Nikki Haley is the Non-Trump Candidate, not that it does her much good

Since Donald Trump dropped the pretense that he might not seek the 2024 Republican nomination more than a year ago, there was a broad assumption about how the primary might subsequently unfold.

There would be Trump, the prohibitive pseudo-incumbent with a huge base. Then there would need to be a Non-Trump Candidate, someone who could coalesce the Trump-fatigued part of the Republican voting base. This was the only way that Trump could lose, the thinking went, by having only one alternative that would prevent his gobbling up delegates with only 35 percent of the vote.

When Trump first announced his candidacy, it was generally assumed that the non-Trump alternative would be Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). He was popular and had just won an easy reelection victory. He polled well nationally but could talk the Trump talk. In fact, it was pretty much the only talk he talked. But he wasn’t Trump. So, voilà.

No part of that fell into place. DeSantis proved to be a pretty bad candidate and has only seen his position decline over the year. Any idea that a non-Trump could block Trump’s path to the nomination was severely damaged by the former president consistently earning more than 50 percent of support nationally and, increasingly, in polling from early primary states.

Nor was the Non-Trump Candidate Ron DeSantis. Instead, as new polling from Pew Research Center demonstrates, it turns out to be former ambassador Nikki Haley. But this does not mean that she is going to compete seriously for the nomination.

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Pew’s national poll shows Trump with more than 50 percent support from Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters. (For the sake of my laziness, I’ll just call the respondents “Republicans” moving forward.) DeSantis and Haley are the only other candidates in double digits, at 14 percent and 11 percent respectively.

The demographic splits within the pool of respondents is interesting. More conservative Republicans are more likely to support Trump. More educated Republicans are less likely to do so.

This mirrors another question posed by Pew. Most Republicans think that Trump’s effect on the Republican Party has been positive. Among more moderate respondents and more educated ones, though, that perception is much less robust.

So why does this poll reinforce that Haley, not DeSantis, is the non-Trump? Pew also asked respondents how they would feel should any of those three candidates win the nomination. Trump, who had the most national support, was the candidate about whom most respondents said they would feel satisfied.

Then we get to the interesting splits.

Among Trump supporters, more than half said they’d feel satisfied should DeSantis get the nomination — but two-thirds said they’d be dissatisfied with a Haley victory. Among DeSantis supporters, most said they’d be satisfied with either Trump or Haley getting the nod. And among Haley supporters, more said they’d be dissatisfied with a Trump victory than satisfied.

See what’s happening? Trump supporters dislike Haley and, to a more modest extent, vice versa. DeSantis supporters, though, like Trump well enough and, again, vice versa. DeSantis’s problem has long been that he did too good a job mirroring Trump: Republican voters like him and would vote for him if Trump weren’t there. But Trump is there.

Haley, on the other hand, is the alternative candidate, the non-Trump. There are plenty of other signs of this, too: the endorsement of New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) or that of Americans for Prosperity Action. That’s not her problem. Her problem is that the Non-Trump Candidate doesn’t have the traction that people might have expected a year ago. Even if she coalesced every non-Trump supporter nationally, Trump is still over 50 percent. The math doesn’t math, as they say.

Voting hasn’t started and the only poll that matters is on Election Day and all of that. Stipulated. But there is no reason to think that Donald Trump won’t be the Republican nominee in 2024 and every reason to think that he will be. Republicans found their non-Trump. And they decided they liked Actual Trump better.

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