As the Iowa caucuses draw nearer, the Republican Party finds itself in a race against time to rally behind a single candidate as an alternative to former President Trump. The recent exit of former Vice President Mike Pence from the race has increased pressure on low-polling candidates to follow suit, particularly as figures like former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley gain ground and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis faces a decline in popularity.
A new Iowa poll further underscores the challenge Republicans face in challenging Trump’s dominance. The NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll revealed that Trump maintains a substantial 27-point lead over his nearest competitor in Iowa, an increase from his 23-point lead in August. Haley and DeSantis are tied for second place at 16 percent, with Haley gaining 10 points since August, while DeSantis has slipped by 3 points.
Non-Trump candidates continue to vie for the position of the primary alternative, but Trump’s substantial lead in key states and nationally poses a considerable hurdle. Republican consultant Nicole Schlinger of Iowa highlights the importance of undercard candidates confronting Trump head-on to improve their prospects.
While some minor candidates have dropped out during October, Pence’s withdrawal marks a significant exit from the race. Pence, a former Vice President and close ally of Trump, emphasized his conservative and religious values and the continuation of Trump’s policies but struggled to gain traction in polls and fundraising, particularly in a race dominated by Trump. His inability to meet fundraising requirements, despite having met polling criteria for the third GOP debate, demonstrates the challenges he faced.
Even in Iowa, where a strong evangelical base might have offered a significant opportunity for Pence, he garnered only 2 percent support in the poll.
Political economist Michael Strain suggests that candidates, except for Haley, should follow Pence’s lead. DeSantis has consistently held the second position in national and key state polls, though recent polls indicate that Haley is closing the gap. Republican strategist Saul Anuzis believes that the current polling data reflects movements in the race rather than determining the ultimate strength of fundraising or political infrastructure. He emphasizes that it is too early to make definitive judgments.
Anuzis does not expect Pence’s withdrawal to result in a major shift in the polls. However, the collective decision of some candidates to withdraw does increase the pressure on remaining contenders to make decisions about their future in the race.
The most likely opportunity to challenge Trump could be at the Republican convention, where delegates are unbound and allowed to vote for any candidate. The convention’s rules, set at the outset, will determine the viability of an alternative.
Rina Shah, a Republican strategist, believes that a larger field is not necessarily problematic at the beginning of the voting process. Voters have multiple options other than Trump. She suggests that it’s uncertain when a clear single alternative should emerge. Shah argues that Nikki Haley has a compelling case to be the primary alternative, given her strong performances in the first two GOP debates. She anticipates that Haley could benefit if former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina drop out and support her.
Shah points out that in 2020, many Republican voters felt compelled to support Trump even if they had reservations. Now, they have more choices. In 2020, Trump faced minimal opposition for the nomination, whereas the current larger primary field adds an element of unpredictability to the race.