Since the current primary-oriented nominating system began in the 1970s, every election year has seen at least one party’s presidential race remain competitive through Super Tuesday, which this year is on March 5, 2024. In this Election Report, voting and elections expert Rhodes Cook explores how the Democratic and Republican nominating contests could be wrapped up days before this year’s Super Tuesday.

Document Outline
It Depends on Haley
Voter Turnout: Mixed Signals

The shortest previous presidential primary races were in 2000 and 2004. In the former, both Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore drove their last major opponent out of the race in the wake of Super Tuesday batter. In the latter, Super Tuesday was the end of the road for Democrat John Kerry’s last significant rival, while President Bush ran virtually unopposed on the GOP side. In both years, at least one of the parties held meaningful primaries or caucuses in at least 15 states.

This year, however, the Democratic and Republican nominating contests could be over days before Super Tuesday in favor of President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, respectively. That would be a historic event but not a very voter-friendly one. Only voters in a handful of small, early states would be making the choice for the rest of the country. Later-voting states would only matter if there were a radical change in the basic nature of the presidential race this year, which is possible, but not widely anticipated.

The contest for the Democratic nomination is essentially over. Presidents often run for renomination against minor opposition, which is the case this year with Biden. He won the party’s non-binding New Hampshire primary on January 23 with 64 percent of the vote, all write-ins, against Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota and self-help author Marianne Williamson. On February 3, Biden’s name was on the ballot in South Carolina against his two challengers and he took a nearly unanimous 96 percent of the vote. (Williamson quit the race on February 7.)

The vast host of Republican leaders loyal to Trump as well as his “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) supporters would like to see the GOP nominating contest deemed officially over. Since his general election loss in 2020, Trump has been a prohibitive favorite to win the 2024 Republican nomination, with the operating assumption that he is unbeatable in the GOP primaries and caucuses.

Trump has considerable assets in the Republican contest. He is a former president and two-time GOP presidential nominee, who can essentially run among Republicans as an incumbent. Furthermore, he has a passionate base in the party, he can quickly raise money, he can draw media attention whenever he wants, and he has successfully sold himself to Republicans as a martyr in his extensive legal battles. The almost religious martyrdom that Trump proclaims, has served to widen his already broad lead in GOP primary polls and solidify the support of Christian evangelicals.

It Depends on Haley

Still, right now, how long the Republican race will go on depends less on Trump than his lone remaining rival of note, former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley. How long does she want to keep battling Trump when wide swaths of the party want her out of the race and are willing to be increasingly nasty about it?

In turn, the 52-year-old Haley has responded with a barrage of criticism of Trump. Both he and Biden, she says, are too old (77 and 81 years old, respectively) and of questionable mental competence. She argues that the nation needs a unifier, not a divider. And as a result, she sees herself as far more electable than Trump.

To be sure, the former president has shown himself to be an electoral juggernaut in the Republican contests thus far. In winning the Iowa caucuses on January 15, he swept 98 of the state’s 99 counties. In the New Hampshire primary on January 23, he took nine of the Granite state’s 10 counties. The one non-Trump county in each state went for Haley and was academic in nature: Johnson County, the home of the University of Iowa (where Haley edged Trump by 1 vote); and Grafton County, New Hampshire, on the rural western side of the state, which includes the town of Hanover (home of Dartmouth College) and its liberal environs.

Haley has set a high bar for herself in South Carolina, by indicating in a late January interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that she does not need to win her home state but does need to keep building her vote share from event to event. In the lead-off caucuses in Iowa, she ran third in the multi-candidate field with 19 percent of the vote (behind Trump with 51 percent and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis with 21 percent). That represented a deficit for Haley of 32 percentage points. In the New Hampshire primary, with the GOP field down to Haley and Trump, she drew a respectable 43 percent of the vote —11 points behind the front-runner.

Critics of Haley say the New Hampshire Republican primary had a unique composition to it, closely divided between self-described Republicans and independent voters who could participate in either party’s primary. Exit polls from the Granite state showed Trump sweeping almost 75 percent of the self-described Republicans, while Haley took 60 percent of the independent vote.

If those numbers continue, that spells easy success for Trump in most of the remaining GOP primaries. But it also points to potential problems for the former president in the general election, when battleground states will in large part be decided by independents.

Even though South Carolina is Haley’s home state, it has favored Trump since 2016. He carried the South Carolina primary that year by 10 points over senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, which was followed by two successive general election victories in the Palmetto state in 2016 and 2020, each by double digits percentage wise. In contrast, Haley has not been on a South Carolina ballot since 2014, when she won her second term as governor.

In the early days of February 2024, the RealClearPolitics rolling compilation of polls found Trump to be running well ahead of Haley in South Carolina with 60 percent of the vote and a margin over the former governor of 2 to 1.

At least, Haley has a broad collection of voters to pursue in South Carolina. There is no party registration in the state, and of the 3.25 million registered voters the only ones who cannot cast a GOP primary ballot on February 24 are the 131,000 who already participated in the February 3 Democratic primary. In the state’s competitive 2020 Democratic race, the number of ballots cast nearly reached 540,000, providing Biden with his critical first win of the 2020 primary season.

Voter Turnout: Mixed Signals

In New Hampshire this year, a solid Biden victory was also combined with a low turnout. The number of Democratic primary ballots cast dropped from nearly 300,000 in 2020 to less than 125,000 on January 23. But the reason was understandable. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) punished Granite state Democrats for scheduling the self-described “first-in-the-nation primary” two weeks before the February 6 date that the DNC had assigned them. As a consequence, no Democratic delegates were at stake in New Hampshire this year and Biden did not file for the primary ballot. Instead, he depended on New Hampshire supporters to mount a write-in campaign on his behalf.

The turnout for the opening two Republican events of 2024 were more of a mixed bag. Maybe it was the frigid caucus night in Iowa or the sense that Trump had the vote in the bag, but the Iowa GOP caucus turnout collapsed from more than 185,000 participants in 2016 to barely 110,000 this year. (The Iowa Democratic caucuses will not be held until March 5.)

However, the absence of a meaningful Democratic vote in New Hampshire meant a strong turnout increase for the Republican primary, as independents flooded into it to vote in the lively Trump-Haley contest. The total Republican vote of 325,000 in 2024 was the highest for any presidential primary in New Hampshire, Democratic or Republican.

Ultimately, it would be no surprise if Haley quit the race if she suffered a decisive loss in her home state. A slew of embarrassing defeats could follow. That, in turn, would bring down the curtain on the competitive stage of the 2024 presidential primary season after just four states voted on the Republican side (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada in early February, and South Carolina).

But a presidential campaign is not always about winning and losing. It can be about critical longer term issues, about building a personal legacy, and about championing a cause – the cause in this case being the future direction of the Republican Party.

There is no doubt that Trump and his followers have a firm grip on the GOP now and will for the foreseeable future. But to many mainstream Republicans, Haley is already “a profile in courage.” To them, challenging Trump may be more than worthy of Haley continuing her campaign, even if the chances of her winning her party’s nomination is virtually zero.

Rhodes Cook 2/9/24

Document Citation
2024: Quickest primary sason ever? (2024).
Document ID: electrpts-2165-121478-3025326
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