden is the way to do all of that, great. But if he is not, be ready to change candidates to somebody who will be the way do all of that.