The rivalry between former Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) to become the Republican Party‘s best alternative to former President Donald Trump has been crystallized in a new Iowa poll.
But despite strategists and pundits contending candidates dropping out will help a Haley or DeSantis better compete with Trump, the former president remains the 2024 Republican primary‘s front-runner.
Trump has an almost 30-percentage-point lead over his Republican opponents in Iowa less than three months before the opening nominating contest, according to the second NBC News / Des Moines Register / Mediacom poll by J. Ann Selzer. Haley, a former South Carolina governor, and DeSantis notched 16% support a piece among likely caucusgoers, compared to Trump’s 43%. The poll, published Monday, underscores Trump’s dominance after he increased his share of the vote from 42% in August, when DeSantis had 19% and Haley 6% amid his metastasizing legal problems.
Haley’s momentum, a 10-point bump in two months, appears to be propelled by “a combination of her performance and outside events,” per University of Iowa political science professor Timothy Hagle.
“She came across strong in the debates and has been working hard in Iowa and elsewhere,” Hagle told the Washington Examiner. “Although she’s been a governor, her expertise more recently was as ambassador to the U.N. That gives her a bit more authority to speak on foreign policy issues than some others.”
“Domestic issues, particularly ‘kitchen table’ issues, are usually much more important than foreign policy issues in nomination races,” he said. “For several reasons, however, the Israel–Hamas war is the exception. Haley’s expertise on the issue gives her more of an ability to speak about it, and she has certainly taken advantage of it.”
To that end, Trump, Haley, and DeSantis have upped their criticism of each other’s foreign policies, especially Haley and DeSantis during campaign events, in media interviews, and through ads. While Haley and Trump have been more critical of one another, the latter using the nickname “Birdbrain” since the second debate in September, the former president has been more preoccupied with DeSantis.
“That may be changing if she’s seen as having overtaken DeSantis,” Hagle said. “In Iowa, we’ve also seen Haley and DeSantis trading criticisms over China. For Haley, the difference is how she spoke about China while governor versus later as ambassador and beyond. Some of this is likely to be brought up and sorted out during the next debate.”
Even though DeSantis and Haley were tied in the Selzer poll, the DeSantis campaign and his outside allies are adamant the primary continues to be a two-man race between himself and Trump. The Trump campaign, for example, announced a new six-figure Iowa ad buy last weekend that seeks to undermine DeSantis from the right, saying he is not conservative enough.
“Donald Trump was stumping in ‘Sioux Falls,’ Iowa this weekend, where he and his team are growing increasingly more concerned about Ron DeSantis,” DeSantis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said after Trump’s weekend rally in Sioux City, Iowa. “Ron DeSantis has the former president on defense in Iowa because he is out-working him, out-organizing him, and has a message to revive this nation that continues to resonate with the Iowa electorate.”
Hagle did note that DeSantis only lost “a couple of points” in Selzer’s October poll in contrast to its August counterpart. A majority of likely caucusgoers additionally told Selzer they could change their mind, with DeSantis being the second-choice for 27% of respondents and 17% saying the same about Haley. But 61% of Trump supporters consider their minds to be made up, and they tended toward being more enthusiastic about him.
“He’s still working hard in Iowa and has actually been focusing on it more, but so has Haley, and even Trump has stepped up his efforts here,” Hagle said of DeSantis. “As we get closer to the Iowa caucuses, voters will start finalizing their choices. Given that DeSantis hasn’t improved over the last several months, it may be that some are taking a second look at some other candidates to see if they might have a better shot at beating Trump.”
The Democratic National Committee additionally scrutinized Haley on Monday with a new video coinciding with her filing paperwork to be on the ballot in her home state of South Carolina.
“The entire GOP is united around an extreme, unpopular MAGA agenda that would rip away women’s freedom to make their own health care decisions,” DNC spokeswoman Sarafina Chitika said. “Regardless of who stumbles out of this Republican primary, voters across the country are prepared to reject MAGA extremism the way they did in 2018, 2020, and 2022.”
Iowa has become crucial to candidates other than Trump who are hoping to keep campaigning before the caucuses next January. DeSantis and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), who received 7% in the Selzer poll, have redirected staff and resources to the first-in-the-nation state before next week’s debate in Miami.