• Seth Masket

The Two Republican Presidential Contests



Nikki Haley speaks in Story County, Iowa

There are two 2024 Republican presidential nomination contests currently underway.


The first is the traditional “invisible primary.” I’m just wrapping up a research trip to Iowa and can report that that contest is well underway, with lots of candidates already showing up to campaign for the 2024 caucuses.


Former Ambassador Nikki Haley spoke to the Iowa Republican Party’s big annual Lincoln Dinner in West Des Moines yesterday and is doing a number of other smaller events around the state throughout the week. U.S. Senator Tom Cotton will be in Sioux Center next week for a party event. And next month is the Family Leader Christian conservative summit, which will feature former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem.


There have been a number of reasons to worry that the caucuses were defunct or at least passé. For one, there’s the Covid environment, which makes lots of in-person meetings (on which this sort of retail campaigning thrives) difficult or even dangerous, although Iowa (especially Republicans) moved pretty quickly to reopen and vaccinations are pretty widespread.


For another, Democrats are raising a lot of concerns about their Iowa Caucuses – both for being unrepresentative of the broader party and for a rather public administrative belly flop last February. The caucuses could get demoted, but they still have a lot of allies, and there’s a good chance that if the Democrats moved their caucuses later, the Republicans might seek to keep theirs first in the nation anyway.


But another important wrinkle is what I'm considering the second presidential contest – what we might call the “invisible invisible primary.” That is the decision by Donald Trump to enter the presidential contest, or not. To some extent, this is a decision that he gets to make by himself. But it’s also being influenced by external factors, such as the Manhattan District Attorney’s investigation of his finances.


Trump is, of course, still very popular within the Republican Party and especially within Iowa, where he ran stronger in 2020 than he did in 2016. Trump would likely dominate the Iowa caucuses and win the party’s nomination if he ran, but it remains unclear whether he is actually running.


As such, the GOP is in a roughly similar position the Democrats were in around 1990, waiting for Mario Cuomo to decide whether he would actually run for president. (Spoiler: He didn’t.) This has the effect of freezing the race in place. Yes, candidates are campaigning, honing their messages, hiring preliminary staff, paying homage to the various local poohbahs, etc. But the uncertainty about Trump means that few are willing to make major donations to the campaign, few are willing to endorse, etc.


What's more, those interested in running are being careful not to position themselves as a threat to Trump should he decide to run. Nikki Haley has said that she won’t run if Trump does. No major candidate thus far seems to be running as the anti-Trump candidate; they all recognize that he’s still popular within the party and won’t cross him.


It is a very different nomination contest with Trump in the race than with him not running. Most likely very few viable candidates would remain in the race if he declares himself a candidate. And since Trump a) has universal name recognition, b) can put together a campaign organization pretty late in the process, and c) likes to have people speculating about him, he might well make this decision fairly late.


Needless to say, this all means a lot more uncertainty than usual for a lot longer than usual. And there was already quite a bit of uncertainty about how the Iowa Republican caucuses work given changes in the political environment since Trump’s first run for office.


Importantly, though, the candidates aren’t sitting back and waiting. Their goal is to do as well as possible in the more public contest, knowing that the other contest is beyond their control.

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