When it comes to the Iowa caucuses, December is the month of movement and consolidation. If there's gonna be an upset, it starts to materialize and then solidify in the final month of the year. So let's set the table for decision time in the Hawkeye State caucuses, to be held on Jan. 15, 2024.
1. Four-time indictee Donald Trump still leads the field—but by less than he did
Donald Trump's position in Iowa polling has slipped over the past month to roughly 45%, after spending much of October hovering around 50% in 538's polling aggregate. Despite the mild decline, he's still the odds-on favorite to win the caucuses. By how much and who will take second place are the real questions.
2. Nikki Haley's star is rising in Iowa, the one early state where she's been weak
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has made a notable jump in 538's Iowa aggregate, from solid third-place positioning to challenging Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for second. The gap between them of roughly 2 percentage points (DeSantis' 17.5% to Haley's 15.3%) suggests second place is up for grabs, and sparring between the two camps has increased accordingly.
DeSantis arguably has the better door-knocking operation in Iowa and he's had far more resources to pour into the state. But Haley is making a decent stab at playing catch-up. This week, the former ambassador and South Carolina governor secured the endorsement and financial backing of the Koch network, which includes a built-in direct-mail, door-knocking, and phone-calling operation. It's exactly the type of help Haley needs to chip away at DeSantis' organizational strength.
Other notable endorsements include DeSantis getting the nod from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and influential evangelical activist Bob Vander Plaats.
Though Iowa evangelicals historically gravitate as a block toward one candidate in the final month of the campaign, fissures have emerged among social conservatives. Marlys Popma, an anti-abortion stalwart and former head of the state Republican Party, announced her impromptu support for Haley at a town hall event a couple weeks ago.
So whether Haley or DeSantis emerges as runner-up to Trump coming out of Iowa is truly a mystery at this point.
3. Haley has a path to challenging Trump after Iowa, and DeSantis doesn't
As I have noted before, Haley has a better shot at making a clean run at Trump after Iowa, particularly if she makes a better-than-expected showing in the Hawkeye State.
While Haley has seemingly solidified her second-place position in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, DeSantis has actually dropped below third place in recent New Hampshire polling. At the same time, infighting has erupted within the DeSantis camp as donors grow increasingly skittish.
4. Haley getting an early boost could matter, but not necessarily because she can beat Trump
It's really difficult at this point to imagine Haley knocking out Trump, but anything is possible—particularly if prosecutors secure a criminal conviction against him next spring and he starts looking uncharacteristically weak in the primary.
Short of beating Trump, however, Haley hanging around in the GOP primary as long as possible could help the cause of democracy. She's a strong communicator who can poke holes in Trump's MAGA armor on both foreign and domestic policy. Any Haley messaging that lands (or, alternatively, misses) could serve as a road map for future anti-Trump ads and messaging. But most importantly, a Haley run at Trump could help remind soft Republicans and foreign policy hawks how truly dangerous Trump is come the general election.
5. If Haley loses to Trump, she will almost certainly endorse him
It's worth remembering that whatever good might come of a potential Haley challenge to Trump, she would almost surely endorse him if he clinches the nomination.
For pro-democracy advocates, that matters because it could help create a permission structure for non-MAGA Republicans to vote for him anyway. Remember, we need some soft Republicans to peel off and vote for Joe Biden and we don't want them to have any excuses to do otherwise.
It's almost impossible to know what will help or hurt most on the margins in the general election—a strong Haley challenge to Trump or her eventual endorsement of him. But Haley taking a run at Trump is likely to prove more useful in dividing the GOP against itself than a challenge by Trump's mini-me, DeSantis.