It's 2016 all over again for the GOP

Today brings news that Chris Christie insists he’s not going to end his campaign for president anytime soon. With Iowa looking like a big win for Trump, and Nikki Haley still about 20 percentage points behind in New Hampshire, Christie’s decision ensures that the non-Trump vote will be divided among too many candidates to represent any real threat to Trump winning the nomination for a third straight cycle.

Christie, who has adamantly insisted that the purpose of his campaign is to ensure Trump is not the Republican nominee, is making decisions that virtually ensure that Trump will be the Republican nominee. When Trump has enemies like this, who needs friends?

As I write this post, it looks like we are going to see a short, undramatic, and not all that competitive Republican primary. I don’t want to say Ron DeSantis looks doomed, but right now he’s in the upper teens and lower 20 percent range in Iowa, while Trump is consistently polling around 50 percent. DeSantis has done all the things a candidate is supposed to do if he wants to win Iowa: He’s visited all 99 counties, he’s been endorsed by Governor Kim Reynolds, he and his affiliated groups spent about $20 million in advertising in the state, and he’s shown up and had good debates while Trump skipped them. DeSantis’s Super PAC, Never Back Down, told the New York Times this morning that it has “knocked on doors more than 801,000 times — including repeated visits — in Iowa.”

None of that seems to have done a darn bit of good. DeSantis’s support in Iowa appears to be right around where it was in July.

I’m not saying DeSantis should drop out after Iowa, but if he can’t get a win there . . . where, exactly, is he going to get a win? Keep in mind that DeSantis remains well behind in the state where he is currently the governor.

Then there’s New Hampshire, where Nikki Haley is inching her way up toward a somewhat competitive second place. Right now, in the RealClearPolitics average, Trump is at 46.3 percent and Haley is at 24.8 percent — two of the last three polls have had Trump’s lead in the mid-teens. (That’s what passes for close in this primary.)

Whether Chris Christie wants to admit it or not, he’s running a one-state campaign in New Hampshire and hoping some miraculous result suddenly catapults him to competitiveness in every subsequent contest. This strategy almost never works.

Christie is a nonfactor in Iowa, consistently polling at 3 to 4 percent. Christie is anywhere from 1 to 6 percent in South Carolina (where we haven’t seen many polls lately). Christie is anywhere from 2 to 4 percent nationally.

The only thing separating Christie from Asa Hutchinson territory is that in New Hampshire, Christie is anywhere from 6 to 14 percent, usually in the 10 to 12 percent range. That’s not much, but that’s not nothing. And considering Christie’s campaign themes, we can surmise that those 10 to 12 percent of likely Republican primary voters are strongly opposed to nominating Trump again.

If you could add a big chunk of those 10 to 12 percent of current Christie voters to Haley’s current 24 percent (maybe as high as 30 percent, if that Saint Anselm survey is right), then you’ve got Haley anywhere from 34 to 42 percent, which looks a lot more competitive with Trump’s support in the mid-40s.

Note that in the last few days before a big presidential primary, we usually see movement in the poll numbers, as voters abandon candidates who are in distant third, fourth, or fifth places and cluster around the top two candidates. You can envision a scenario where Haley, driven by the votes of independents — in a year with no competitive Democratic primary, with Joe Biden not even appearing on the state’s ballot — wins the New Hampshire Republican primary.

In that scenario, the GOP primary would effectively become a two-person race, and anyone who didn’t want Trump to be the nominee would have little choice but to line up behind Haley. And who knows: Maybe a Trump defeat in the early primaries would be like watching Xerxes bleed, a shock that indicates the powerful leader isn’t so unbeatable after all. But while it is conceivable, it is not necessarily likely. I think most Republicans have known that they have a choice in this primary, and roughly half of Republicans have deliberately chosen Trump.

But . . . for that scenario to happen, Christie needs to leave the race, and ideally for Haley, he would endorse the former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

But Christie says everyone should stop speculating or dreaming about that scenario — he’s staying in the race through New Hampshire:

From the Washington Post:

Chris Christie arrived at an American Legion Post one night this month armed with zingers against his better-performing Republican presidential rivals. He criticized Nikki Haley’s “word salad,” mocked Ron DeSantis’s “TV tough guy talk” and claimed to be the “only one here trying to beat Trump.”

“I’m not going anywhere, so let’s be really clear about that,” he told reporters after the town hall, when asked about calls to drop out.

“There is no leader of the anti-Trump wing of the party in this race other than me,” Christie said, accusing Haley and DeSantis of tiptoeing around criticisms of Trump while positioning themselves for the 2028 nomination fight. He noted, for example, that neither of them immediately condemned Trump, as Christie did, for stating that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.”

“That tells you what they are willing to do is curry favor with folks who are currently supporting not them but Donald Trump,” Christie said. “How is that a strategy for winning this election?”

I mean, yes, Chris Christie is not going anywhere, but that’s probably not the way he meant it.

So, there we have it. Much like 2016, roughly half the party wants to nominate Trump, and the other half cannot unite behind an alternative. It doesn’t matter if the options are Trump against Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio, or if the options are Trump against Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, and Chris Christie. The result is the same. A lot of people say they’ll do whatever it takes to defeat Trump, but when push comes to shove, they’ll cling to wildly unrealistic dreams of winning the nomination rather than taking one for the team.

Let’s take a moment to contrast how the Democratic Party responded to a somewhat analogous situation in February 2020, when Bernie Sanders won the first three contests (okay, it took a while to determine Buttigieg narrowly won Iowa), and the Democratic establishment realized they were on track to bet the 2020 presidential race on a then-78-year-old who kept trying to explain to Florida’s Cuban Americans that the Communist Revolution was underrated.

The Democratic Party establishment concluded Joe Biden was their safest bet and started taking out Democratic presidential campaigns left and right like it was the last five minutes of The Godfather. (Who knows, maybe some candidates really did wake up with horses’ heads in their beds.) On February 29, 2020, Tom Steyer dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary and effectively endorsed Biden by saying he was willing to work to make Biden the next president. On March 1, Pete Buttigieg dropped out and endorsed Biden. On March 2, Amy Klobuchar dropped out and endorsed Biden, and Beto O’Rourke, who had withdrawn from the race in November, endorsed Biden. On March 4, Mike Bloomberg dropped out and endorsed Biden. On March 5, Elizabeth Warren dropped out; it took her another six weeks to endorse Biden.

When winning a presidential race is on the line, Democrats get serious, evaluate which candidate has the best shot of winning, and strong-arm everybody else into putting their egos aside.

The Republican Party has nothing akin to that, for all the talk of the wealthy GOP donors and the allegedly powerful “Establishment” and all the caterwauling about “Conservative Inc.” There’s no one with the stature, influence, or power to call up Christie and say, “You’ve got no shot, and your best-case scenario is a distant third-place finish in New Hampshire. Withdraw, endorse Haley, and there might be a nice cabinet position in a Haley administration for you.”

By remaining in the race, Christie is hurting the other non-Trump candidates, and making it more likely that Trump would win the nomination:

There is no precedent for candidates as hated by their parties as Christie ever winning a nomination. The latest Economist/YouGov poll puts his favorability among Republicans at 22 percent favorable and 62 percent unfavorable. He’s more popular among Democrats. Even in New Hampshire, Christie is radioactive among Republicans.

I won’t rehash everything about what Christie did in the 2016 primary. Just note that he body-slammed Marco Rubio so hard in that New Hampshire debate that Rubio’s reputation never fully recovered, and Christie’s rhetorical skills never really aimed in Trump’s direction in the same way that cycle. And then Christie awkwardly stood during one of the oddest endorsement events ever. You can’t quite say that Trump wouldn’t have won the GOP nomination without Christie, but let’s just say that Christie threw Trump a lifeline and a useful endorsement when Trump needed it most. Apparently, Christie believed he had a good chance of being Trump’s attorney general, but that never came to pass because of what Christie called “a political hit job” from Jared Kushner. (Go figure, you put a guy’s father in jail, he’s gonna remember and hold a grudge.)

There is an excellent chance that two months from now, the GOP presidential primary will be effectively over, and Donald Trump will be well on his way to being the 2024 Republican presidential nominee. And Trump will have Chris Christie to thank for it.

Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher (aka HP Pundit) is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a free thinking independent bringing you news and commentary with a dose of much needed common sense.

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