From the Right



No Gary Hart Bounce for DeSantis or Haley

Michael Barone on

Forty years ago, when Walter Mondale won 49% in Iowa's Democratic caucuses, far ahead of Gary Hart's 16%, the media spotlight nonetheless immediately focused. With the help of a brilliant spot by consultant Ray Strother showing him tossing a hatchet into a tree, Hart went on to win the New Hampshire primary eight days later, 37% to 28%, and he suddenly became the favorite.

At the time, I thought Mondale's performance was a more significant story than Hart's. But only when Mondale, in debate, lampooned Hart's platform as flimsy by echoing a Wendy's "where's the beef?" ad did the former vice president turn the race around, and he cinched the nomination only in the last primaries that June.

If the Hart precedent held this year, Ron DeSantis, with 21% of the vote, and Nikki Haley, with 19%, should be the focus of media attention in the seven days until the New Hampshire primary and the several weeks until the Nevada caucuses and South Carolina primary. Each trailed Donald Trump by slightly smaller margins than Hart trailed Mondale.

But unlike Hart, neither outpolled the polls. This cycle's final iteration of Ann Selzer's Des Moines Register/NBC News poll showed Trump leading with 48% to 16% for DeSantis and 20% for Haley.

Taking into account the data showing Haley voters with low levels of commitment and the weather forecast of subzero blizzards, Selzer got the numbers and order of finish right: "If turnout is low, it seems to me that a disproportionate share of [Haley's] supporters might stay at home." In retrospect, the Associated Press and the networks who were so eager to call the contest early could have done so on the release of Selzer's poll.

Nonetheless, the prospects for DeSantis and Haley seem dismal compared to those of Hart in 1984.

One reason is that Democratic voters' ties to Mondale then were not nearly so strong or emotional as Republican voters' ties to Trump today. As Jimmy Carter's in-the-loop vice president, Mondale was universally recognized as experienced (Reagan's debate line promising not to exploit his "youth and inexperience" wouldn't have worked otherwise). His impeccable loyalty to Carter impressed moderate Democrats, and his background as a Hubert Humphrey acolyte impressed liberals.

Contemporary Republicans' responses to Trump are more visceral and emotional. Supporters praise him for keeping all his promises, though he failed to build his big and beautiful wall, and for upholding traditional values that he has famously flouted in his personal life.

They see him as a protector of traditional American values against aggressive liberal assaults, against Black Lives Matter followers who would defund police, against transgender advocates who would allow men in women's bathrooms, against Biden policies that amount to an open southern border.


The record is clear that Trump's support among Republicans skyrocketed when Democratic prosecutors brought flimsy criminal actions against him. His lead over DeSantis in national polls rose from 15 points when Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg last March 30 brought a charge of fraud (on which no one was defrauded) to 32 points three weeks later, Trump's exact margin over DeSantis in Iowa this week.

Trump has been criminally charged for contesting the 2020 election results, something not usually considered criminal, and the Mar-a-Lago prosecution for illegally retaining presidential records in Mar-a-Lago stands in contrast with Democratic prosecutors' nonindictment of Hillary Clinton for acts far more likely to have exposed American secrets to enemies.

It should not be hard to understand, even for those who find Trump's persona distasteful, his varying stands on issues mistaken, and his conduct on Jan. 6, 2021, indefensible, why many of his co-partisans believe he is being unfairly treated.

DeSantis' prospects going forward look dismal. He carried only a handful of precincts in Iowa after campaigning indefatigably in all 99 counties. Many Trump voters have positive feelings toward him, but not as positive as their feelings toward Trump. His threat to challenge Haley in her home state of South Carolina, which doesn't vote until Feb. 24, seems hollow. DeSantis' campaign has been based on steely logic and the facts of his accomplishments in Florida. But in politics, prose can be beaten by even dreadful poetry.

Haley's prospects don't look much better. She may well win in New Hampshire, the primary electorate of which includes many non-Republicans and few evangelicals, but her appeal in Iowa was limited to upscale college graduates -- the "wine track" Republicans that just barely eked out primary victories for John McCain and Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012.

But the party is now dominated by "beer track" Republicans, as pollster Patrick Ruffini argues persuasively in his 2023 book "Party of the People: Inside the Multiracial Populist Coalition Remaking the GOP." And no one back in 1984 paid much attention to the candidate who finished third in Iowa. (I had to look it up: It was George McGovern.)

In 1984, Democrats were vying for the nomination to face Ronald Reagan, who turned 73 two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, whose chief vulnerability seemed to be his unprecedentedly advanced age. Now we have a 77-year-old Republican former president apparently on the way to face the 81-year-old Democratic incumbent. Nineteen days into the new year, the vicissitudes of age seem the only serious threat to the two presidents' renominations.

Copyright 2024 U.S. News and World Report. Distibuted by Creators Syndicate Inc.




Randy Enos Rick McKee Mike Smith Marshall Ramsey Clay Bennett Steve Kelley