Comment: Haley’s spin on Trump’s wins offers little hope for her

Trump’s performance can’t be compared to past incumbants who lost before; there just aren’t any.

By Huchen Liu / For The Conversation

Nikki Haley has refused to drop out of the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination — at least through today’s primaries — despite significant losses to Donald Trump in Iowa, New Hampshire and her home state of South Carolina. Haley has tried to cast the race in an especially favorable light: As essentially an incumbent, Trump should be near-unanimously supported, but he hasn’t been; so she should keep on fighting.

Haley has made several versions of this argument:

• After finishing third behind Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the Iowa caucuses, Haley saw enough hope to declare the contest a “two-person race”; to incredulous ears.

• After coming in 11 points behind Trump in New Hampshire, an unusually hospitable state to her in ideology and temperament, a Haley spokesperson characterized Trump’s win as “not exactly a ringing endorsement for a former president.”

• After getting just under 40 percent of the vote in her home state to Trump’s 60 percent, Haley again framed the result as more disappointing for Trump than for herself, stressing that “Trump as, technically, the Republican incumbent did not win 40 percent of the vote.”

I’m a political scientist, and I have studied Trump’s 2016 campaign and his administration as well as the Haley challenge. I don’t buy Haley’s rationale for holding on.

As the two candidates face Super Tuesday, the biggest day of primary voting across the nation, Trump is not the weak candidate Haley would like him to be.

No comparison: Haley’s claim that Trump’s early victories reveal some type of weakness hinges on comparing Trump with real incumbents running for reelection, who are indeed usually unopposed within their party. Think the Biden reelection campaign and Trump’s own in 2020.

But this comparison is unreasonable: Trump’s not a real incumbent and should not be compared with one.

To see how well Trump’s doing, an appropriate comparison pits Trump against previous one-term presidents running for a nonconsecutive second term against the incumbents who defeated them – imagine Gerald Ford in 1980 against President Jimmy Carter, Carter in 1984 against President Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush in 1996 against President Bill Clinton.

See what today’s situation has in common with these precedents?

Nothing. They never happened.

And that’s because these former presidents would have had little chance of getting nominated by a party that had moved on after their loss. So they chose not to run at all.

Lose, then retreat: Carter never seriously entertained a presidential run in 1984 against Reagan, to whom he had lost in a 44-state landslide in 1980. Even before 1980, observers foretold Carter’s loss of support among Democrats in 1984, saying “it is very doubtful the party will give him another shot” if he lost in 1980. After he did lose, Carter threw his support behind his vice president, Walter Mondale. Against Mondale, Reagan would deliver an even bigger, 49-state landslide.

George H.W. Bush in 1996 is a similar story. After losing to Clinton in 1992, he left office embittered and would not recover politically. It was evidently someone else’s turn to run for president, as the party moved on to Bob Dole in 1996 and to Bush’s own son, George W. Bush, just four years later.

Of these might-have, could-have bids for a return to the presidency, Ford’s came closest to reality, partly owing to his unique circumstances.

Ford became president because of Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. That happened not long after Nixon picked Ford to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew, who resigned in 1973. Ford had not had a chance to run on his own terms. In a sense, his 1976 defeat was less conclusive in ending his political life than those of Carter and Bush, making his revival more plausible.

Still, discouragement from the former president’s own inner circle dampened his flirtations with a 1980 run.

Wishful thinking? In the big picture, voters are generally unwilling to give a candidate a second chance to run against someone who already defeated them once; a reason that presidential rematches are so rare.

Trump is proving to be an exception. He lost reelection in 2020, is running again in 2024 against the same president who beat him and is comfortably marching toward nomination a third time in a row. There’s no modern precedent for this, and it attests to his enduring and extraordinary strength within his party.

To be fair, one thing makes Trump’s rationale for a re-run more compelling than Ford in 1980, Carter in 1984 and Bush in 1996: Many Trump supporters don’t believe he lost legitimately to Biden in 2020 in the first place, making them think he is somehow deserving of another chance. But that’s precisely part of Trump’s strength.

So, why does Haley talk of Trump’s weakness?

It’s a mix of a few things. She needs to project confidence and justify soldiering on to voters, donors and herself. She’s hoping for miracles in upcoming contests. She could be ambitious for 2028 and beyond.

It’s also just wishful thinking.

Huchen Liu is an associate professor of political science at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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