‘Best-case scenario’ for Trump as rivals refuse to drop out

DURHAM, New Hampshire — First Donald Trump’s Republican critics banked on one of his opponents catching a spark in Iowa. Then they said New Hampshire was where they’d make their mark.

Eventually, advisers to Trump’s rivals maintained, someone would emerge from the field of lower-polling candidates to get a clear shot at Trump.

After the past week, that idea has never looked more out of reach.

In Iowa, new polling shows Trump not only maintaining his enormous lead in the first caucus state, but expanding on it — stretching his support to 51 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers. And in New Hampshire, Republicans desperate for someone other than Trump were further dividing the field.

When the state’s popular Republican governor, Chris Sununu, endorsed former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on Tuesday, he became the third of three early-state governors to endorse a different candidate.

For Haley, it was great news, just as Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds had publicly backed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, or South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster had gone in for Trump. But for Republicans yearning to move on from the former president, it was a disaster — capping one of the worst weeks yet in the movement to block Trump from the nomination.

“If you’re Trump, that’s the best-case scenario,” said Phil Taub, a prominent New Hampshire donor and Republican activist who is close with Sununu. “Everybody just wants it to be Trump versus one candidate. But as long as they are splitting up all the votes, Trump doesn’t even have to get 50 percent.”

Trump’s opponents aren’t just failing to coalesce around one candidate — they’re actively making it harder to do so, with lower-polling candidates giving no indication they’ll step aside before voting begins.

Haley says at events that she plans to wait out the winnowing that’s bound to continue as the nominating calendar moves through Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and onto her home state of South Carolina, where she contends she’ll be able to take on Trump one-on-one. But DeSantis argued to a group of roughly 70 voters in Concord on Friday that he’s the only one who can beat Trump — because he appeals to Trump’s base and can draw some of those voters.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, meanwhile, sees a path through New Hampshire, where he’s staking his campaign, to Michigan, where he has yet to make an appearance. Vivek Ramaswamy, an independently wealthy biotech entrepreneur, has every incentive to stay in as long as he keeps drawing attention. And then there is former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who continues to make his case to early-state voters despite polling at around 1 percent.

“No one’s getting out,” veteran New Hampshire-based Republican strategist Dave Carney said. “All the ‘No Trump’ voters are divided among four people. And math is a very simple process.”

At this point in the 2016 election, Trump was down by 3 percentage points in Iowa to Sen. Ted Cruz, ultimately coming in second by that same margin. But with a fractured field that year — and even lacking majority support — Trump went on to beat his rivals and win the GOP contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, propelling him to the nomination.

The problem for anti-Trump Republicans this time is not only that the field is similarly divided, but Trump’s lead in all four early states is drastically higher.

And with time vanishing before the first votes are cast, his rivals have failed to come even close to striking distance. That’s despite ramping up campaign events in early states, securing influential endorsements and spending — with the help of super PACs — a combined $167 million to date on advertisements, according to tracking service AdImpact.

Few of the candidates’ efforts, however, are aimed at dragging down Trump. During the last GOP debate, Trump’s opponents spent more time attacking Haley, whose campaign has been on the rise, than the frontrunner himself. And Haley and DeSantis’ allies continue to spend money on television against each other, rather than trying to close the gap with Trump.

Even Christie, who has long warned his rivals to stop berating each other and go after Trump directly, has started to light into Haley on the campaign trail in recent weeks as he tries to leapfrog her in New Hampshire polls.

“It’s all — pardon the phrase — mental masturbation,” said Barrett Marson, an Arizona Republican strategist. “Trump has never slipped. And DeSantis and Haley would rather attack each other than the guy they are really running against. Everyone is struggling to come in second place in a race where only first place pays anything.”

Trump’s campaign is openly delighting in its rivals’ self-cannibalizing. “It’s like watching two JV teams tripping over each other set to the theme of Benny Hill playing in the background,” Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung said in a statement.

And to make matters worse for Trump’s opponents, there’s no guarantee that if more candidates drop out, their supporters will shift to another Trump alternative, anyway. Half of likely DeSantis voters in a recent University of New Hampshire/CNN poll said Trump would be their second choice, while more Ramaswamy voters would break for Trump than DeSantis.

By attacking one another rather than the frontrunner, the candidates themselves are “not conditioning” their supporters to back anyone other than Trump when the field further shrinks, said Lucy Caldwell, an independent political strategist who ran former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh’s failed effort to primary Trump in the 2020 campaign.

When candidates inevitably drop out, “some of [their supporters] are going to become Trump voters,” Caldwell said. “And so I think there has been wishful thinking … that those groups are aligned in their hatred for Trump.”

Instead, in a contest where Trump is so dominant, candidates are turning to wish-casting, seizing on every infinitesimal shift in public surveys to bolster their case. After polls started showing him rising into third place in New Hampshire, Christie began telling voters that it was now a “three-person” race in the state between him, Haley and Trump. Following his endorsement of Haley on Tuesday, Sununu winnowed it even further.

“With all due respect to the other candidates, this is a two-person race at this point,” the New Hampshire governor said. “And I think that’s why Donald Trump’s nervous.”

But it’s the voters who don’t want Trump as their nominee for the third consecutive cycle who are increasingly nervous — fretting that the field is still too big to stave off a repeat of 2016.

“There’s too many” candidates, said Sandra Batchedeer, an Auburn, New Hampshire, independent who voted for Trump in 2020 and is now leaning toward Haley. “The field needs to get very narrowed down so that it doesn’t get so divided.”

Trump is feeding off his detractors’ disarray. After his rivals spent the week crisscrossing the state in a pre-holiday blitz, speaking to a few hundred voters at a time, the former president drew thousands of supporters to the Democratic stronghold of Durham for his first New Hampshire arena rally of the cycle.

He mocked his lower-polling rivals — “the sellouts,” he said, “are lagging far behind us in the Republican primary, at record levels” — to laughter and cheers from the raucous crowd. And he shrugged off Sununu’s endorsement of Haley, calling the Granite State governor a “spoiled brat” who is supporting “someone who can’t win.”

“Whatever happened to the ‘surge’? Whatever happened to the ‘bounce’? With Nikki, they talk about the surge. With DeSanctimonious, they talk about the bounce. They’ve been talking about it for the last six months,” Trump said. “And the only one that had a surge, and the only one that had a bounce, is Trump.”

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