Haley Surges, DeSantis Stumbles. That’s the Narrative. Is It That Simple?

Joshua Lott/The Washington Post
Republican presidential candidates Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis during the NewsNation debate on Dec. 6, 2023, inside the Moody Music building at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The word “narrative” often dominates descriptions of politics, and right now the narrative about the competition to become Donald Trump’s principal rival for the Republican presidential nomination appears set: Nikki Haley is on a booster rocket, and Ron DeSantis is on the brink of collapse.

Reality seems more nuanced.

There’s no question that DeSantis has been a major disappointment to his boosters and the coverage of his campaign from the start has been tough and critical, aided by the Florida governor’s sometimes rocky performance as a candidate. He’s slid in the polls since entering the race as the clear No. 2, and has been the favorite target of the former president, who has mocked him mercilessly.

DeSantis underperformed early expectations, which were probably inflated given Trump’s dominance over the Republican Party. He stumbled at times, particularly in the early months when he lacked a clear focus for his candidacy. He has been demeaned for not having a winning personality. His campaign and well-funded super PAC have been in disarray, providing fodder for endless critical stories.

Haley, in contrast, has benefited from being dismissed early as an unlikely long-distance runner. The former South Carolina governor and former United Nations ambassador has skills as a candidate that DeSantis doesn’t have. She is a charismatic and savvy communicator. She has made the most of being underappreciated, something she learned in the viper’s nest of South Carolina Republican politics. She has taken advantage of her gender, joking about her stiletto heels and the “fellas,” to stand apart from DeSantis and the other men she is running against.

On the debate stage, both are scripted, but Haley is agile and sharp-tongued while DeSantis is a bulldozer with a bullhorn. Many pundits call her the best performer in their post-debate commentary, but polls by The Washington Post, 538 and Ipsos more often than not have given that nod to DeSantis. That was the case after Wednesday’s debate in Alabama and a reversal from the results of the debate in Miami, where those Republicans who watched thought Haley did the best.

Haley has certainly profited from her debate performances. Her poll numbers have risen while DeSantis’s have stalled or declined. That has added to the narrative of trajectories going in opposite directions.

In New Hampshire, that’s true. In July, the RealClearPolitics poll average there showed DeSantis at about 18 percent, Haley at about 4 percent, with Trump leading at 44 percent. Today, Haley is at 19 percent, DeSantis at 8 percent and trailing former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who is polling at 11 percent. Trump leads at nearly 46 percent.

Iowa presents a somewhat different picture. There are few reliable recent polls of likely Iowa caucusgoers. What has been the most reputable over time is the Iowa Poll, this year the work of the Des Moines Register and NBC News. In October, this poll showed Haley and DeSantis tied at 16 percent, far behind Trump’s 43 percent. Haley had risen 10 percentage points over the previous two months, DeSantis had fallen 3 percentage points. Polls taken since then by other organizations have shown Haley surpassing DeSantis in the state.

The national narrative of a rising Haley has given her campaign energy and she is attracting good-sized crowds in Iowa now, as she has elsewhere. DeSantis is playing the state the way he does debates, grinding away methodically and trying to screen out the noise. He recently concluded a tour of all 99 counties in the state, a tactic pioneered by Iowa Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley and now a rite of passage for some GOP presidential candidates. He hopes this kind of diligence will be rewarded on caucus night, Jan. 15.

Despite drawing outsize media attention, Iowa caucuses results have proved to be poor indicators of the future in recent Republican presidential contests. The winners in 2008 (Mike Huckabee), 2012 (Rick Santorum) and 2016 (Ted Cruz) all failed to win the nomination. Trump could break that streak with a caucus victory next month as the first step toward cementing the nomination relatively quickly. Whether Iowa will be an accurate or inaccurate predictor of who is the preferred candidate to become Trump’s chief challenger is the question now.

A strong second-place finish by Haley in Iowa would cripple DeSantis, as he has gone all-in in Iowa and she is far-better positioned in New Hampshire, which holds its primary election right after Iowa. He has more assets than her in Iowa, such as the endorsement of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Trump antagonist, and the support of evangelical leaders like Bob Vander Plaats.

That kind of institutional backing has been hugely valuable to candidates in the past. But Trump also enjoys support within the evangelical community that likely will cut down on the DeSantis vote.

DeSantis also should have a superior ground operation, which has been put together under the auspices of Never Back Down, the big super PAC that formed at the start of his campaign. Never Back Down has gone through a period of infighting and disruption recently, however, and that could affect DeSantis’s ability to turn out voters for the caucuses. It also is uncertain whether the paid organizers working on his behalf will be able to mobilize enough caucusgoers to side with him.

Haley has lacked similar organizational muscle in the state, though now has the backing of American for Prosperity, a wing of the vast political machinery of billionaire conservative Charles Koch. AFP has done work in Iowa before and perhaps can help Haley make up ground in the get-out-the-vote competition over the next few weeks.

Many Iowans don’t fully tune in to presidential politics until the final weeks of a campaign, and sentiment historically has shifted – and shifted dramatically – in the final days. That could work to Haley’s advantage unless she has a hiccup along the way. A debate has been scheduled for Jan. 10, five days before the caucuses. With Trump likely to skip the debate and with questions about whether Christie and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy will meet the qualifications, this might become the first head-to-head encounter between Haley and DeSantis. In Iowa, at least, it could be closely watched.

Iowa’s caucus constituency is decidedly conservative and heavily evangelical in its makeup. Though quite conservative herself, Haley is seen in this field as a more moderate candidate. What happens there in a little more than a month could add to Haley’s luster or tarnish it, as the dogged DeSantis seeks to prove the current narrative wrong. The worry for him is that, even if he eclipses her in Iowa, his path after that narrows quickly. More than anything, however, Iowa should offer clues about whether Trump will have any serious competition on what has been a steady march toward the nomination.