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What is the point of coming second to Donald Trump?

The Economist
Apr 16, 2024 08:00 AM IST

Whatever happens in New Hampshire, Nikki Haley has boosted her political career

Editor’s note (January 22nd 2024): This article was updated after Ron DeSantis withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during a news conference, Wednesday, March 6, 2024, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)(AP)
Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during a news conference, Wednesday, March 6, 2024, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)(AP)

“REAGAN WAS SMILING,” wrote Norman Mailer in 1968 as he watched a future American president lose. The result of the first round of the Republican National Convention was in, and Richard Nixon had beaten his challengers, including Ronald Reagan, to secure his party’s nomination. Perhaps, Mailer speculated, Reagan was “remembering Barry Goldwater’s renunciation of the nomination in 1960, and the profitable results which had ensued”. In 1960 Goldwater had received riotous applause; in 1964 he got the nomination.

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The selection process works differently today—primary elections, rather than opaque rounds of voting at conventions, determine the winner. On January 15th Donald Trump trounced his nearest rivals in the Iowa caucuses, winning the support of more than half of caucus-goers. Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley trailed him on 21% and 19% respectively. On January 21st Mr DeSantis announced that he would drop out of the race. The popular governor proved to be an unnatural national campaigner, and his pitch (Trump without the chaos) did not persuade voters who still liked the original. That leaves Ms Haley, a former governor of South Carolina (and ambassador to the UN during Mr Trump’s first term) as his only rival for the Republican nomination. She is likely to lose, but history suggests that today’s losers have a good chance of becoming tomorrow’s winners.

Most Americans struggle to name their congressman, or even their senators. A presidential run gives candidates unparalleled national exposure, which can pay off in four or eight years. John McCain lost the Republican nomination to George W. Bush in 2000, then beat Mitt Romney in 2008. Mr Romney secured the spot four years later. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden lost to Barack Obama in 2008: Mrs Clinton got the nod in 2016. Mr Biden did in 2020, on his third try. In November 2023 Mr DeSantis took part in a bizarre debate against California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, one of the leading candidates to represent the Democrats in 2028.

Some long shots may run with the intention of settling for second prize: the vice-presidential slot. In 2004 John Kerry picked John Edwards, the runner-up; Reagan similarly tapped George H.W. Bush in 1980. And losers who find their way onto a ticket may eventually clinch the top job. Mr Biden himself benefited from his two terms as Mr Obama’s vice-president. The elder Bush succeeded Reagan as president. Lyndon Johnson stepped up from the vice-presidency after John Kennedy was killed in office. But Mr Trump, who seems to nurse grudges, might be less inclined to run alongside a competitor. He insisted on January 10th that he already knows whom he will choose, regardless of primary results.

A runner-up may also hope to benefit from less probable scenarios. The 77-year-old Mr Trump might take ill; the Supreme Court could boot him off the ballot. Ms Haley is gaining support among moderate Republicans, independents, and even Democrats who worry that Mr Biden will lose to Mr Trump. No Labels, a centrist group, may be preparing to launch a presidential challenge. Some observers think she could become the group’s candidate. Whatever her plan, a strong showing on January 23rd in New Hampshire (where non-Republicans can vote in the primary) would help.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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