Politics is dangerous.
People have very strong opinions that usually end up manifesting themselves as moral judgments. “X is good and Y is evil.” Because of this, I’ve been hesitant to comment on the GOP Primary and the upcoming 2024 Presidential election. But politics is just too important, especially for crypto this cycle, not to discuss.
In my perhaps idealistic opinion, there’s gotta be a way to handicap the race from an objective, non-emotional perspective without getting into the emotional, moral stuff that’s driven our country to record levels of political polarization.
This will be an ongoing series where I try to analyze the GOP Primary race and eventual Presidential race thru an objective lens: “here’s what I think is gonna happen.” In doing so, I will try to never say: “here’s what I want to happen.” So, with that important disclaimer, let’s dive into some politico.
Earlier this week, Republicans held their 2nd official debate. 8 candidates qualified, but only 7 attended. Trump skipped the debate for the second time in a row.
Trump is, of course, the frontrunner by a wide margin and can afford to skip these media hooplas, a luxury the rest of the field does not enjoy.
In recent months, Trump has pulled away from the rest of the field — moving from a coin flip’s odds of winning to a commanding 74% chance on the betting site PredictIt. Some have speculated this is due to a “rally around the base” effect stemming from Trump’s ongoing state and federal indictments. But either way, the rest of the field has their work cut out for them.
Out of the 7 candidates that attended the debate, only 3 really matter: Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley. That’s not to say that someone else could matter in the future; it’s just to say these are the only 3 people who matter today.
In debate #1, Vivek Ramaswamy was the clear winner. Yes, he was polarizing, but that was the whole idea. As the resident new guy, he needed to introduce himself to the national audience. And judging from Google search data, he did exactly that.
However, ever since Debate #1, “the big 3” has more or less congealed into “the big meh.” Vivek, DeSantis and Haley are all roughly polling the same and trading around the same on PredictIt. Heading into Debate #2, each candidate was hoping to differentiate themselves from the pack.
In my view, all three failed to do so. Nikki Haley — a big winner of Debate #1 — was less of a force this time around and spent a lot of time attacking other candidates. Vivek was significantly quieter in Debate #2 as well. He seemed to have read research following the first debate that said people viewed him as arrogant and a know-it-all. Ron DeSantis was notably better this time around, which isn’t saying much, but he still scored a few memorable lines and performed much better than his disastrous showing in Debate #1.
Overall, Debate #2 was a wash. I don’t expect any of the top 3 candidates to receive a bump. In fact, this debate likely only strengthened Trump’s hand. Trump wants to fracture the non-MAGA vote, and there’s no better way to do so than to have a crowded field. I would not be surprised to see candidates on the outside looking in — Burgum, Pence, Christie, etc — to begin dropping out. As the January 2024 Iowa caucuses draw closer, pressure will start to build within the Republican party to settle on single “Trump challenger.”
Google search data in the days leading up to and following Debate #2
Despite not being as explosive or memorable as Debate #1, there are some things we can take away. First, DeSantis listened to his consultants. He smiled (somewhat) more authentically; he spoke more assertively; and he leaned on his respected record as Governor of Florida. Whether this will arrest his plummeting poll numbers is an open question, but he finally seems to be taking the medicine. DeSantis’ winning lane is to channel his “Trump without the crazy” branding and remind voters that he polls the most favorably head to head vs Joe Biden.
Nikki Haley continues to run as the responsible conservative of yesteryear. She comes across as likable and experienced. And her policy platforms would be a return to the pre-Trump days of the GOP. For many people, this is super desirable. However, this is a non-starter for the MAGA base. So, while she might have a shot at beating out DeSantis and Vivek for anti-Trump GOP votes, she does not seem likely to pull in any of Trump’s still sizable base.
Vivek is the most unique candidate in the field. He has no political experience. He’s not a true conservative. And he’s also the youngest by a mile. In Debate #1, he leveraged all this to make a splash — he was the epicenter of attention, for better or worse. In Debate #2, he was quieter. Part of this, I think, was by design. He literally said out loud: “I will listen” — seemingly a response to the people you said he came off arrogant and disrespectful in the first debate. He also declared allegiance to Ronald Reagan’s famous Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican. And spoke directly to Americans’ concerns, saying he was aware people view him as a “bit of a know-it-all all.”
Vivek’s strategy to date has been to present himself as the America First heir apparent. If DeSantis is Trump without the crazy, then Vivek is Trump but younger, faster and smarter. Vivek has refused to attack Trump and take pains to praise him. His strategy seems to be to appeal directly to the MAGA crowd. He’s betting that he can peel away votes from Trump and also assemble a diverse coalition of young and minority voters, constituents he uniquely speaks to, and the rest of the GOP struggles to connect with.
The only question that really matters is: which of these candidates can beat Trump? To be more specific, which of these candidates can peel off Trump supporters?
DeSantis has (so far) fumbled the bag here. At first, he was Trump without the crazy. MAGA liked him and perhaps even saw him as heir to the throne. But instead of focusing on appealing to party moderates, DeSantis has swung to the extreme in an ill-conceived attempt to “out MAGA Trump.” He has attacked big business and waged culture wars that have alienated moderate Republicans and not really moved the needle within the MAGA crowd. His only chance to beat Trump going forward is to rapidly consolidate the moderate wing of the GOP and then hope that he can peel off a few MAGA voters. In my opinion, this is extremely unlikely.
Nikki Haley has planned her cards well so far. She’s leaned on her experience, which is excellent. And she comes across as an empathetic conservative, something this country yearns for. But her issue is that her policy platforms are totally out of step with the post-Trump GOP mainstream. For example, she supports continued aid to Ukraine. MAGA Republicans want to cut all aid to Ukraine. It’s one of their strongest policy positions. Nikki Haley could easily win over the moderate wing of the GOP that wants the party to return to its pre-Trump roots. But this is a fantasy. MAGA is here to stay. And at this point, Nikki Haley is persona non grata within MAGA, which makes the math vs Trump almost impossible.
Vivek came into the race a complete unknown. He has focused on social media and is now quite well-known amongst young and high-information voters (people who are perpetually online). However, he lacks name recognition in rural America and with older voters. His lane to winning seems to be the following: build a base of young, diverse, high-information voters; then appeal to non-traditional Republican cohorts: immigrants, people of color, and the lower-middle class; all along the way, outright praise Trump and refuse to criticize him.
This strategy is interesting because it’s so unique from the rest of the field. However, it hinges on Vivek’s ability to win over some of Trump’s base. So far, there’s been no indication from the polling data he’s been able to do so. That said, he seems to have the best chance to do so. Trump’s voters love Trump. Nothing — and I mean nothing — is going to change that. So, attacking Trump and hoping to (finally) convince his voters that he’s a bad guy just seems like a losing strategy. Vivek understands this and is trying to catch MAGA voters with honey rather than vinegar. TBD on whether this will work.
The next GOP debate is set for sometime in November. In the coming weeks, we should expect the field to narrow and pressure to build on the big three candidates to rise above the fray and become the guy or the gal to take on Trump.