This Year’s Iowa Caucuses are Ice-Cold

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astead herndon

We’re now just four days from the Iowa caucuses, where polling averages show Donald Trump ahead by nearly 35 points, and it seems like an important moment to remember something. At this time last year, many national Republicans did not expect to be in this situation. They thought they had a plan, and not just a plan, a person to make it happen.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was supposed to be the perfect Trump alternative, someone who could win the voters tired of Trump’s antics and also bring along the movement Trump activated. The idea was to learn from the mistakes of 2016 and coalesce around him quickly. The problem is, none of it worked.

And there was one event that made clear the challenges for DeSantis, the Lincoln Dinner, a high-profile event in Iowa where DeSantis spoke last summer, along with most of the other GOP candidates, including Trump. My colleague Caitlin O’Keeffe was there, and asked people in attendance what they thought about DeSantis’ candidacy.

speaker 1

My feeling is DeSantis’ personality, with Iowa’s type of politicking, is maybe a little bit of a challenge. Now, not that he doesn’t have a good one, but he’s just not that — I don’t know, maybe he seems a little bit more reserved. Maybe that’s the right way.

astead herndon

And the answers then help explain where we are now.

speaker 2

I personally just don’t think he should run against Trump right now. I think, if anything, they should join forces.

astead herndon

Some Republicans like DeSantis and held out hope for a comeback after his campaign recalibrated.

speaker 2

He’s making adjustments, like any businessperson would do. If they’ve got some dead wood, you get rid of it. I think there are those in the news media trying to find things to tear down or shoot his candidacy, but you’ve gotta look at how many people have come into the race for Republican president, and he’ll sprint out ahead. I’d say, by the 1st of the year, he’ll be dead even with Trump in Iowa.

astead herndon

But the biggest problem several voters articulated was one DeSantis can’t do anything about.

speaker 4

I think my general thoughts on him are that he feels like he’s the cover band, trying to replace Trump. You know, we don’t need the cover band yet. We still have Trump. So I feel that he’s not needed yet. I think he’d be great in Florida, but I think Trump’s really who we need to run the nation right now.

astead herndon

He’s simply not Donald Trump.

speaker 5

I guess he, like, has proven himself in Florida, but I don’t think he’d be a good president. He’s just not gaining the traction. Honestly, I don’t think anyone can go against Trump. He’s just too popular.

astead herndon

And he doesn’t inspire the same devotion.

speaker 6

I’m very excited to be here. I’ve been a Trump supporter the moment that he walked down that golden escalator. We know that he is an amazing man, and this is where I stand with all of his indictments and that sort of thing. I am going to vote for the man with the most impeachments and the most indictments.

We know, when he steps into that White House, he’s gonna clean house and make America much better, and that’s why he has my fullest support. I love him. I think he’s amazing. He’s the most amazing president of my lifetime, and he still fights for us, and that’s a huge reason why he is the perfect man, at this perfect time, who God has totally put into place for such a time as this.

astead herndon

Today, did anti-Trump Republicans simply rally around the wrong person? And with the presidential primary set to start next week, have they run out of time to fix it? From “The New York Times,” I’m Astead Herndon. This is “The Run-Up.”

[INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC PLAYING] Hey! How are you?

nicholas nehamas

Hey, Astead! Good to see you, man.

astead herndon

My colleague Nick Nehamas is covering the DeSantis campaign. I talked to him from his current home away from home, an Iowa hotel. But he’s usually based in Florida, where he’s followed DeSantis’ career for years. I asked him what it feels like to be on the campaign trail with DeSantis right now.

nicholas nehamas

Yeah, so, right now, DeSantis is taking the volume approach. He is fighting against a former president who is overwhelmingly popular with Republican voters, but who is not campaigning a whole heck of a lot, is not out there on the trail. And so the DeSantis strategy is we are gonna hit every small town in Iowa, you know, hit every county, a lot of them more than once, do what they call the “full Grassley,” and, you know, shake every hand —

astead herndon

Explain that for folks. A “full Grassley,” what’s that in reference to?

nicholas nehamas

The “full Grassley” is a reference to the senator, Chuck Grassley, who, every year, makes a stop in each of Iowa’s 99 counties, and the last three candidates who have won Iowa have done the full Grassley. So, DeSantis is doing what a Republican, or what a candidate normally needs to do to win Iowa.

astead herndon

Right. That’s what it normally takes, but, obviously, this year is not normal. So what’s the mood like on the campaign, as he continues with this full-Grassley, traditional Iowa campaign style approach, but it’s not really working?

nicholas nehamas

So, it feels a little bit like a death march. There is that aspect, like, you know, we’re running between stops to talk to crowds of 50 to 100 people. At the same time, there’s some energy in the room. But when you compare it to a Trump event, I mean, DeSantis, over two days, maybe drew 1,500 people in 10 stops, in small towns, on a recent tour. Trump, the next day, got 2,000 people in a high school gym for one event.

So, the dynamic of the race, it really feels like, in these rooms, you have this guy who’s trying, and trying, and trying, and trying, and just not really getting anywhere. The polls aren’t moving. So, after the fifth event of the day, I think it feels, for everyone, a little bit like banging your head against a wall.

The bleakness has set in the last week or so, where, even people who come to these events and support them, you ask them, well, do you really think he can beat Trump, and they kind of say, I hope so. That’s different from a couple months ago, where people were really hoping that the polls would be moving by now, and they’re just not, and if anyone has had some momentum, it’s Nikki Haley.

astead herndon

Right. It’s flown elsewhere. You know, at one point, DeSantis appeared to be a really exceptional case among the candidates, particularly at the beginning of this race. He was the candidate who represented, you know, Trumpism without the baggage, in the minds of many Republican voters.

And going back to that time just after the midterms, part of the reason DeSantis rose was that he appeared to many as someone who could kind of build together a Republican coalition. Like, wasn’t that the thinking kind of in that post-midterms, pre-presidential-announcement time?

nicholas nehamas

That’s absolutely right. He did something historic in Florida, which has been a swing state. He won by 20 points. He really seemed invincible, whereas a lot of the Trump-backed candidates lost in 2022. He turned the state red, and he used that to pass a bunch of really conservative laws.

So he, absolutely, at that point, seemed like the great hope of the Republican Party, young, compelling, fearless, willing to stick to his guns, military career. I mean, he had all the ingredients of someone who seemed like he was about to take off in a presidential race.

astead herndon

Exactly. I mean, you can see the resume on paper, and I think he had kind of become America’s conservative governor. At least, that’s how he was pitching himself. I’m curious, like, on that night in Florida, when he did win by so much more than expected, was it certain that he would run? Like, from your perspective, as someone who was following him, was that inevitable?

nicholas nehamas

It feels like it was inevitable. His operation was in place before the re-election to run for president. This very much has always felt like the plan. Certainly, when he rose to prominence during COVID, his national ambitions were clear.

astead herndon

So he knew he was going to do it, and he had the kind of paper resume to do it, and he had, to your point, pre-planned organization and infrastructure to put in place once he announced his presidential campaign. So I guess I’ll ask you a kind of, like, 20,000-foot question over the last year. Why don’t you think it’s worked out as planned?

nicholas nehamas

I think there’s a part in which he looked good on paper and was a paper tiger. In Florida, the Democratic Party has been in big trouble for years. He was able to win re-election, icing out the mainstream media, and only doing TV events, or TV ads, and, you know, televised kind of rallies. When you’re running for president, you have to talk to the media. You have to interact one on one with voters. And those were not his skill set.

Now, take him out of it. He’s running against Donald Trump. Anyone is going to struggle to beat Donald Trump, I think, especially once the indictments happened. But his strategy of running to the right against Trump has seemed flawed from the beginning, also.

astead herndon

Do you have a particular moment that sticks out to you that you think really kind of encapsulates the gap between the initial hype around Ron DeSantis and what we saw as the reality?

nicholas nehamas

I mean, I think you don’t have to look any further than his Twitter launch, the way he chose to launch his campaign in a Twitter Spaces with Elon Musk.

archived recording 1

Sorry about that. We’ve got so many people here.

archived recording (elon musk)

So, let’s see.

archived recording 2

So it’s gonna keep crashing, huh?

nicholas nehamas

And it was so buggy, it took half an hour even to get started. And then, when he gets on, he’s talking about all these really obscure topics, like university accreditation —

archived recording (ron desantis)

Some of the problems with the university and the ideological capture, that didn’t happen by accident. You can trace back all the way to the accreditation cartels. Well, guess what?

nicholas nehamas

— that are of interest to, like, right-wing people who are very online. And what he could have done is, I was just talking to a strategist about this, he could have had a rally on the baseball field of his middle-class hometown, outside Tampa, where he grew up, you know, the state that he had successfully led through the pandemic, and just done a traditional campaign launch.

Instead, because of his bizarre choice to do it on this internet platform, like, the first month of stories about him were negative and mentioned this disastrous launch. It seemed, at the time, like a huge miscalculation, and looking back on it now, I think it set the tone for this campaign. He was not Mr. Invincible. He was Mr. Hapless, all of a sudden. And the Trump campaign took advantage of that.

astead herndon

Yeah, I remember being shocked at the Twitter Spaces announcement. It seemed like someone who was making choices that were less, to your point, traditional, but even more so than that, running a very specific type of campaign. I guess my question is, like, why? You know, like, who was making that decision to, say, start with Elon Musk, rather than doing that kind of traditional method?

nicholas nehamas

I think it’s really simple. The DeSantis campaign had run his very successful re-election for governor, and they were determined to use that same strategy that we talked about, icing out the mainstream media, being very cautious and curated, not interacting with voters. That was the strategy.

And part of that is that DeSantis trusts very few people. His closest advisors are his wife, and a group of friends from his time as an undergraduate at Yale, and, you know, a couple political operatives and strategists, but it’s a very small circle. They did not want to bring in anyone new, and I think their inexperience at this level really showed in a big way in the first few months of the campaign.

And they also thought that they could run a national campaign, where they were competing in all of the early states, and even beyond, in places like California. And they’re running against Donald Trump. It would seem, on the face of it, that, if you’re gonna run against an extremely popular former president, you need to run an insurgent-style campaign. And they were running like they were the favorite.

And so their staff was too big. They had to do two rounds of layoffs, which generated another whole media narrative, and they had to refocus the campaign completely on one state, in Iowa, and all this played out in real time. It was just like a drip, drip, drip of, oh, more layoffs here, more layoffs here, we’re moving the staff to Iowa. They never controlled the message, the way they did in Florida.

astead herndon

Right. So, this is when the all-in-on-Iowa strategy starts to be implemented. What does that reset effort look like?

nicholas nehamas

So, he launched in May. What they called “the reset” started in July. All of a sudden, he’s talking to the press every day. He’d gaggle with us every day. He’s taking questions from voters at every event, 10, 15 questions. He’s shaking every hand, snapping every selfie —

astead herndon

That’s already a shift from what we were seeing before.

nicholas nehamas

That’s a big shift. And not only that, he’s on shows like “Morning Joe” and “Meet the Press,” you know, whereas I, who have known him for years, was almost rubbing my eyes, when I turned on the TV in disbelief. So there was a big, big shift. They refocused on Iowa, and, you know, it seems like, started running the campaign that, maybe, they should have been running from the very beginning.

astead herndon

Mm-hm. When you saw that shift, did the candidate seem comfortable with it? I guess I’m wondering, like, was it just the change in tone, or were we seeing a different candidate?

nicholas nehamas

It felt like we were seeing a candidate trying to do something that he had not been prepared for very well.

astead herndon

Interesting. Why do you say that?

nicholas nehamas

Well, in Florida, you don’t have to do the gladhanding and the baby kissing. In Iowa and New Hampshire, you do, and there were just these moments that jumped out. You know, and I will say, they look worse on Twitter, when they’re just cut out and presented out of context. But there is a famous moment, we were at a county fair somewhere in Iowa —

archived recording (ron desantis)

Oh, what is that? An Icee?

nicholas nehamas

— and he sees a young girl drinking an Icee.

astead herndon

(LAUGHING) Yeah, I remember this.

archived recording (ron desantis)

Yeah? That’s probably a lot of sugar, huh? Good to see you.

nicholas nehamas

And he says, oh, boy, you know, there’s a lot of sugar in that. And, you know, I will say, at the time, it was kind of funny. Like, he’s a dad with young kids. But it wasn’t really the most charming thing to say to a little kid. And there’s just a lot of examples of that. He’s not that comfortable. I mean, and, look, let’s be real, like, being a politician in these retail settings is a bizarre thing.

astead herndon

It’s super awkward.

nicholas nehamas

Yeah, you’re meeting dozens of people in a row. You don’t know who they are, you know? But politicians have become good at it, and DeSantis, the thing that jumped out to me, jumps out to me still, is, when someone introduces themselves, or says where they’re from, or what they do, his response is always, “OK.”

archived recording (ron desantis)

What’s your name?

archived recording (tim anderson)

I’m Tim Anderson.

archived recording (ron desantis)

OK.

archived recording (tim anderson)

How are you?

archived recording (ron desantis)

I’m wonderful. It’s great to be up in New Hampshire.

nicholas nehamas

Like, this very excited “OK,” instead of, you know, like, oh, I’m Ron, or, nice to meet you, or —

astead herndon

Hi, my name is Astead! OK!

nicholas nehamas

Yeah, exactly. That’s what it’ll be like. And I know that people have tried to talk to him, and, you know, he is who he is, and he’s won election as the governor of the nation’s third-largest state twice. But there are these awkward moments, and I can keep giving you them, you know?

astead herndon

Give me another one. I kind of want to hear another one too.

nicholas nehamas

The one that really jumps out to me, and this was in the same transition period, we were at a coffee shop, big, packed coffee shop, and this young woman, she’s 15 years old, she raises her hand to ask him a question.

archived recording 3

So, if you have a mental-health disorder and you can’t work in the military, what all does that include, because a lot —

nicholas nehamas

And she starts saying that she wants to serve in the military.

archived recording 3

I’m only 15, so this may not matter as much. I can’t legally vote. But I struggle with major depressive disorder —

archived recording (ron desantis)

Well, it’s never stopped the other party from letting you vote, so I’ll just, you know, put that out. Go ahead.

archived recording 3

And I suffer with anxiety, and —

nicholas nehamas

But she has depression, and she’s wondering if that will disqualify her from serving. And before she can really get that question out, he makes a joke about her age, and says, oh, the Democrats would let you vote.

archived recording 3

What if I want to work in the military, but I cannot, because of these mental-health disorders that I have?

nicholas nehamas

And then she starts talking about her depression.

archived recording (ron desantis)

I think, at the end of the day, when you’re dealing with the military, what it’s all about is they have certain things that they need, and —

nicholas nehamas

To me, as an observer, it really seemed like a moment for a skilled candidate to say, that is so brave of you to open up. I’m so glad you want to serve your country.

archived recording (ron desantis)

But there are gonna be some criteria for both physical and mental that are done, and it’s all about just whatever the best for the unit is, and then try to do that. So I’ll take a look over —

nicholas nehamas

And, instead, he gave this answer, a very quick answer, about unit cohesion and how important it is. And I talked to this young woman after the event, and she was really taken aback by the whole experience, and she said she had asked the question because she was inspired by his discussion of how he had served in the military. So, just the whole campaign feels like it’s littered with these missed opportunities to connect with voters as human beings.

astead herndon

You never want to be in a position where a person is coming in to an event liking you and leaving liking you less, you know? Like, that does not seem to be how one wins enough votes to become the nominee.

nicholas nehamas

Exactly, and that’s what the poll numbers have shown, in a way. I mean, the Trump campaign phrases it very directly, and the Haley campaign does as well, the more people get to know Ron DeSantis, the less they like him. Now, that might be an unfair characterization. There’s a whole number of things that have been outside of his control during the campaign. But from what I can tell, it doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot of inspiration going on at these events.

astead herndon

Yeah. Yeah. Well, we’ve talked about the people who haven’t warmed to him. Who are the DeSantis voters at this stage, and how would you kind of describe the profile of voters that you’re meeting who still is kind of excited about it?

nicholas nehamas

I would say they tend to have a four-year college degree. They often have a young family, so they’re really concerned about what happens in schools and whether their children will be forced to take a vaccine or not. And DeSantis has spread a lot of misinformation about the safety of vaccines. So that message really appeals to people.

astead herndon

That’s interesting, though. Both the degree piece and the family piece as being the kind of through lines between the voters, that really jumps out to me. Do you attribute that mostly to vaccines?

nicholas nehamas

And to schools. I mean, his limitations on discussing race, and sexuality, and gender in schools, his banning of gender care for transgender children, all that has really jumped out to people.

The other through line is definitely evangelical. And by that, I don’t just mean people who describe themselves as evangelical, but people who go to church once or more than once a week. They have responded, specifically, to abortion as an issue. They’ve responded to DeSantis getting endorsements from influential evangelical leaders from the governor of the state, Kim Reynolds.

astead herndon

Yeah, I was gonna say, this reminds me of the people we’ve met who like him in Iowa, and specifically that kind of churchgoing crowd, yeah.

nicholas nehamas

Yeah. And, so, if you switch to New Hampshire, there are not as many of those voters. New Hampshire is much more moderate. And so there was a while in the campaign where he would talk about abortion a lot in Iowa and not mention it in New Hampshire. And now, in New Hampshire, he’s fallen to fourth and fifth. They, for all intents and purposes, have given up on New Hampshire in a big way.

astead herndon

Mm. So, at this point, what is their path ahead?

nicholas nehamas

So, it kind of reminds me, for several months, it has reminded me of the meme, and I’m not gonna capture it exactly right, I think, but it’s, like, step one, win Iowa. Step two, I don’t know. Step three, beat Donald Trump.

astead herndon

(LAUGHING) Yeah. Yeah.

nicholas nehamas

So, the argument has been, they do well in Iowa, and that creates some momentum in New Hampshire, where they finish well enough that they can keep going, and then, you know, win South Carolina, and keep going. It’s just never really happened before. Like, the person who wins Iowa has not won the nomination since George W.

astead herndon

Yeah.

nicholas nehamas

So it doesn’t seem like there’s a great path for him to win the nomination, even if he does really well in Iowa.

astead herndon

At a certain point, it seems like people kind of tacitly moved DeSantis to the background of this campaign, because he’s been running so far behind Trump, and to your point, it’s only been moving in the wrong direction since he started. When you talk to the campaign now, have they accepted the reality of that tough position?

nicholas nehamas

I think everyone in the orbit acknowledges that he’s not gonna win Iowa, but they’re still hoping for a close second. They’re setting expectations where a close second is a win and gives him some momentum going into New Hampshire, but they also acknowledge that he’s not gonna win New Hampshire.

Whereas, you know, a few months ago, you would have people, and this was not really gallows humor, like, this was people saying, oh, we’ve got Trump right where we want him, like, 30 points up, you know, really overconfident, we’re about to move, wait for the next poll, we’re gonna surge, and it just never happened. And so I think there’s an understanding that it’s not gonna happen at this point.

astead herndon

I guess I’m wondering, do you think it’s too early to be on Ron DeSantis dropout watch?

nicholas nehamas

No, I don’t. I think a third-place finish is really bad for him. Iowa is a state that should be much friendlier to a hard-line conservative, like Ron DeSantis, than someone who projects a more moderate image, like Nikki Haley. I think that would be a real indictment of his strategy and a spectacular implosion of tens of millions of dollars spent on this race.

astead herndon

Yeah. Yeah. You know, I think about the differences between the 2024 race and the 2016 race, and in 2016, there was such a clear problem for Republicans who did not coalesce around non-Trump options before it was too late. You had so many candidates get in the race initially, and you had so many people stay in long enough, where it really helped Donald Trump assume the nomination.

2024 seems like a little bit of a different story. You did have some level of coordination, specifically around Ron DeSantis, and donor money really flowing to him really early. It seemed like less of a story about, like, lack of coordination, or coalescing, or infrastructure, and more, like, that it just happened around a guy who Republican voters just like less than people assumed.

nicholas nehamas

I think that’s true. And the other interesting thing that I should point out, I think, that really kind of illustrates the problem facing the Republican Party, or the anti-Trump wing of the Republican Party, in this cycle, is that you had the two anti-Trump governors of the early states, Kim Reynolds in Iowa and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, endorse different candidates.

What would this race look like if they had gotten on the phone and said, hey, we need to unite this part of the party behind one candidate? But that didn’t happen.

astead herndon

Yeah. One of the things that seems really clear, at least when we talk to Haley versus DeSantis folks, is that DeSantis people aren’t all that anti-Trump. Some might have specific issues or whatever, but it’s not like they’re like rising up to block him from the nomination, whereas the Haley folks are seeming to be working from a different kind of value set. Like, do you think the Ron DeSantis operation would rather Donald Trump be the nominee than Nikki Haley?

nicholas nehamas

That is absolutely the sense I get, you know, because, like you said, a lot of DeSantis supporters, I mean, this is a line I’ve heard dozens, and dozens, dozens of times. They love the Trump administration. They really like a lot of what he did. They are tired of the crassness, the insults, the vulgar language. They feel like his time has passed, and they’re ready for a new, very conservative Republican.

But they don’t think Trump is a threat to democracy. They tend to think the election was stolen, in fact, which we know it was not. And you’re right, there’s a very different profile between Haley supporters and DeSantis supporters, and they have very different feelings, oftentimes, when it comes to Donald Trump.

astead herndon

Well, good luck, Nick, and I really appreciate your time. Thank you so much for talking to us.

nicholas nehamas

Thank you for having me.

astead herndon

More after the break.

[INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC PLAYING]

When the primaries started, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was seen as the biggest threat to Donald Trump, and that assumption had a big impact on the early months of the race for DeSantis, who was able to gobble up key donors and endorsements, and for other candidates, like former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.

She announced her run in February, three months before DeSantis, but languished in the polls, and was largely ignored by her opponents. In recent months, though, as DeSantis has struggled and anti-Trump Republicans have sought different options, Haley’s star rose, even eclipsing DeSantis in New Hampshire, where a recent poll from CNN puts her only 7 points behind Donald Trump.

In fact, besides Trump himself, Haley is the only candidate who seems to have gained support in the last year, particularly among the donors and Republican insiders, who once preferred DeSantis.

So, after talking with Nick about the grim reality for DeSantis, I wanted to talk with someone who could help me understand how Haley took advantage of that. And I also had another question. How seriously should we take her rise?

Hello! I don’t think — Oh, hey! Here you are! How are you?

jazmine ulloa

Hey, hey.

astead herndon

I called Jazmine Ulloa.

Where are you?

jazmine ulloa

Des Moines.

astead herndon

Oh, you’re just warming it up. We’ll be there — We’ll be in Iowa tomorrow.

As Jazmine has covered Haley’s campaign, she has watched her crowds and appeal grow, and seeing her give her stump speech so many times, she has the applause lines memorized.

jazmine ulloa

Yeah, I can anticipate the applause in the audience at this point.

[INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC PLAYING]

astead herndon

Haley’s poll numbers were basically stuck at 5 percent until the end of the summer, and she saw some more momentum into the fall and going into the new year. I guess I want to ask a kind of broader question. What do you think were the biggest causes of that upward momentum? What was the catalyst?

jazmine ulloa

Yeah, I would definitely say it was her strong debate performances, the fact that she pitched herself as this, you know, experienced candidate on foreign policy, and the fact that she has been stalwart on her stances on providing aid to Ukraine, on defending Israel, and, definitely, her pleas for consensus on abortion.

Whenever she takes questions from voters, there’s bound to be an abortion question, and sometimes it’s even a female voter who has heard her stance before, but wants her to articulate it again to the broader audience. And, you know, as governor of South Carolina, she signed some of the harshest anti-abortion laws in the country at the time.

But now, I think, what really resonates with Republican voters is her pleas to Republicans that they not be so judgmental on the issue, and her pleas to Democrats that they not stir so much fear on the issue. And so that’s what I hear from voters a lot, is that she’s trying to thread the needle. But, again, it’s also an issue that she’s being attacked on from both the left and the right.

astead herndon

It seems indicative of her candidacy, a kind of creation of consensus seems to be what she’s trying to do. So, if we would think about who the average Haley supporter that you meet on the trail is, what do they look like? What do they sound like? What’s their most important issue?

jazmine ulloa

It runs the gamut. Just to give you an example of how varied it is, right, I was at a brewery here in Iowa, and during the Q&A, you had an older male voter ask her, what are you going to do about the January 6, quote, unquote, “political prisoners.”

astead herndon

(LAUGHING) Strong question.

jazmine ulloa

And then, at the same time, in the same audience, there was another veteran who asked, did Mr. Trump trample or defend the Constitution, and is he running for president or emperor?

astead herndon

I love all these questions, because, like, you know, they’re not subtle, you know? Like, they definitely have a point of view.

jazmine ulloa

Yes. Yes. And, so, you know, as usual, she weighed her words very carefully. And to that second man, she responded, she said that the courts would decide whether President Trump did something wrong, and that he had a right to defend himself against the legal charges he faces, but she also expressed disappointment that, when Trump had the chance to stop the Capitol attack, he did not.

And then, of course, she said, you know, my goal is not to worry about being president forever. That is why I’m going to win. And that drew loud applause from the audience. But when I went up to that second voter after the answer, he seemed a little bit more disappointed. He —

astead herndon

That she hadn’t condemned Trump more clearly?

jazmine ulloa

That she hadn’t condemned Trump more clearly, and he said, I wish he had declared him unfit to be president. I wish she had the political courage that someone like, say, Liz Cheney has, or Chris Christie has.

astead herndon

Yeah, I mean, I think this whole scenario is part of the reason we wanted to talk with you, is because what Haley seems to be doing, that kind of consensus building, walking a thin line, lightly condemning Trump, but not fully condemning Trump, that seems to be a really difficult path, particularly in this version of the Republican Party. How does the Haley campaign see its path to winning?

jazmine ulloa

The way she talks about it, the way her allies talk about this race, the way they see it is they need to come in top three in Iowa, people will drop out, she does really well in New Hampshire, more people will drop out, and then this race will become a one-on-one matchup in her home state of South Carolina, and that’s where “she takes it,” right, quote, unquote.

astead herndon

(LAUGHING) Now, you know, I don’t want to put you in the position of defending this, but there’s a lot of assumptions in that setup, right?

jazmine ulloa

Exactly. Yes. Yes. And I was speaking with Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire about this, and he said, once it gets down, it’s already a one-on-one race, really, between her and Trump. There’s nobody else in this race that has the kind of traction that she has. If it’s going to be anybody who can beat him, it’s going to be her.

And he swore that, like, once voters really start to realize that there’s going to be this whole psychological change in voters’ minds and perceptions of the race, that that will broaden what’s possible for her.

astead herndon

Let’s slow that down. You’re saying that the Haley campaign’s kind of hope here is that she finishes in top three in Iowa, she performs well in New Hampshire, and then, because the other candidates would drop out, it could set up a one-on-one matchup with her and Trump going into her home state of South Carolina, and they think, in that one-on-one matchup, that’s when she can kind of overtake the former President?

jazmine ulloa

Yeah. Yeah. And, I mean, up until this point, you know, she’s got the money to go far. She’s got the infrastructure. It’s just a matter of — I’m saying it’s just a matter of, and it’s, like, a really big matter of, how do you say it, like, broadening the imagination —

astead herndon

Yeah, it’s a matter of math.

jazmine ulloa

(LAUGHING) Yeah, it’s a matter of math. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

astead herndon

As you mentioned, Haley was experiencing some momentum going in to the new year, but, you know, she’s also had some bad headlines in the last couple of weeks. Can you take us through some of the stumbles that she’s experienced in this kind of home stretch, because that’s been just as much in the news as the good poll numbers.

jazmine ulloa

Right. So, she had a couple of stumbles. She was asked about the causes of the Civil War, and she failed to mention slavery. She flubbed the name of the Iowa Hawkeyes’ star basketball player, Caitlin Clark. And then she —

astead herndon

(LAUGHING) I don’t know which one of those is worse, to be honest. I don’t know if I should say that, as a local Black person, but those are both really bad!

jazmine ulloa

And then, again, she potentially provoked the anti-Trump faction again when she said that she would pardon Mr. Trump, should he be convicted, when she was asked at a recent town hall.

But with voters, at least, I don’t think they really have registered, because I’ve talked to so many voters since then, and for all of them, like, it really didn’t really seem to register. Like, they either forgave her for making the mistake or brushed it aside as saying, like, anybody can make a mistake like that on the trail.

astead herndon

Mm-hm. Yeah, I guess, if you are a person backing Nikki Haley in this primary right now, you don’t really have many other options of places to go. I can see how your best choice in that scenario is rationalization.

jazmine ulloa

Well, yeah, and you’ve already rationalized so much to get to this point, right? This is a candidate who has said she would pardon Trump if he were to be convicted, who would support him as a Republican nominee — You know, she raised her hand in that first debate to say that she would support him even if he were convicted of a —

astead herndon

Even if he was convicted, yeah.

jazmine ulloa

— of a crime. She hasn’t categorically ruled out not running as his vice president, which I think that is actually the bigger sticking point with independents is — You know, I talked to one man who recently told me, I’m just really concerned that she hasn’t flat-out said, I’m not gonna serve in that man’s presidency, right?

And I think a lot of independents would feel very betrayed, if we vote for her, and then, later, she drops out, and here she is on the ticket with Trump.

astead herndon

Mm-hm. I think those are both really interesting points, because, in that kind of line walking that you’re describing, you know, she has tried to still make herself palatable to the Trump crowd, but I remember being at CPAC last year, where Haley had just recently announced her candidacy, and it was so memorable, how thoroughly she was booed, right, because, on one hand, you see this candidate who is not saying certain things, in hopes of winning these people’s votes, and on the other hand, I see all these Trump people saying, we’re never gonna vote for this person.

So I guess I’m wondering, how real is the Haley campaign kind of dream to win over those Trump voters in the first place? Do you see real Trump supporters at her events, or is it more Democrats and independents?

jazmine ulloa

I do see people who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, who really liked the President’s policies, and some who believe that he just wasn’t given a fair shake by the media, or whatever, and even some people who would like to see him president again, but they feel like he’s a victim of the system. I’ve heard that from some people in her crowd.

But either they’re tired of the chaos, they’re tired of the tweets. I’ve heard this from several people, they don’t want Democrats attacking him again. Like, it just stirs too much controversy in their mind. But those diehard Trump supporters, the ones that you’re talking about, no, I don’t see many of those, if any. It is a more independent —

astead herndon

I get what you’re saying.

jazmine ulloa

It is more of an independent, centrist crowd. Again, it’s just such a different Republican Party. Like, if you go back, when she first entered politics in 2004, she beat a 30-year incumbent, and she was Nikki who, right? Nobody knew her. And when she won for governor, again, she went up against some really tough political heavyweights, and won, and became the first woman of color to lead a Southern state.

But at the same time, she was rising, throughout this whole time, on the momentum of the Tea Party, right, that anti-establishment, anti-immigrant movement that was happening in the country at the time.

And, so, when she won her governor’s race, she had the endorsement of Mitt Romney, representing that really establishment part of the party, but she also had Sarah Palin, which was, like, a Tea-Party star, and kind of gave her that last-minute boost. A lot of that energy is now behind Trump. That Tea-Party energy, that anti-establishment energy is now behind Trump.

astead herndon

I love this point. Yeah, I mean, it’s really interesting, because I think the way you lay it out even helps me sharpen the way I was thinking about it, because you’re right, like, she wasn’t always branded as the kind of establishment figure that kind of Trump and movement are doing right now. She came up kind of using the coalition, both-sides-of-the-coin, Mitt-Romney-plus-Sarah-Palin thing that she’s still trying to do now.

It’s just that the Palin slice of the party, the Tea-Party slice of the party has morphed into a kind of America-first wing that is completely behind Donald Trump at this point. And even if they’re not behind Donald Trump, their second option is probably Ron DeSantis over her, right?

jazmine ulloa

Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right, and I think that’s going to be her problem going forward.

astead herndon

You can see a universe in which, if Donald Trump didn’t happen, right, that Nikki Haley was positioning herself as someone who can take on the mantle for that grassroots and kind of play in the establishment lane. But it does feel as if, you know, he has sucked up so much of that energy.

I guess I want to ask one last question. Like, do you have any indication about whether Nikki Haley, at this point, does find Donald Trump unacceptable? Like, she’s had so much anti-Trump energy flow to her, but this does not seem like an anti-Trump person. Am I wrong?

jazmine ulloa

Oh, that’s a hard question.

astead herndon

I guess we don’t know, right?

jazmine ulloa

Yeah, I mean, it goes back to the what are her true convictions, right? Like, even as DeSantis went after Trump more aggressively, like, she hasn’t changed course. You know, she’s got her stock response to Trump, that, you know, he did some good things, he tackled the border, he —

astead herndon

Yeah, it’s not clear.

jazmine ulloa

It’s not clear. It’s not clear. And —

astead herndon

Which I guess is, like, the Nikki Haley story.

jazmine ulloa

It’s not clear. She doesn’t talk to reporters. She takes very few questions.

astead herndon

Well, let’s end with a question about Iowa, because I’ll be joining you there tomorrow and through this weekend. What was your Iowa purchase? What was your Iowa weather purchase?

jazmine ulloa

As soon as I landed, I went to REI and bought some gloves, because I did not have strong enough gloves.

astead herndon

That’s helpful for me. I’ll buy some gloves tonight. Thanks, Jazmine. I really appreciate your time.

jazmine ulloa

Thank you.

astead herndon

We’ll see you early next week, as we’re back on Monday, caucus day, with “The Run-Up’s” to Iowa.

That’s the “Run-Up” for Thursday, January 11. Now the rundown.

archived recording (chris christie)

And it’s clear to me tonight that there isn’t a path for me to win the nomination, which is why I’m suspending my campaign, tonight, for president of the United States.

astead herndon

Wednesday evening, hours before a debate he had not qualified for, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced he was suspending his presidential campaign. On his way out, instead of endorsing anyone, he fired a parting shot at his challengers and the frontrunner, Donald Trump.

archived recording (chris christie)

Anyone who is unwilling to say that he is unfit to be president of the United States is unfit themselves to be president of the United States.

astead herndon

The other Republican candidates for president have been traveling all over Iowa this week, with campaign stops across the state ahead of next week’s caucuses. Meanwhile —

archived recording 4

I’d like to introduce President Trump.

archived recording (donald trump)

Well, I want to thank you all —

astead herndon

Trump spent part of his week not in Iowa, but in Washington, DC, where an appeals court is hearing arguments on one of his pending legal cases.

archived recording (donald trump)

It’s a very sad thing that’s happened with this whole situation. When they talk about a threat to democracy, that’s your real threat to democracy, and I feel that, as a president, you have to have immunity —

astead herndon

A panel of three appeals court judges expressed skepticism that the former President is immune from prosecution for plotting to overthrow the 2020 election. The case is expected to end up before the Supreme Court.

We’re four days away from the Iowa caucuses, and 299 days away from the general election. We’ll see you next week.

[INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC PLAYING]

“The Run-Up” is reported by me, Astead Herndon. It’s produced by Elisa Gutierrez, Caitlin O’Keefe, and Anna Foley. It’s edited by Rachel Dry, Lisa Tobin, and Frannie Carr Toth, with original music by Dan Powell, Marion Lozano, Pat McCusker, Sophia Lanman, Diane Wong, and Elisheba Ittoop. It was mixed by Sophia Lanman, and fact checked by Caitlin Love.

Special Thanks to Paula Szuchman, Sam Dolnick, Larissa Anderson, Maddy Masiello, David Halbfinger, Mahima Chablani, Renan Borelli, and Jeffrey Miranda.

Do you have questions about the 2024 election, like, what’s never made sense to you about polling, or the electoral college, and why don’t third-party candidates get more traction in our system? We want to hear from you. Email us at TheRunUp@NYTimes.com, or better yet, record your question using the voice memo app on your phone and send us the file. That email, again, is TheRunUp@NYTimes.com.

And, finally, if you like the show and want to get updates on the latest episodes, follow our feed wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.

[INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC PLAYING]

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