The only safe bet in politics last year was that Donald Trump would lead the Republican presidential primary.
He held on to commanding positions in Iowa (recently 52%, a 34 point lead) and South Carolina (53%, a 31 point lead). His lead in New Hampshire is more questionable, with two polls out this morning showing Trump at 46% with a 19 point lead (Suffolk), and 39% with a 7 point lead (UNH).
Most importantly, Trump’s criminal cases have only strengthened his support.
If nothing changes between now and March, when voters across the country will award the bulk of delegates who select a GOP presidential nominee, Trump is very likely to secure the nomination.
Three people could potentially stand in the way of that outcome: Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, and Trump himself.
To make this race competitive, each of these candidates has to make the kind of news that will get primary voters to look up and rethink their choice.
For Haley and DeSantis, that means delivering a very strong performance in an early state. They switch places in these rankings, but both remain far behind Trump because of the difficulty in pulling that off.
For Trump, it’s the even less likely prospect of offending his supporters or dropping out of the race.
No votes have been cast. Any of these scenarios could still happen. But none of them are even close to a safe bet.
1. Trump: Would have to offend his supporters, lose in ballot battles, or drop out
Trump’s big polling leads only tell half the story.
The former president has a sophisticated turnout operation. In Iowa, that project will be led by 1,800 “caucus captains,” loyal Trump supporters who have each been instructed to recruit 10 first-time caucus-goers to turn out on caucus night.
He continues to lead the field in small dollar donations, a key indicator of grassroots enthusiasm.
Trump has also been endorsed by over 100 sitting U.S. House members and 19 U.S. Senators, adding up to nearly half of all Republicans in congress.
All of these factors make a Trump nomination the most likely outcome. Trump has been the first place “frontrunner” in the power rankings since they began in August, and he stays there in this edition.
For Trump to lose that status on his own, he would either have to deeply offend his supporters, or drop out of the race.
The 45th president’s base has been standing by him for nine years, so “deeply offend” would have to be something that makes them doubt whether Trump respects them, or involve a personal scandal with smoking gun evidence.
As one voter told a reporter at an Iowa rally last year, “it would have to be a video of Trump punting a baby for him not to be my guy.”
Trump is fighting to stay on the primary and general election ballots in Colorado and Maine, after 14th amendment challenges in those states succeeded at the state level.
Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to take up the case. A loss there, which would make it impossible for Trump to win in 2024, turns this race on its head.
Alternatively, Trump could drop out of the primary. That is least likely of all.
While the former president is in a powerful position, keep in mind the possibility that he will underperform relative to polling. For all the effort that the campaign is putting in to engage his most enthusiastic supporters, his lead is so big that it could depress turnout.
That’s something the former president has acknowledged himself, telling supporters in Iowa last month “Don’t sit home and say, ‘I think we’ll take it easy…’ Crazy things can happen.”
2. Haley: Must win New Hampshire
Haley has made modest polling gains and has deep-pocketed donors in her corner, but she must prove that she is seriously competitive with Trump before Super Tuesday.
Her only chance to that is with a clear victory in New Hampshire.
Some of the last group never liked Trump or the “MAGA” movement; others may have supported his administration and agreed with some or even most of his policies, but want to move on in 2024.
Haley was already well-positioned to capture these voters because of her longstanding establishment Republican credentials and matching policies.
Her clashes at the debates with Ramaswamy, who exists at the other end of the establishment spectrum, cemented her relationship with this group.
The good news for Haley is that New Hampshire is home to more of these non-Trump voters than the other early states.
34% of GOP voters there said they have an unfavorable view of him in a November survey, and he has a weaker lead here than the other early states.
The Granite State also allows “undeclared” voters to participate in partisan primaries. In fact, they are the state’s largest voting bloc.
That means at least some Democratic and independent anti-Trump voters will play a role in deciding the GOP winner.
The former governor is already competitive in the state. A recent poll puts her 22 points behind Trump, at 42-20%.
She carries an endorsement from the state’s popular center-right governor, Chris Sununu, who says he wants Haley to win in a “landslide.”
Haley also has big money behind her. Her campaign has spent $26 million on ads in New Hampshire, and she picked up an endorsement from Americans for Prosperity Action, the advocacy group backed by billionaire Charles Koch.
There are still roadblocks: Chris Christie is polling at double digits in the state, likely pulling at least some vote away from Haley. And it’s not yet clear whether her Civil War remarks will hurt her polling.
In any case, a decisive win on election day will be critical. It’s the only result that will get voters in the rest of the country to reconsider her candidacy.
Even then, persuading those voters to leave Trump is a steep mountain to climb.
(Remember, the average primary voter in New Hampshire looks different to voters in other states.)
But since Haley shows promise here, she moves into second place in the rankings.
A second place finish in Iowa would also help the former governor significantly, and may change the shape of the overall race.
3. DeSantis: Must seriously outperform expectations in Iowa
Trump has a dominant lead in Iowa, where voters are more representative of the overall GOP base. If DeSantis can deliver a strong performance against the former president, that will be enough to prove he is a contender.
But since DeSantis has put most of his resources into the state, it’s now do-or-die. If he doesn’t seriously outperform his caucus polling on caucus night, the campaign is over.
DeSantis’ strategy has been to peel away the pro-Trump base and persuadable voters. As his campaign has showed, that is hard to accomplish when the former president is also in the race.
He kicked off his campaign to court the MAGA vote by railing against woke politics, but that strategy fizzled once Trump said he didn’t like that term, or know how to define it.
More recently, he has been running to the right of the former president on social issues, and telling voters that he’s the pragmatic choice.
Running as a more conservative alternative has delivered some wins for DeSantis: he picked up the endorsement of its current Governor Kim Reynolds, who has been a surrogate for him all over the state.
He also won over the evangelical political activist Bob Vander Plaats, one of the powerful forces behind Ted Cruz’s win in Iowa in 2016.
And DeSantis has a powerful ground operation helping him. Never Back Down, the super PAC supporting his campaign, says it’s knocked on more than 878,000 doors in Iowa, more than any other campaign has disclosed.
Still, the Florida governor has stalled in the high teens in Iowa polls. Most recently, he received 18% support in a Fox Business survey, putting him at a distant second behind Trump’s 52%.
That came after DeSantis completed a 99 county tour of the Hawkeye State.
He needs to surprise voters with a vote share on caucus night that is at least in the neighborhood of Trump’s to change the narrative.
Meanwhile, DeSantis is suffering from a decline in his national polling and questions about the long term financial health of his campaign.
He moves to third place in these rankings.
4. Christie & Ramaswamy: Must widen their lanes
Chris Christie and Vivek Ramaswamy are diametrically opposed candidates with the same electoral strategy: find a niche lane in the primary and own it.
Christie is in the “anti-Trump” lane. Some Republican voters have always opposed Trump and the MAGA movement. Others, including Christie himself, are former supporters who are now outraged at his rhetoric and conduct, particularly leading up to January 6.
In New Hampshire, where Christie has spent nearly all his resources, the former governor is in third place with 14%. If that holds, it would be enough to pick up some delegates on January 23.
Ramaswamy occupies the “MAGA+” lane. As the former biotech entrepreneur told Fox’s Sandra Smith last year, Ramaswamy thinks he can “take the America First agenda even further than Donald Trump did.”
Given Trump’s popularity, it is unsurprising that there is room for a candidate who wants to take his ideology further. At the same time, Trump is in this race, so the strategy has a low ceiling.
Ramaswamy has blitzed Iowa in the last few months, and polls at 7% in the latest Fox Business survey.
Both candidates need to widen their lanes to shake up the overall race. Neither has shown yet that they can do so.
For now, since Christie’s polling in New Hampshire is better on average than Ramaswamy’s polling is in Iowa, the two candidates swap places to fourth and fifth in these rankings.
Arkansas’ former governor Asa Hutchinson and businessman Ryan Binkley are still in this race, but they cannot win.
They may not appear on the ballot in all states, and with polling between 0-1%, they are highly unlikely to reach the threshold to win delegates in many others.
They will no longer appear in these rankings.
Also gone are Tim Scott and Doug Burgum, who dropped out of the race last year.
Voters will award the first delegates for the Republican nomination next Monday, when the Iowa caucuses take place.
Special coverage begins on Fox News this Saturday, with Cavuto Live in Iowa. On Sunday, stay tuned for special editions of America’s Newsroom, Fox News Sunday, The Story, Your World, and Special Report from Des Moines.
Election Day kicks off with Fox & Friends, and live coverage from our reporters on the ground throughout the day, before caucuses convene beginning at 8PM ET.
Stay tuned throughout the evening for exclusive insights from our Fox News Voter Analysis and the Fox News Decision Desk, which will call the race.
And at 10PM ET, tune in for special coverage with Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum.
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