Monday, January 22, 2024

BTRTN New Hampshire Preview: It’s All Over but for the Incessant Shouting

Tom looks at the New Hampshire primary. 

It was a nice fantasy while it lasted, and we at BTRTN certainly explored it thoroughly, even as we saw it as the longshot it truly was.  We even gave it a cute name, “The Haley Mary.”  But the notion that Nikki Haley could somehow defy the odds and find a path to the GOP nomination died in the ice-cold cornfields of Iowa, by the margin of about 2,500 votes.  If Haley had “found” (to use Donald Trump’s memorable demand of Georgia’s Brad Raffensperger) that many more votes in Iowa, at Trump’s expense, the campaign dynamics would look very different right now.  With those votes, Haley would have come in second, Trump would have failed to achieve 50% of the vote, and Ron DeSantis would likely have dropped out immediately (instead of lingering for nearly a week).  The free media would have been all about a surging Haley and a vulnerable Trump, and the prospect of a highly competitive two-person race in New Hampshire.  A big win by Haley there might have given her the Big Mo she would have needed to challenge in South Carolina and thus contend Super Tuesday. 

That’s enough “would haves” for Haley to think about for some time.  Plus perhaps a “should have:  maybe she should have competed more vigorously in Iowa, trading off some ads in New Hampshire, and used the cash instead to build a better field organization in Iowa -- one that could withstand poor weather, as her opponents did.  That’s a choice for her to ponder. 

But now Trump is on the verge of sending Haley packing as well.  BTRTN predicts Donald Trump will win the New Hampshire primary by a decisive margin, in the +20 point range.  There will be no 2024 version of “contrarian” Granite Staters snubbing their noses at the Iowans and anointing their own winner, who has invariably gone on to the win the GOP nomination.  Instead, they will validate the Hawkeye State’s choice for the first time since, well, never.  No GOP nominee has ever swept Iowa and New Hampshire (that did not feature a sitting president) since the birth of the Iowa caucus in 1976. 

Just for the record, the pre/post-Christie/Ramaswamy/Hutchinson/DeSantis polling seems to indicate that of the 23 percentage points the four held in New Hampshire before they dropped out, 18 went to Trump and 7 to Haley (one or both of the pair also picked up a few undecided points).  Haley did worse than she must have hoped in that fallout, since it would not have been unreasonable to assume she would garner almost all of Christie's voters plus Hutchinson's single point, for a total of +12, but she just managed a little more than half of that.  This is perhaps a sign of some New Hampshire voters sensing inevitability.

What happens after New Hampshire?  Simple.  Haley drops out.  Or she should.  New Hampshire was her best shot, with plenty of independent and crossover Democratic voters, educated mainstream Republicans and a popular governor as her chief surrogate.  If she can’t make it here, she can’t make it anywhere.  A 20-point loss here is a one-way ticket to ex-candidacy for her. 

There is no upside to her sticking around to suffer a humiliating thumping in her own home state of South Carolina, a far more conservative and Trumpier state than even Iowa.  Given that that primary is a month away (on February 24), it’s also hard to imagine her donors continuing to fund a true lost cause.  It is perhaps time to cite the old dictum, “candidates never really decide to quit campaigns, they just run out of money.”  If (and when) she drops out, Haley will almost certainly endorse Trump, renouncing her mostly carefully worded prior attacks, solemnly declaring the people have spoken and that she will do whatever it takes to defeat Joe Biden. 

None of this will be sufficient ring-kissing for Trump, who already has virtually eliminated Haley from VP consideration with his recent withering assessment of her in Concord, New Hampshire:  "She is not presidential timber.  Now when I say that, that probably means that she's not going to be chosen as the vice president."  You may think the “probably” gives Trump an out so that he may reconsider, but re-read the first sentence and see how that might look in various Biden ads if Trump did just that. 

Haley herself said last week in Amherst, New Hampshire, "I don't want to be anybody's vice president. That is off the table.  I have always said that.  That is a game they play that I'm not going to play.  That is the type of statement that might be sloughed off easily enough if Trump did ask, with statements invoking “for the good of the country” and “when you are asked to serve…”  But Haley believes she has a future in presidential stakes (at 52, one could argue she has another three decades), and she may have considered, given Mike Pence’s sad history, the VP calculus to favor letting it go.  Trump himself “probably” wants a complete loyalist on the ticket, an election denier, and that is not Haley.

As for Haley’s future, that depends on the course of the GOP.  The main reason why Haley will have difficulty winning the GOP nod even if she wins in New Hampshire, is the natural ceiling that her policy choices have created.  Haley may be an arch-conservative on domestic issues, but she really is a foreign policy “globalist,” and her support of Ukraine – and all it stands for, including backing NATO, being tough on Putin, and the implied diminishment of China as the primary evil -- is a defining position that puts her out of step with today’s Trumpian GOP, and thus limits her appeal.  But she is probably counting on a post-Trump GOP (meaning, he’s dead and gone) in which there is a revival of the mainstream GOP she grew up in, with her as the standard bearer.  Given her less than slavish devotion to Trump, she surely reasoned (in stating her lack of desire for the VP slot) that the long game is her best hope of ever sitting behind the Resolute Desk. 

So the primary season will be all over except for the shouting.  That phrase typically refers to cheering crowds roaring as the inevitable approaches, but here we mean Trump’s incessant high-decibel persecution pitch, as he uses Courtroom America as a bully pulpit to air (and monetize) his victim complex.  In Trump’s eyes, his trials and tribulations are far from a weakness – they are rather the centerpiece of his campaign effort.  This approach has worked brilliantly thus far in securing the GOP nomination.  One remembers that Trump’s campaign took off the day Alvin Bragg handed down the first Trump indictment in New York State, which gifted Trump a 10-point bump in the polls over the field in April, 2023, up to the 30-point margin nationally that he never relinquished -- and eventually expanded to 50 points.  

Trump no longer has to worry about bouncing back and forth from campaign to courthouse, and he will happily attend various legal proceedings while making token appearances in future primary states and the necessary private pitches to GOP donors.  He will rant and rave outside those courthouses about judges and prosecutors, bailiffs and stenographers, loudly making his opinions known during proceedings, hoping a judge will throw him out of the building, and holding his own court in press briefings after each and every session.  All the while blaming the whole thing on Joe Biden. 

Whether this strategy has legs in the general election remains to be seen.  Trump does need mainstream GOP support – the Haley/Christie voter, if you will – as well as independents and persuadable Democrats (e.g., flipping some of people of color) to win.  None of those groups buy the persecution argument, or are pre-disposed to Trump’s view of the 2020 election or January 6.  But Trump never “tacked to the middle” in the 2016 general election, another norm shattered, and it seems unlikely he will in 2024.  The shouting is his trademark, and it will endure until either his vocal chords give out or he meets his demise.  (And don’t forget….if he loses in 2024, he is still eligible to run in 2028.  And if he is in prison, he would have every incentive to do so.) 

There is a Democratic primary, too, but it does not count in selecting delegates.  In the DNC’s quest to start its primary process with diverse South Carolina instead of lily white Iowa or New Hampshire, Iowa went along (perhaps sheepishly, recalling its 2020 caucus vote counting fiasco).  But New Hampshire was defiant, and the state is going ahead with its “first” Democratic primary even though they were punished by the DNC by not having the voting count in determining the state’s 33 delegates.  

Joe Biden does face a challenge in New Hampshire from Minnesota representative Dean Phillips and 2020 candidate Marianne Williamson.  To the extent that anyone has heard of Phillips, they probably think his first name is “Quixotic,” for that is the appellation frequently attached to him for the nature of his quest.  He is running strictly on the “age” issue, and he will barely make a dent in the New Hampshire proceedings, no matter how mad New Hampshire Democrats are that Biden is ignoring their beloved primary.  This despite the fact that Biden is not even on the ballot, but is likely to record an overwhleming victory strictly based on write-in votes.

Stay tuned. 

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Sunday, January 14, 2024

BTRTN: The Iowa Caucuses

Tom looks at the kick-off event of the 2024 election season. 

The Republican Iowa caucuses take place tomorrow (Monday) night, and there is not much suspense about the topline outcome in this very white, very evangelical, Trump-crazed state.  So let’s get this easy prediction out of the way, for what it’s worth:  BTRTN predicts Donald Trump will win the Iowa caucuses handily, likely by 25-30 points.  Neither snow nor wind nor bitter cold – all in the forecast -- will keep the Iowa Trumpsters from their appointed task.  

This is something, you may (or may not) recall, that they failed to do in 2016, when Ted Cruz nosed out Trump by a 27% to 24% margin, with Marco Rubio in third, only a point behind Trump.  Those were the days before Trump grabbed control of the GOP by the scruff of the neck, and he has yet to let go or be tossed aside.  Indeed, those were arguably the very last days before that occurred, since he won the New Hampshire primary convincingly just eight days after Iowa.  He went on to win South Carolina, Nevada and seven out of the eleven Super Tuesday races, and, while he lost more than a few after that, his nomination, after New Hampshire, was not closely contested. 

The question for this year’s Iowa caucus is not who will win, but rather who will come in second?  With Chris Christie’s sudden departure from the field four days ago, five candidates remain – Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Asa Hutchinson (inexplicably), Vivek Ramaswamy and Trump.  The field will likely narrow after Iowa, before New Hampshire (just eight days later), the only question is by how much.  

The view here is that Nikki Haley will surpass Ron DeSantis and take second.  Her polling momentum has been unmistakable.  Haley trailed DeSantis for months and months, by 20 points in the first half of 2023, then began her ascent after strong debate performances in August and September, finally catching him in mid-December.  They had been running neck-and-neck for the last month, until two new polls (by Suffolk and the Des Moines Register) showed Haley jumping ahead of DeSantis by 6 and 4 percentage points respectively, at the 20% level (Trump was at 54% and 48%).  Two others recent polls still had them even, but the momentum is with Haley and we think she will nose ahead of DeSantis when all is said and done.  DeSantis's decent debate showing may limit the Haley upside a bit, but that is hard to divine. 

A quick caveat is that the Iowa contest is a rather difficult one to predict.  The simple reason is that it takes far more effort to vote in a caucus than a primary, requiring spending an evening at a local gym or Town Hall rather than simply stopping by a polling center and casting a vote.  This is particularly true this year, when the forecast calls for sub-zero temperatures across the state, and wind chills in the -30 range.  Thus translating poll results into election results, hardly a slam dunk with regular elections, could be that much harder in Iowa this year.  Team DeSantis believes its ground game is stronger than either Trump’s or Haley’s and, if true, that could go far in adverse weather circumstances.  But it is hard to imagine many Iowans willing to risk their health for Ron DeSantis, of all people. 

Having said that, we still feel reasonably confident the polling norms will hold.  What then? 

DeSantis put all his proverbial eggs in the Iowa basket, offering himself up as an easier-to-take, more effective, like-minded alternative to the presumable “unelectable” Trump.  But, as countless have said since, the more Iowans got to know DeSantis, the less they liked.  The humorless sourpuss showed less charisma on the campaign trail than a cold corndog in January, and no amount of effort – lord, he tried -- could hide that simple truth from those God-fearing souls.  I mean, this is a man who, at a break in the debate, went over to the edge of the stage and shook hands with Iowa’s governor -- and then also shook hands with his own wife, Casey DeSantis!  Hard to imagine. 

A third place finish in Iowa simply undercuts any rationale for DeSantis’s wildly disappointing candidacy, and he should drop out (if he is sane) shortly after the votes are counted (he is polling at about 5% in New Hampshire and getting there in South Carolina).  It stands to reason that he will endorse Trump, because he still likely harbors illusions that he can inherit the Trump base in 2028, particularly since the base is not a particular fan of Haley, the only other contender who has emerged from this year’s campaign with a future. 

Vivek Ramaswamy should also pull out.  He also spent an enormous amount of time in Iowa, to virtually no effect.  He will gladly endorse Trump and hope he gets the VP call sometime down the road.  His smartass shtick clearly turned a few heads early, but they quickly turned away as it wore thin, with some help from Haley, who eviscerated him in subsequent debates.  He’s young, but that does not mean he is viable long-term.  He, like DeSantis, is who is he is, and what he is ain’t selling. 

(Asa Hutchinson, who rates only a parenthetical aside, should have dropped out long ago.  The amiable Arkansan reminds me of hapless Connor Roy in Succession, desperately trying to hold onto to his 1% so he can cash it in for a lesser Ambassadorship at the appropriate time.  The problem is that 1% is really a rounding error, worth little.) 

If all that happened, then suddenly we would be down to the two-person contest that Trump did not want, and certainly not this soon, him against Haley.  With her own well-earned momentum plus the added juice of a second place finish in Iowa and the departure of Christie (she is the natural destination for most of his supporters), she could very well win in New Hampshire.  That would set up a true mano-a-mano contest for the rest of the primaries.  (If you think I have made a gender mistake here, be advised than mano-a-mano means “hand to hand” in Spanish, not “man to man.”) 

Now, New Hampshire could very well be a one-off win for Haley, because there are an array of factors there that simply will not be replicated elsewhere, at least in full.  New Hampshire is famously contrarian to the desires of Iowan Republicans, as shown.  It holds an open primary, meaning that Independents can vote, which certainly advantages the more mainstream Haley.  It is a Northeastern state, meaning there are fewer hardcore evangelicals who zealously favor Trump.  The Republican Governor, Chris Sununu, is wildly popular, has endorsed Haley, and is her chief surrogate.  The confluence of all these factors are certainly keys to her success in the Granite State, and are in large measure unique to the state. 

On the other hand, the momentum alone of a New Hampshire win, and all the resultant free media, could replace those factors and carry Haley forward on her own – especially in her home state of South Carolina on February 24.  (The impact of Nevada’s contests, in early February, will be mitigated given the confusion over the dueling elections, a state-constitutionally-mandated primary on February 6, which is non-binding in terms of delegate selection, oddly followed by GOP-driven caucuses on February 8, which are the contests that count for the count.) 

Those of you looking for omens, note this: Iowa has not picked the winning candidate in any of the last three cycles, and has long been a mixed bag on that front.  In 2008, Mike Huckabee won, while eventual nominee John McCain came in fourth.  Rick Santorum edged out future nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, and, as mentioned Cruz defeated Trump in 2016.  Other Iowa losers included Ronald Reagan (to George H.W. Bush in 1980) and Bush himself in 1988 (to Bob Dole).  In each case, the ultimate nominee won in New Hampshire.  But this is one of those trends that seem very meaningful – until they are not. 

Meanwhile, the Democrats have finally buried the Iowa caucus as a launching pad, using the 2020 debacle, when reporting system glitches preventing any results at all showing up in prime time, to do away with a state that bears little resemblance to the Democratic coalition.  New Hampshire, also lily-white, was also jettisoned, but that has proven a more embarrassing transition.  Stubbornly sticking to their state constitution mandates, they are holding a primary that the DNC has ruled will not count in delegate selection, and thus is nothing more than a beauty contest.  Joe Biden is sitting it out, as the Dems have given the leadoff slot to the more diverse South Carolina, which (not coincidentally) saved Biden’s campaign in 2020. 

We’ll be back with more on New Hampshire on the eve of the primary next week. 

Stay tuned.

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Thursday, January 11, 2024

BTRTN Debate Report: DeSantis puts Haley on the Defensive, and Ekes Out a Crucial Debate Win

Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley are in a ferocious battle to emerge – rapidly – as the champion of the “non-Trump lane.” But with Haley way out in front in New Hampshire, it was much more critical for Ron DeSantis to turn in a strong debate performance and preserve his slim lead for second place in Iowa. They tore into each other from the get-go, but Ron DeSantis had his strongest debate yet… just when he needed it.


“Go to!"

Geez, if Nikki Haley said it once, she must have said it twenty times.

After a while, it began to sound shrill, whiny, ineffective, and even counterproductive... implying that Haley could not handle the incoming in real time. Worst of all, the drone of scripted repetition seemed exactly at odds with the very traits that Haley had used to win each of the four prior debates… her humanity, emotional engagement, and sharp thinking in the moment.

After these debates, it is often an easy out for pundits to say things like “it’s hard to see how the overall momentum of the race changed tonight,” or “the supporters of each candidate each heard enough to maintain their loyalty,” and of course the ever-reliable “the real winner of tonight’s debate was Donald Trump.” Probably all are true about last night. But those are all cop-outs on the question of who won the debate.

Perhaps a fair assessment would be to say that Ron DeSantis won the first hour of the debate, and that Nikki Haley had the edge in the second hour. The problem for Haley is that first impressions are lasting… and that her second hour did not do enough to offset the initial imprint giving DeSantis the upper hand. Ron DeSantis succeeded in taking her off her winning formula and putting her on the defensive… and it is always tough to rely on your defense to score points.

So give the evening to DeSantis, but not by much. But perhaps by just enough for DeSantis to preserve his thin sliver of a lead over Haley and secure his essential second place finish in Iowa, enabling him to justify staying in the race and hoping for a miracle in New Hampshire. By that measure, it was a big night for the Florida governor.

Unfortunately for DeSantis, news coverage of the debate was overshadowed by the news that Chris Christie had dropped out of the race just hours earlier. Christie's eloquent and impassioned exit address was, in turn, overshadowed by his overly frank assessment of Haley and DeSantis made too near a hot mic.  If Christie’s exit was intended to help a rival beat Trump, saying that Haley “wasn’t up to this,” and was about to get “smoked” sure didn’t help.

But let’s start with the best news about this debate… we did not have to listen to one word of conspiratorial gibberish from Vivek Ramaswamy, who had been voted off Sycofantasy Island due to low polling.  Give the GOP credit: they designed a qualification system for their debates that ensured that weaker candidates were winnowed out along the way.  If the candidates don’t meet increasingly strenuous qualifying criteria, they don’t get a podium, a microphone, and license to spew hallucinations on national television.  The qualifying requirements have gradually improved the debates: the fewer the debaters, the less panicked shouting, interrupting, talking over each other, and the less appearing to be an Animal House food fight.  

To qualify for the stage last night, the candidates had to have achieved “at least 10 percent in three separate national and/or Iowa polls of Republican caucus-goers or primary voters.”  Only three candidates qualified. Donald Trump – at or just over 50% in Iowa polling -- did not bother to show up, preferring to stage his own counter-programming on FOX. You can’t argue with success: Trump hasn’t shown up to a single debate, and his lead in Iowa has grown.

With just five days to go before the Iowa Caucuses, the stakes could not possibly have been higher for book-banning, woke-slamming Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who enters the final days of campaigning with all the momentum of an x axis, flat-lining through eternity.  Just a year ago, the cheesy stunt Governor was the Great Hope of the White Party, clearly viewed as the man who could finally wrest the GOP from the grip of Donald Trump.

Now, having fumbled every aspect of presidential campaigning, Ron DeSantis knows that he absolutely, positively, unambiguously cannot fall into third place in Iowa. Just days away lies the New Hampshire Primary, where DeSantis is actually in fourth place, and where Nikki Haley is primed to clean his clock, DeSantis must finish second in Iowa, or his campaign is lights out.

So the final debate before the Iowa Caucuses could not have been a better match-up: it was just DeSantis and Haley, with only a couple of points separating them in the latest polling, and each desperately fighting to emerge from Iowa with the second place win that could establish their claim as the candidate around whom the “non-Trump” Republicans should unite.  

The two candidates came out of the gate swinging wildly at each other, hurling insults and accusations, mostly about how egregiously the other has been lying.  Jake Tapper opened the questioning by asking DeSantis why voters should vote for him. He did not waste much time before characterizing Haley as “another mealy-mouthed politician” who “does her donors’ bidding.”

It was right from the get-go that Nikki Haley urged viewers to go visit Obviously a thoroughly planned debate tactic, Haley even had a cute little joke ready to go, warning college students not to make it a drinking game for the debate, because they would end up drunk. Cringe! Haley made Chris Christie’s much maligned “Donald Duck” line seem funny by contrast. 

But the problem was that Haley would robotically repeat her mantra throughout the first hour of the debate, as if the invocation of a URL would somehow inoculate her from her opponent’s charges. It made Haley look weak. It was naïve. Did she really think that after two hours of listening to these two rip each other to pieces, we were all going to go to a website to do fact-checking?

In contrast, Ron DeSantis made very specific charges about Haley… that she was beholden to her donors, that she raised taxes, that she is a “carbon copy of Biden on Ukraine,” that she supported a two-state solution, that she couldn’t implement school choice, that she invited Disney to South Carolina… on and on. Maybe DeSantis was exaggerating, maybe he was lying, but he was making very, very specific charges of flip-flops, liberal leanings, and ineffective governance, and Haley would respond by chanting her cute URL.

For that first hour of the debate, the pace was absolutely frantic, with both candidates sounding like fast-talking car salesmen.  Both are well-informed policy wonks, but both made the mistake of thinking that cramming a great deal of information into ninety second responses made for good communication. It is hard to imagine that even the most well-informed voter could absorb important information being hurled willy-nilly at such velocity. It didn’t help that each candidate raced through their prepared talking points so that they could get on to the business of accusing their opponent of failures, inconsistency, or outright deceit.

Perhaps one way to consider the ineffectiveness of speed-talking through arcane policy-wonk dialect is to recall the powerful style of Ronald Reagan. Watch debate performances of the Gipper, who would prefer to make a point by slowly recounting a homespun tale about a typical American family. Last night, Haley and DeSantis sounded like Alvin, Theodore, and Simon of the Chipmunks doing a recording session of tax code.

But DeSantis was canny, and knew how to play to the deep, dark redness of Iowa’s Republican voters. Playing the age-old game of turning a strength into a weakness, DeSantis castigated Haley’s term as U.N. Ambassador as an example of her being in the embrace of woke, liberal, globalist philosophy: “You can take the ambassador out of the United Nations, but you can't take the United Nations out of the ambassador.” In red country, was a very effective slam.

As the debate settled into its second hour, the two candidates each seemed to calm down and improve their communication. Nikki Haley finally found a way to put DeSantis on his heels by making the very shortcomings of his campaign a measure of his incompetence. She ripped into DeSantis’s flailing campaign, saying that he had “blown through $150 million” by flying private jets and other wasteful measures, and that his campaign was “exploding.”

This line of argument hit paydirt: it managed to simultaneously point out that DeSantis’s campaign was faring poorly relative to her own, and also brought into question his competency as a manager, which has been essential to his brand. A critical staple of DeSantis’s messaging is that he is an effective governor who gets things done and has implemented a conservative agenda. When she finally said “Ron is lying because Ron is losing,” it was a more effective slam than a dozen mentions of a URL. Perhaps Haley’s very best line of the night was when a flustered DeSantis defended his managerial competency by returning to his record of governor rather than contesting her assertions about his campaign. “I think I hit a nerve,” Haley observed. She was right.

Haley had another good moment on foreign policy, when she once again gave her full-throated support for Ukraine. DeSantis played to the Iowa audience, repeating his now well-worn trope of asking whether funds should go to our southern border rather than Ukraine’s border. Give Haley credit for sticking with her position, even in the most hostile environment.

Leading up to the debate, an endless parade of pundits expressed shock and amazement that neither Haley nor DeSantis spent much time or money in the campaigns going after Donald Trump, preferring to focus attack ads on each other. Duh. It’s not that hard to figure out: these two are terrified of alienating the MAGA base or incurring Trump’s rage. True to form, neither spent much time on Donald Trump unless debate moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash forced them to. Fortunately, the CNN team did.

Tapper asked each candidate to assess how their own understanding of the Constitution squared with Donald Trump’s. Haley womaned up: she said, more boldly and unambiguously than ever before: “Trump lost it. Biden won it.” She said that “Trump would have to answer for the fact that he wanted to change the votes.” Asked about Trump’s legal team’s bonkers legal defense that the President is immune from any criminal prosecution, Haley said “that’s ridiculous.” When she finally stopped chanting a URL, second-hour Haley found her footing.

Given the same question, DeSantis tried to be cute, excusing Trump’s assertions as just so much “word vomit on social media.” Reverting to his classic form, DeSantis ducked, answered a different question than the one Tapper asked, pretended that he had provided an answer, and hoped Tapper would move on.

The second hour was won by Nikki Haley. But by then, the damage was done. What was that URL again, Nikki?

Measured against the historical standards of primary debates, this one was quite substantive, quite serious, and quite informative for those who could tolerate its wonkiness.

The tragedy of today’s Republican Party is that both Haley and DeSantis are more serious, more substantive, and better qualified to be President of the United States than Donald Trump.

And yet both vibrate like tuning forks the moment they are asked to challenge Trump head on.

If only they were as committed to ripping into Trump as they are to ripping into each other, we might be seeing different numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire.

So sure, Trump won.

But very soon, it will be down to one GOP rival – and Donald Trump won’t be able to Donald Duck that debate.  

Nikki, you must demand your chance to debate one-on-one with Trump.

And when that time comes, don’t hide behind a dopey URL.


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Tuesday, January 9, 2024

BTRTN: The “Haley Mary”… Can She Really Beat Trump?

The Fourteenth Amendment won’t stop it. Juries reaching guilty verdicts won’t do it. Increasingly, it appears that there is only one thing standing between Donald Trump and the Republican nomination for President. Can Nikki Haley pull it off?

Its origins can be traced back to Notre Dame’s legendary Four Horsemen backfield.  It entered the vernacular for good when Roger Staubach of the Cowboys threw a game winning pass against Vikings, explaining that he “closed his eyes and said a Hail Mary.” Perhaps it is most associated with Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie, who in 1984 took a snap with six seconds on the clock, scrambled, eluded tacklers, and heaved a pass from his own 40-yard line that was miraculously caught in the end zone as time expired to beat the University of Miami.

It is the “Hail Mary”… the last-gasp, last-ditch, last-stand, heave-ho, give-it-a-go, hope-springs-eternal, whaddya-got-to-lose final-seconds desperation pass into the end zone that snatches victory against all odds.

Welcome to 2024 and the Republican primary season, folks. The question on everyone’s mind is simple: does Nikki Haley have even the slightest, gossamer-thin strand of a chance to wrest the Republican nomination from Donald Trump?

Can the anti-Trump faction of the Republican party scramble against the oncoming Trump Blitzkrieg (uh, yeah, reference fully intended) and heave their own Haley Mary?

The “Haley Mary” has become the liberal fantasy, the dream of cable news execs in search of ratings, and yet remains pretty much an unexamined scenario. If you actually take the time to map what she would have to accomplish against the actual primary timeline, you begin to realize that Haley’s comet is almost certain to flame out. The die is already almost fully cast.

And, oh yeah, lefty – before you get too excited about the “Haley Mary” – there is the sequential question… if Haley wins the nomination, would she have a better chance of beating Joe Biden than Donald Trump? The polling numbers on this question are not conclusive now, but who knows where Trump’s numbers will be after months of bruising trials. And if Haley became the world-beater who defeated Trump, she may well become the far tougher candidate for Biden to beat.  

Our commentary today is most certainly not a prediction. Our purpose is to spell out what would have to happen for her to win. It involves speculation, hypothesis, imagination, and guesswork… but there is a path.

That path is very complicated. It depends on factors that can be extremely difficult to quantify and predict… things like messaging strategy, “beating expectations,” momentum, endorsements, donor enthusiasm, the quirks of “local” politics as the primaries move from state to state, the willingness of Haley’s rivals to stand down and let her singularly carry the “anti-Trump” lane, and – above all – Nikki Haley accepting that she must start throwing punches directly at Donald Trump’s most glaring liabilities. Then there is the entire morass of Donald Trump’s legal issues, how they are interpreted by voters, and the timing of the trials.

Can it be done? Sure, Haley can throw the touchdown pass. But, boy, it will be hard, and everything will have to break perfectly for Haley.

Let’s start with the fact that Donald Trump has, hands-down, some of the biggest leads ever recorded at comparable points going into the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Trump’s 30-point lead in December’s NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll was the biggest in its more than 30 year history.  He has an even more imposing lead in South Carolina – and that is Nikki Haley’s home state.  

Part of Trump’s enormous advantage is that Republicans view him to be the incumbent President. Now you may not think he is the incumbent President, but Republicans do. A recent Washington Post poll finds that 67% of Republican view Joe Biden to be an “illegitimate” President. They believe Trump’s Big Lie, think that the 2020 election was stolen from its rightful winner, and act as if Donald Trump is the legitimate President of the United States.  

Being the “incumbent” is a very big deal in primary season. Very, very few incumbent Presidents ever have to endure a primary challenge en route to their nomination for a second term. It happened when Teddy Kennedy took on Jimmy Carter, and when Pat Buchanan challenged George H. W. Bush -- that is, only twice since 1980 -- and both challengers lost badly. The power of the presidency is robust… and Trump brings that enormous advantage to the primary season.

And, against that backdrop, where is Nikki Haley today?

Well, until she accidentally forgot to mention that little tidbit about how the institution of slavery might have had some tiny causal link to the United States Civil War, Nikki Haley’s comet had been enjoying an impressive ascent.  At this point, it does not appear that her Gerald Ford-grade gaffe will seriously impact her candidacy. Hey, given today’s GOP, you never know… mind-numbingly colossal insensitivity to minorities and massive ignorance of history may actually be viewed as positive attributes.

She’s been gaining very substantial ground in New Hampshire, where she is the clear number two choice. She enjoyed a surge in Iowa between May and October, nearly closing a substantial gap behind Ron DeSantis, but for the past three months has been stuck a couple of points behind DeSantis for the number two spot. And, yes, during the past three months – while ducking all those debates – Donald Trump actually expanded his lead in Iowa.

Given the Matterhorn-grade ascent she must very quickly make to seriously challenge Trump, how can she get the job done?

Here’s the “Haley Mary,” in five steps.  

1.  Beat expectations – and Ron DeSantis – in Iowa.

Ron DeSantis has been running a clinic in how to blow a nomination. Back in 2022, when DeSantis torched his Democratic gubernatorial opponent by 20 points, he was the GOP’s brightest spot in the otherwise underwhelming election cycle. With Trump bruised by the miserable performance of his hand-picked candidates, it was widely believed that DeSantis would cruise to his party’s 2024 nomination. Bad messaging strategy, weak grassroots fundraising, and astonishingly wooden campaign performances sapped DeSantis of momentum, and ultimately forced him to put all his chips on Iowa. Desperate for a strong early performance, DeSantis traveled to all 99 counties in the state that historically rewards candidates who show up and eat every last corn dog.

Win Iowa? Ha. Now, Ron DeSantis desperately needs a second-place finish in Iowa, and the odds currently seem with him. After his initial stumbles, he stabilized his support in by July in the 17-19% range. However, his initial margin over Haley -- a 2 to 1 advantage in May -- is now has a relatively thin and surmountable two to three points. Haley, however, made no further inroads in December polling.

If Haley does surge and beats DeSantis in Iowa, and then beats him again in New Hampshire, where she already holds a significantly edge, DeSantis must fold up his tent and retreat to his goofy little anti-Disney kingdom of book banning, terrorizing “woke,” and trying to spin the upsides of slavery.

Make no mistake: a final Haley surge is very possible. The Haley campaign is about to blow DeSantis out of the media water with a $4.6 million advertising buy in the final two weeks. The one-on-one debate with DeSantis on Wednesday night couldn’t be more perfectly timed for Haley.

Another interesting fact about current Iowa polls? At this moment, Donald Trump has roughly 50% support. If he were to fall lower than 50% by caucus day, it would be a messaging lift for the “anti-Trump” lane: they would argue that more than half of the party wants someone other than Donald Trump.

The best news of all for Haley is in the “expectations game.” Where DeSantis labelled Iowa as “do or die” and could flame out with a third-place finish, Haley was never expected to finish second in Iowa, so a third-place finish would not the disaster it would be for the Florida governor. But let’s say for the purpose of this analysis that Nikki Haley sprints to the finish and finishes one tiny percentage point ahead of DeSantis in Iowa. That one tiny percentage point is a game-changer.

2.  Mount a Real Challenge to Trump in New Hampshire… and then hope that competitors drop out.

With Haley’s second place finish in Iowa, and Trump caucusing below 50%, expect a Time cover and frothy stories about storming into New Hampshire with what George Bush the Elder once famously called “the big mo’”—the momentum of the campaign.

The winds in New Hampshire are already at Haley’s back. As of this writing, Trump is out in front, but his roughly 42% -45% of the vote is well below his national polling. Haley has risen sharply in polling, from about 5% in August to roughly 30% now, within 15 points of Trump. That’s a big gain. 

A brand new CNN poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire released just this morning (January 9), showed that Haley had narrowed Trump's lead to single digits, and is now a 39 to 32 margin. That's a jump of 12 points since this particular poll was taken in November. 

Receiving the endorsement of popular New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu was a big win. And if she “exceeds expectations” in Iowa, expect another bump.

The wild card in New Hampshire is Chris Christie. If he drops out of the race after Iowa and most of his roughly 10% support jumps to Haley, you’ve suddenly got a very close race between Trump and Haley for the win in New Hampshire. There is already a ton of pressure on Christie to do exactly that.

Here’s a shrewd move Haley could make after Iowa: aggressively challenge Trump to a one-on-one debate before the New Hampshire primary. It’s a win/win for Haley, who will be in peak form after six intense debates. But in the more likely scenario that Trump refuses, Haley could milk his refusal for gold, labeling him as frightened and weak. Who knows? Chris Christie’s “Donald Duck” joke might finally stick.

Yet a third possible “New Hampshire surprise” is Democratic crossover vote. New Hampshire allows “undeclared” voters – those with no party affiliation – to vote in either party’s primary. With no challenger to Joe Biden, New Hampshire Democrats might believe that they will exert important influence on the Presidential race if they switch their party affiliation to “undeclared” in order to vote in the Republican Primary – for Haley, against Trump.  

Let’s say New Hampshire is extremely close but goes to Trump. Once again, the lead story is that Nikki Haley “exceeded expectations,” and a slim win for Trump smells a lot like a loss.

The “next morning” in New Hampshire is the reckoning: it is when Haley needs her competitors to clear the deck and hand her the ball. Dropping out of the race after New Hampshire would be a hard pill for any of Christie, DeSantis, or Ramaswamy to swallow, but it is difficult to imagine Haley seriously contesting Trump unless the field is thoroughly winnowed.

If Christie doesn’t bail after Iowa, he’ll bow out after New Hampshire. He feels such an intense, burning desire to see Trump lose that he will not only back out, he will likely endorse Haley -- and begin angling for Attorney General, where he can preside over the ongoing prosecution of Trump.  

Vivek Ramaswamy continues to evaporate into a puddle of smarmy self-involvement and may think staying in the race would please Trump if he bleeds support away from Haley. Trump, however, may view Ramaswamy’s nutty conspiracy rants as a lure to his own supporters. If so, expect Trump to tell Ramaswamy to vote himself off Sycofantasy Island.

Which brings us to Ron DeSantis. If DeSantis loses both Iowa and New Hampshire, he has no path, no donors, and only his future to consider. He would be crazy to stay in the race and allow himself to get beaten yet again by Haley in her home state. DeSantis must drop out.

A critical question: where would supporters of DeSantis and Ramaswamy go if those candidates exited? DeSantis and Ramaswamy are more ideologically aligned with MAGA than the more moderate Haley, but if these voters abandoned Trump because they view him to be a toxic loser, they could easily drift to Haley.

3.  February: Nevada Caucuses and the South Carolina Primary

The Nevada caucuses will be held on February 8, and Haley will no doubt throw some tv money towards its 26 delegates. But she will realize that the primary in her home state of South Carolina on February 24 will make or break her campaign. If the field clears and Nikki Haley is Donald Trump’s only opponent in her home state, she will suddenly face her own existential moment: if Haley can’t win her own state, where can she win? Nikki Haley will focus 100% of her energy in South Carolina.

Not only are her Presidential hopes shattered by a bad loss in her home state – a loss and her perceived disloyalty to Trump could also spell the end of her hopes to be Trump’s running mate. Let’s be real: there are three reasons that the Republican candidates other than Christie have so assiduously avoided criticizing Trump in the debates and on the campaign trail… (1) they are terrified of alienating Trump, (2) sooner or later they will need his base, and (3) they are all open to the idea of being his VP.  Nikki Haley has never ruled out accepting the VP slot on a ticket with Trump.

It will be in South Carolina that Nikki Haley realizes that she cannot preserve both a shot at the Presidency and a chance at the VP slot. She has to choose. She either has to slay Trump and go for the Presidency or continue her nerf-ball messaging strategy and lose badly.

In the history of presidential campaigns, there is much talk of a candidate and the “moment.” A young and marginally experienced Barack Obama somehow mysteriously understood that 2008 was his “moment,” and he seized it. A less certain Chris Christie had his “moment” in 2012, and ducked… thinking he’d get another chance. He never did.

Haley realizes that her time is now.

To win the nomination, Nikki Haley realizes that she must finally – finally -- turn her biggest messaging guns directly on Donald Trump.

The campaign in South Carolina will be amazing. Haley knows that she cannot afford to alienate the MAGA Republicans by raising January 6… but Christie will be given that job.

Nikki Haley will campaign aggressively on the idea that you can’t beat an 81-year-old President with a 78-year-old candidate who is stuck in the past and completely preoccupied with defending himself against felonies.

Haley’s SuperPac will take dead aim at Donald Trump. Savage ads will appear that highlight Trump’s echo of Nazi rhetoric.  More ads will focus on Trump’s recklessness, instability, memory lapses, ineffectiveness in his first term, and his paranoid, dystopian call for “retribution.” The SuperPac will embark on a search and destroy mission in South Carolina, if only to determine whether Donald Trump has indeed become too big to fail.

The cannons of Fort Sumter will roar again, this time triggering an internecine war within the GOP. It will be ugly. The gap between the New Hampshire primary and the South Carolina primary is 31 days… which is actually a very long time for two candidates to be ripping each other to pieces in a small state.

Lots of crazy things can happen in a campaign. Here’s a reasonable speculation: Donald Trump will finally realize that he cannot dodge yet another debate and agrees to go one-on-one against Haley on FOX in front of a nationally televised audience. But when he does, he will suddenly understand the penalty for not debating this cycle -- just as Barack Obama did against Mitt Romney in 2012. If you’ve been absent from the debate stage and your opponent has been debating non-stop for six months, you are going to get clobbered.

Those who remember Trump’s infamous “POTUS Interruptus” debate against Joe Biden in 2020 know that he is actually an atrocious debater. Now, in South Carolina, going up against a candidate who has honed her debating skills, Donald Trump could well be at his worst. He is likely to meander, threaten, yell, interrupt, and lose track of questions. He could make misogynist comments about Haley and/or a female FOX moderator. Angry at a direct question from a tougher FOX moderator (think Brett Baier) about his role in January 6, Trump might be goaded into full-throated support for the insurrection he fomented. As the debate degrades, it’s easy to imagine Donald Trump storming off the debate set with forty-five minutes of time remaining.

It's hardly an unlikely scenario. Such an unhinged meltdown on FOX, the GOP’s private Pravda, would be a catastrophic demonstration of the degradation of his mental faculties and his emotional instability… all played out in real time, directly to the Republican faithful. Again: campaigns are unpredictable, and a single disastrous event can create a run at the bank.

The polls that currently show Trump far ahead in South Carolina are meaningless. They will be dramatically affected by Iowa, New Hampshire, and by the likely departure of DeSantis, Ramaswamy, and Christie. Coming out of a strong showing in New Hampshire and going into a two-person race in her home state, Haley could be within striking distance of Trump from the opening bell.

Re-energized as the charismatic voice of a new generation, let’s guess that Haley pulls off a 51/49 squeaker in South Carolina.

In winning, she destroys Donald Trump’s aura of invincibility and inevitability, and becomes a media frenzy, the “lion-killer.” She roars toward Super Tuesday, and indisputably has “the Big Mo.”

4.  Super Tuesday: The Seismic Shift

On March 5, 2024, fifteen states and one territory will vote on the biggest single day of the primary season. Think of it this way: for all the time, attention and money thrown at the early primaries, they account for a mere 142 of the total 2,429 delegates to the GOP convention. Then, less than two weeks after South Carolina, 1,215 delegates will be selected in a single day.

Making this even more daunting for Haley is the fact that most of these states operate on a “winner take all” awarding of delegates. (Each state has it own rules, and many have "thresholds" for being awarded any delegate, or require 50% of the vote to be awarded the full slate of delegates. But in a two person race, the odds are high that one of the two candidates will meet the threshold for "winner take all.") Haley may have been able to make strong headway in South Carolina because she was a well-known, likeable former governor, and she had a full month to make her case. But on Super Tuesday, “close enough” no longer matters. She must win the vote in a cluster to states to have the slightest chance at the nomination.

Again, this article is about what it would take for Haley to win the nomination, not what any sane person thinks is likely to happen. So the scenario we are about to describe is a very long shot.

But think about this: Haley is doing far better in “purplish” New Hampshire than in “deep red” Iowa. Does that mean that she would generally do better in the primaries in blue states, and less well in red states?

Consider this hypothesis:

Donald Trump wins the “redder” of the Super Tuesday states… Alabama, Alaska, American Samoa, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah.

Nikki Haley, on the other hand, ekes out wins in the more moderate states: California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, and Virginia.

In that scenario, Donald Trump wins Super Tuesday by 430 to 370 delegates.

But there is one more state to count: North Carolina.

If Nikki Haley can win North Carolina and its 74 delegates, she wins Super Tuesday, 444 to 430.

This exercise shows just how daunting it is for Haley to beat Trump. It is extremely difficult to imagine Haley having the money, messaging, and ground game to actually beat Trump in eight states.

But campaign momentum is a crazy, unpredictable, mercurial, mysterious thing. If Nikki Haley appears to have slayed the giant (or at least decisively slayed expectations) in South Carolina, it is possible that a groundswell to her campaign morphs into a stampede. Joe Biden himself finished fourth in Iowa in 2020, but after winning South Carolina, he conquered on Super Tuesday. Crazy things can happen.

If the scenario outlined above were to happen, then all bets are off.

5.  The sprint to the Convention

If Donald Trump’s aura of invincibility is shattered by Super Tuesday, he will have to work hard for the remaining states just as his court obligations begin to kick in. Trump has always relied on rallies to reach his base, but now cannot spend enough time on the road in rallies because of court obligations.

As the primaries move forward, a curious phenomenon happens: Democrats, who have no contested primaries, begin registering in droves as Republicans so they can vote in the GOP primaries.

On April 2, blue states witness a last-minute surge in GOP primary voters, who push races in New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Wisconsin into Haley’s column, handing Haley 195 delegates. Suddenly, Haley is up 100 delegates with only 500 delegates left to be chosen.

By mid-April, Nikki Haley is in the driver’s seat, and cruises through the final primaries to eke out a first ballot win in the Republican Convention.

Could it happen?

It depends on whether you ask Roger Staubach, Doug Flutie, or Eric Trump.

For all those lefties who salivate at this scenario: be warned. Nikky Haley could prove to be a more effective candidate against Joe Biden than Donald Trump. Be careful what you wish for.

Then again, remember when Joe Biden said that the reason he was running for re-election was because Donald Trump would be the Republican candidate? Rightly or wrongly, Biden continues to believe that he is far and away the best candidate to beat Donald Trump.

But what if Haley steals the nomination? Would Biden suddenly decide that he is not the best candidate to beat Haley, and throw the Democratic nomination open for the convention to decide?

Would we end up with Haley vs. Kamala Harris? Gavin Newsom? Gretchen Whitmer?

Ok, fantasy football fans, it’s time to return to reality.

The 2024 election is going to be a re-match of Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Nikki Haley? She is staring down the full length of the gridiron, and there are effectively six seconds on the clock. Can she pull off what Doug Flutie pulled off? 

It is possible. But wise people don’t bet on miracle finishes.

The hope is that in sketching out just how hard it would be for Nikki to execute the “Haley Mary,” we all realize that Nikki Haley isn’t going to do our work for us.

If you want to make sure Donald Trump never gets the chance to turn the United States into an authoritarian state, it is time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.  


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Monday, January 1, 2024

BTRTN: While Biden Machinates, GOP Self-Destructs

Tom is back with the December, 2023 BTRTN Month in Review.


Have you ever watched curling?  Yes, I do mean the Canadian sports addiction that became a bit of a “thing” to watch during the 2022 Winter Olympics.  For those of you have never seen the game, a granite stone is pushed slowly across slippery ice toward a target; while the stone is in motion, players sweep the ice ahead of it, often furiously, to try to change the path or speed of the stone, in an attempt to direct it to the center of the target.  Fanatics find it fascinating to watch those machinations, but the subtle pleasures of curling remain lost on most.

A curling-to-politics analogy may be labored, but nevertheless apt.  In this case, the stone is the 2024 campaign cycle, which is slowly, but inexorably, moving ever closer to its culmination on November 5, 2024, while Democrats and Republicans – and others  -- furiously try to manage the treacherous political environment to reach a victorious goal.

December, 2023 was notable for the pragmatic machinations Joe Biden made, and continues to make, to course correct in the face of very early, but very alarming, 2024 polling that shows him trailing Donald Trump in many swing states.  This is what politicians usually do in reelection years -- recalibrate.  The Republicans, on the other hand, instead have offered up a baffling array of their own machinations, giving every evidence that they are doubling down on their worst issues, while deflecting attention from their best ones.  One might think that the GOP was swept up in the holiday spirit in gifting issues to the Democrats, but actually the entire year has been an exercise in the GOP putting its worst foot forward. 

Arguably, this has been the GOP’s method of operation since 2016, when the party first lashed itself to Donald Trump, a fate they cannot seem to escape.  Sometimes they put forward truly terrible candidates, often endorsed by Trump, who lose easy-to-win elections; at other times the MAGA-controlled (given three Trump appointees) Supreme Court weighs in with a clunker; and for most of 2023, it has been the GOP House that is leading the charge to destroy the party’s 2024 chances, setting up yet another opportunity to blow what might have been (and still could be) a winning cycle for them.  After Trump won in 2016, the GOP has lost every election cycle, losing the House in 2018, the White House and Senate in 2020, and performing well below expectations in the 2022 midterms (failing to flip an easily flappable Senate and nearly losing the House).  This losing streak continued throughout 2023, when the Democrats outperformed prior recent results in a series of state special elections and referendums, culminating in a near-perfect Election Day performance when they flipped the Virginia legislature among a number of key wins.  

Biden has famously, and remarkably successfully, brought back 20th century techniques to these modern times.  “Bipartisan legislation,” thought to be anachronistic, if not oxymoronic, has made a comeback under Biden, and, for him, the solution to at least some of his current political woes is to cut a deal.  The deal he has in mind is to OK a relatively hardline immigration reform package in return for a significant aid package for both Ukraine and Israel.  (It is Ukraine support on which the GOP is balking.)  Senate negotiators appeared to be making progress on such a deal prior to the holiday break, but they ran out of time and will resume discussions in January.

Such a package would outrage progressives, of course, on the immigration front, and the left is already unhappy with Biden for his full-throated support of Israel given Hamas's horrific terrorist attack on October 7, as he left no room for any sympathy for Gaza civilians based on past (and potentially future) Israeli treatment of them.  His no-holds-barred support of Israel may have been smart diplomacy at the time, as Biden sought the most possible leverage in tempering Israel’s response.  But while he achieved a measure of success in achieving a 7-day “pause” that saw 105 hostages released and humanitarian aid flow into Gaza, by that point the Israeli military had already killed too many Gaza civilians to retain broad Western support.  With hostilities resuming, the death toll in Gaza has now surpassed 20,000, a truly breathtaking figure.  (Since Hamas embeds themselves among Gaza civilians, there is simply no way to avoid innocent deaths.)  Thus that smart diplomacy has now translated into bad politics, and Biden has lost material levels of support among key U.S. electoral constituencies, most notably the youth vote, which is now, remarkably, more or less split between Biden and Trump.  Global support is also waning, as the U.N. has proven in passing a humanitarian aid resolution on which the U.S. voted to abstain, and only then by ensuring the language of the resolution had been measurably watered down.

Biden is now, predictably, talking tough to Israel, pressuring for an end to the war, finally recognizing that the needle cannot be threaded.  That is, there is simply no way that Israel can eliminate Hamas, it’s stated goal, without continuing to kill Gaza civilians at an alarming rate.  Whether the Israeli’s listen is Biden's next problem, but Biden is at least making clear the distance between him and Benjamin Netanyahu on any number of issues, including both the prosecution of the war and the post-war configuration of the region.

It remains to be seen whether these various machinations, Biden wielding his curling broom, will heal some of the damage he has taken on immigration, Israel and Ukraine (Biden’s support of Ukraine is, of course, at risk, given lack of GOP support).  But at least Biden is taking practical steps to address his issues.  That is more than can be said for the GOP.

What to make of the Grand Old Party when it comes to 2024?  About the only thing they are doing that makes any sense is clobbering Biden on immigration.  The rest of it is simply hard to imagine, but all explained in terms of the party’s helpless addiction to Trump and acceding to his demands.

We can start with the pending coronation of Trump to be the 2023 GOP nominee for president.  The unpopular former President’s various legal troubles – 91 criminal counts and four criminal trials, not to mention a slew of pending rulings on how each will proceed -- will detract mightily from the story the GOP wants to tell throughout the campaign.  That story is one of alleged economic incompetence under Biden, the aging incumbent.  That story has traction, despite Biden’s obvious vigor and the fact that every important statisitic points to a robust economy, and more so with each passing month.  But even if the story was valid, there is simply no oxygen in the room for it.

Polls aside, does anyone really doubt that Nikki Haley would be a stronger candidate than Trump against Biden in 2024?  Of course she would.  But no one except Chris Christie will say what needs to be said about Trump out loud, that is, expose the full weight of Trump’s sins and his vulnerability as a candidate.  Haley has a needle of her own to thread, which is how to dislodge the frontrunner while refraining from attacking him.

The other problem with Trump is that, he is simply getting even weirder.  In his never-ending quest to fire up the base, he is, if possible, darker and more apocalyptic than ever. It was not a good look for Nixon when he felt the need to make clear that he was “not a crook.”  What can one say about a candidate who has to clarify that he has “never read Mein Kampf”?  And yet that is what Trump had to do after asserting that immigrants were “poisoning our blood,” a line straight out of Hitler’s Aryan race playbook.  Then, when a sympathetic interviewer attempted to give Trump an easy out on charges that he was planning a dictatorship for his second term, Trump did not take the gift, instead proclaiming that he would indeed be a dictator on his first day in office.  Trump then decided it would be a good idea to quote that noted political scientist Vladimir Putin on the state of American democracy.  He appeared to think that Putin’s  anti-American critiques are somehow a valid indictment of Biden.  All of this may fire up the base, but Trump has to do more than that to win, and his darkest moments truly freighten the persuadable middle, and also tighten the purse strings of the donor class of the GOP.

If Trump is a disastrous candidate, what adjective might one use to describe the GOP-led House of Representatives?  This august body spent the entire year tormenting and then disposing of their hapless Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, only to see the no-name they hired to replace him, Mike Johnson, cut nearly the exact same spending deal with the Democrats that caused them to get rid of McCarthy.  But while they busied themselves with leader-cide, they managed to pass only 27 bills in 2023, compared to 248 passed under Nancy Pelosi in 2022.   They busied themselves with speaker votes, censuring Democrats, trying to (ultimately successfully) expel one of their own, George Santos, and passing spending bills that were DOA in the Senate.  Essentially, the GOP could not possibly have made a stronger case for their own dysfunction, and their dismissal next November.

For an encore to the various Speaker and spending debacles, guess what the GOP House is now focused on?  Why Hunter Biden, of course, having now voted – unanimously, no less! – to formalize McCarthy’s impeachment inquiry without an iota of evidence that links the son’s global income to any misconduct by the father.  The strategy appears to be an attempt to offset the Trump trials with some 2024 anti-Biden legal counter-programming.  But as has been endlessly pointed out by left and right alike, Biden has his own set of weaknesses and is trailing Trump in swing-state poll after poll – shouldn't the GOP instead focus on Biden’s actual vulnerabilities (age, grocery prices, immigration, etc.) instead of publicly failing to prove this ludicrous case in the most visible forum in politics, an impeachment trial?  Why put such a focus on a fishing expedition that is very likely to fail?  The New York Times neatly dispensed with the flimsy – nay, pathetic -- set of Hunter Biden text tidbits that form the basis of the “investigation,” and one can’t help but wonder, after all these years – is that all ya got?

In one of the texts, Hunter Biden tells his daughter that at least he (Hunter) wasn’t making her give half of her income to him, as Joe Biden had done to him.  But Hunter Biden was not referring to the elder Biden garnishing his global consulting income in recent years as alleged – rather he was talking about what father Joe made him do with his summer income as a college student over three decades ago, to help pay for room and board expenses!  Payments that various family members have made to Joe Biden – portrayed nefariously by the GOP as payoffs for political favors -- have instead turned out to be the repayments of loans Biden made to them.  This proves only that in the “enriching” business, Joe Biden was not on the receiving end of the largess, he was rather on the giving end, trying to help troubled family members stay afloat.

But the real point is that the impeachment is almost certainly going to be a losing issue for the GOP, specifically for the 18 House members who serve in districts that went for Biden in 2020.  Their vulnerability is very real, and at some point they will be called on to vote to actually impeach Biden – that is where this is headed.  And that vote could very well cost them their seats in 2024, and with them the GOP majority, and Mike Johnson’s sad speakership will end.

But that’s not all, not nearly.  Come January the GOP will return to the spending bill fiasco, another losing issue, and finally face the unhappy choice that has vexed Speakers McCarthy and Johnson alike.  Johnson will have to either pass bills without massive cuts, with Democratic help -- which will once again outrage his far right flank, of which he is a card carrying member -- or go forward with a government shutdown.  That shutdown will be blamed squarely on the GOP, will be highly unpopular in swing districts, and will, of course, once again deflect attention from “better” GOP campaign issues.

But even that is not all.  We have not even begun talking about the third branch of government, which is also under firm GOP control, and that is the Supreme Court.  SCOTUS has decided to join in on the fun of burying the GOP’s 2024 hopes by once again taking on the current third rail of GOP politics – abortion.  Sometime next June, the Court may very well place severe limits on the usage and/or distribution of the abortion drug mifepristone.  While Dobbs was a disaster for reproductive health rights, it has since been electoral magic for the Democrats, the defining issue of the 2022 midterms and those special elections and referendums in 2023 – the engine that has driven unexpected Blue win after win, outperformance after outperformance. 

If Dobbs started a Democratic electoral bonfire, an adverse decision on mifepristone in June, 2024 could pour gasoline on that still raging inferno, in electoral terms.  There is little doubt that further abortion access curtailment would be an electoral disaster for the GOP.

The high court will also play a direct, active role in electoral politics by virtue of rendering judgments on cases directly involving candidate Trump.  They will have to take a stand to resolve competing decisions on the 14th Amendment; Colorado’s state supreme court and Maine’s secretary of state have both determined that the insurrection clause prohibits Trump from appearing on their state’s primary ballot, while Michigan, Minnesota and California have all ruled otherwise (for various reasons) and are allowing his name to appear. 

Jack Smith failed in his quest to fast-track to SCOTUS (bypassing an appellate review) the issue of whether Trump is immune to prosecution for crimes he may have committed as president.  But the case will likely come back to the high court at some point in 2024.  And in yet another case, the Court will have to decide whether part of the federal obstruction law was properly used to prosecute some of the January 6th rioters, a case that has implications for Trump’s own prosecution in the DOJ case as well.

These decisions, all separate from the four trials themselves (though critical to some of them), guarantee that Trump’s legal troubles will dominate the campaign cycle.  Trump has obviously been effective in both messaging his prosecutions into an effective campaign pitch, playing the victim, and will also surely monetize the trials themselves, But when these cases (both Trump’s own trials and the SCOTUS decisions) actually become a non-stop reality, with solid evidence of crimes reported day after day, the limits of that approach may be exposed, especially since Trump is not at all popular among the persuadable middle.

Done yet?  Nope.  Not to be outdone, the Texas Supreme Court decided to make some abortion headlines, affirming Texas law that denied an abortion to a woman who had an unviable pregnancy (the fetus was afflicted with a genetic disorder that would result in near-certain death within weeks of birth) that also threatened her future ability to have a child and her own health.  An appellate judge had granted her relief, but the state high court overturned it (hours after she decided she could not wait for the verdict, and left the state). The publicity generated by this case, and other case studies that lay bare the heartless nature of GOP abortion laws, will provide more electoral motivation for Democrats, and Independents, and certainly suburban women.

Want more?  Even Nikki Haley cannot avoid mind-bending statements that will give any persuadable voter pause.  At a town hall in New Hampshire, Nikki Haley was asked what caused the Civil War.  Here is her answer:  I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do.I think it always comes down to the role of government and what the rights of the people are. And I will always stand by the fact that I think government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people. Government doesn’t need to tell you how to live your life.  They need to make sure that you have freedom. We need to have capitalism. We need to have economic freedom. We need to make sure that we do all things so that individuals have the liberties so that they can have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to do or be anything they want to be without government getting in the way.”

The questioner responded by saying it was “astonishing” that her answer did not mention the word slavery.   

Haley walked it back, or rather sidled sideways, in subsequent damage control.  But her response echoed fellow candidate (and battle for #2 status in the field) Ron DeSantis’ efforts to portray slavery as a productive learning experience for slaves.  This is the way the GOP plans to capture some slice of the Black vote?  And so goes the party of Lincoln, the furious machinations of its leading candidate pushing the clock ever backward, now driving it deeper into the past, past Roe and now back into Jim Crow.

All in all, it would be a struggle for the GOP to get the electorate to focus on the issues it ostensibly wants to highlight to defeat Biden, flip the Senate and hold the House.  But with all the self-inflicted noise around impeachment, the continued political perils of the post-Roe abortion environment, and the tsunami of Trump-based legal battles royale, and the gaffes of Trump’s challengers, there is not much oxygen left – especially with an improving economy undercutting the GOP’s Number One anti-Biden message.

Stay tuned.


Joe Biden’s approval rating in December inched up a point versus November, from 39% to 40%.  His issue ratings, however, were generally lower, though that may be because there were a greater number of polls by pollsters who typically have lower Biden numbers, and therefore more of a weighting issue than a true sign of further erosion.

The generic ballot continues to show a dead heat between the Democrats and the GOP.

The "Bidenometer" rose again, from +57 to +60, notably driven by a rise in both the stock market and consumer confidence, and further falling of gas prices. The +60 level means the economy is in far better shape under Biden than the one he inherited from Trump (see below).


The Bidenometer is a BTRTN proprietary economic measure that was designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

The Bidenometer measure is comprised of five indicative data points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.

The +60 for December, 2023 means that, on average, the five measures are 60% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +60, the economy is performing markedly better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.  Unemployment is much lower, consumer confidence is higher, the Dow is higher and the GDP is stronger.  On the flip side, gas prices are higher, as is overall inflation, of which gas prices are a primary component.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, under Clinton the measure ended at +55.  It declined from +55 to +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it.  Now we have seen it move upward from 0 to +60 under Biden.

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