Why Haley Won’t Break Through

Why Haley Won’t Break Through

WAUKEE, Iowa — Nikki Haley’s Tuesday rally outside Des Moines was a fittingly pedestrian event in this desultory excuse of a presidential primary.

Haley delivered a 15-minute stump speech with the precise same words and intonations of her every public appearance, took no questions from voters before posing for pictures with them and then conducted a Fox News interview beneath the overhang of an Irish pub while ignoring her travelling press corps, who stood without cover in the wind and snow.

It was the cautious performance of a frontrunner, not that of a candidate lagging by double-digits with less than a week before the Iowa caucuses. Which is to say it was typical of her events and altogether reflective of an oddly bifurcated campaign in which Donald Trump is the dominant frontrunner but his two leading opponents are competing against one another as though they’re still in the before times.

Perhaps that’s because with the company they keep it can feel like the same pre-Trump party from which Haley and Ron DeSantis first emerged.

The most memorable feature of Haley’s otherwise forgettable gathering was not what she said but the nature of her audience — and how it explains why Trump is poised to win overwhelmingly in Iowa on Monday but will face the same general election challenges in 2024 he did in 2020.

I struggled to find a single attendee in the suburban strip mall tavern who was not a college graduate. Similarly, the day before, I couldn’t find a Haley admirer who showed up to see her in Sioux City who was not also a college graduate.

“She’s reasonable,” Jim Maine, a Waukee resident, said of Haley. “Originally I was favoring DeSantis, but he just hasn’t connected.”

Maine had no use for Trump, calling the former president “a jilted junior high boyfriend” who “makes up names for people.”

A retiree, Maine was an accountant for an insurance company — “pretty standard around here,” as he put it of Dallas County. Now, none of his neighbors “who voted for [Trump] the last couple of times are going to vote for him again.”

If it all sounds like a windup to a sort of cul-de-sac Pauline Kaelism — I don’t know anyone in our homeowners association voting for Trump! — well, that’s the defining story of today’s Republican Party. The GOP’s traditional, professional class base is eager to move on from somebody they find between embarrassing and appalling, but the party’s beating heart is now Trump-loving working class voters.

The old Republican construct of establishment-vs-conservative — one that DeSantis, in particular, is operating under as he runs to the right — is about as relevant to the Trump era as the Blackberry. The most consequential fault line in this race and in GOP politics broadly is based on class.

That’s how Democratic primaries have been covered, and rightfully so, for the last 40 years. The candidate able to emerge as the beer-track hopeful almost always emerges as the nominee while the wine-track hopeful is limited to pinot-sipping precincts (hat tip to Ron Brownstein for the terminology).

This race is scarcely different.

Haley and DeSantis are largely competing for the votes of Iowa’s upscale voters — DeSantis was in Waukee last week — while Trump is on course to roll with the overwhelming support of blue-collar Iowans.

It is, of course, a delicate topic anywhere, but even more so with voters who pride themselves on being Iowa Nice.

One couple at Haley’s event in Waukee was happy to discuss their support for her but asked I not use their names for what they had to say about the former president.

“All our friends who voted for Trump have moved onto other candidates,” said the husband, a retired banker from nearby Polk County, the largest jurisdiction in the state. “But they’re all Polk County people. You get out to rural Iowa, and you start talking to them …”

His voice trailed off as he talked in disbelief about how Trump’s felony counts only reinforce his support with such voters.

In separate polls conducted by the Des Moines Register and Fox Business last month, Trump had the support of 61 percent of Iowans without college degrees while his two main opponents were only in the teens or below.

And the reason why Haley has such high hopes in New Hampshire, particularly if Chris Christie drops out, is because the state is an outlier in the modern party: less religious, more educated and wealthier. She and Christie are sitting on the votes of a heavily upscale demographic, which if combined could make for a competitive race.

Consider the new CNN-University of New Hampshire poll there: Haley is now only down to Trump by single digits because she is soundly defeating him among voters there with a college degree and even more heavily among those with an advanced degree.

Haley’s challenge is that New Hampshire may only represent a false dawn, a blip before the primary returns to states with a downscale demographic more like Iowa. She may find hope in New Hampshire, but that would only tempt her to return home to South Carolina and discover that she’s Hootie and the Blowfish to Trump’s Taylor Swift.

This is not the first caucus in which the party’s class divide was on display. In 2016, Ted Cruz narrowly won Iowa as he and Trump largely split the state’s rural reaches and older industrial towns while Marco Rubio prevailed in five of the state’s most populous and educated counties.

The Republican who first leveraged the party’s shifting coalition, though, was Rick Santorum. His success with future Trump voters in 2012 here vaulted him into an unexpected competition with Mitt Romney, who eventually prevailed with overwhelming force (ie. money).

“That’s the division today, it’s class,” Santorum told me this week. “It’s the older, college-educated Republicans vs the rest.”

And, Santorum pointed out, there’s a lot more of the rest because of the Trump-era acceleration of the party’s demography. “That’s where the voters are,” he said. “But of the folks in the race, nobody was a threat to Trump because none of them were able to go after that working-class base.”

There are, to be sure, other factors shaping this primary. It’s difficult, for example, to be the candidate for evangelicals when you talk more about Anthony Fauci than your relationship with Jesus Christ. 

Santorum was surprised when I told him that DeSantis doesn’t talk in personal terms about his faith. “It can be uncomfortable for Catholics to do that,” said the former Pennsylvania senator who, like DeSantis, is also a Catholic. “But if you don’t do it in Iowa, you’re toast.”

The last three winners of the Iowa GOP caucuses were a former Baptist pastor, a devout Catholic at ease discussing salvation and the son of a pastor. And the winner before that? Well, he was an establishment favorite who said his favorite philosopher was Jesus — “because he changed my heart.”

Not that Trump needs to make such a statement, a la George W. Bush. Trump has many evangelicals on identity and class grounds and need not bother pretending like he’s in the pews every Sunday or knows from Corinthians (either one).

And his grip on these voters has in turn won over or at least paralyzed much of today’s class of GOP elected officials.

While Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds is backing DeSantis, the state’s all-Republican congressional delegate is staying on the sidelines. That owes in part to the proverbial sword Trump has dangled over lawmakers since he claimed the presidency: the threat of a primary.

A handful of Iowa’s House members are already facing challenges from the right, and it’s easy to see those races taking off if one of them sided with a Trump challenger. I’m told by well-placed Republicans that Rep. Randy Feenstra, who represents a deeply conservative and rural western Iowa district, was tempted to endorse Haley but determined it was just too risky. Feenstra already has a primary challenger backed by the man the lawmaker ousted: the notorious former Rep. Steve King.

Even neutrality will be long recalled by Trump’s forces. When Rep. Ashley Hinson told Trump’s lieutenants she’d remain neutral she was told that she could expect no more, and perhaps less, than neutrality from Trump when the day came she wanted to succeed the 90-year-old dean of the delegation, Sen. Charles Grassley, according to people familiar with the conversation.

The party today, though, is a long way from the one Grassley emerged out of when he was swept into the Senate in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 landslide.

Back in Waukee, Brad Remsburg was wearing a North Face puffy vest, sitting in a booth and explaining why he liked Haley — she was an alternative to the former president.

“I will not vote for Trump,” explained Remsburg, who’s in medical sales and was joined by his son, a former Iowa State offensive lineman.

The elder Remsburg said he was basically a Republican until Trump came along and is now hoping there’s a path back.

Same with Bruce Norquist, who was a table over and retired as an Army lieutenant colonel at NorthCom and now works in computer security.

“Trump is a fool, he’s too divisive,” said Norquist. (An Aberdeen, S.D., native, Norquist first came to Washington as an intern for Aberdeen’s own Tom Daschle.)

It was a refrain heard again and again. Some of the Haley-curious Republicans said they’d reluctantly come back to Trump in the fall. But others said they couldn’t pull the lever for him again in the general election.

Terry Rich, the former head of the Iowa Lottery and a farm boy who grew up with Des Moines Register legend David Yepsen, said, “It’s time to move on.”

Rich said he longs for “a more positive America where we aren’t yelling at each other and hating each other.”

The problem for Rich and his other compatriots is they were making this case in a bar that had as many reporters and photographers as voters.

Ben Johansen contributed to this report.

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