As the Republican primaries enter full swing, candidates Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley faced each other in debate on 10 January 2024, preceding the Iowa caucuses. Tensed for political warfare, both aimed to present their own policies, attack the other’s, and take swipes at the front runner: Trump.
With the stage set, two things were clear to the audience. Firstly, the debate was hosted by the media outlet CNN, rather than the RNC (Republican National Committee). Perhaps an emblem of Trump’s influence behind the scenes, placing pressure on the RNC to focus on the general election campaign rather than primaries. Secondly, Trump was notably absent on the stage. An absence communicating both confidence and precedence. Strategically, Trump’s absence enables the diversion of criticism; Haley and DeSantis are more likely to target each other than Trump. Instead, by attending a Town Hall on Fox News, Trump garnered a receptive audience and established his personability as a leader ‘of the people’ once again.
The two ongoing wars brought foreign policy to the forefront of the debate. The rival candidates critiqued each other’s responses towards Ukraine and Russia, and the Israel-Gaza conflict. DeSantis voiced concerns regarding an ‘open ended commitment’ of US involvement in foreign wars, and views China as the more significant threat. In contrast, Haley perceives Ukraine as a ‘friend’ of importance to American values of freedom and highlights DeSantis’ inconsistent approach to providing Ukraine with funds. According to DeSantis, this globalist approach exposes Haley’s greater concern for Ukraine’s borders than US borders. When discussing Gaza, DeSantis rebutted the two state solution proposed by Haley, rejecting it as a viable option.
Both candidates agreed that undocumented immigrants already in the country should not be allowed to remain
Immigration was also addressed. In a rare snub towards Trump, DeSantis promised to finish building the wall that Trump failed to. DeSantis also referred to the ‘illegal aliens’ in schools, disrupting the education of American children, asserting that illegal immigrants are draining the US economy. Haley, strikes balance in her approach, describing the illegal immigrants as families, rather than ‘criminals’, while also reinforcing a strong legal boundary. Haley speaks of her parents entering the country legally and warns that if people enter the country illegally, then they won’t follow the laws when they are in the country. Adding to this pragmatic approach, Haley adds that businesses must prove employees are in the US legally. Both candidates agreed that undocumented immigrants already in the country should not be allowed to remain; DeSantis will offer no amnesties for the undocumented immigrants already in the US, aiming to disincentivise further illegal immigration.
On the contentious issue of abortion, Haley was left to defend herself after being accused of having a ‘confused’ position. Haley reinforced that she is ‘unapologetically pro-life’. Each candidate has clarified their positions on abortion through previous legal pursuits; Haley opposed a South Carolina bill that would have equated abortion with homicide. DeSantis has previously made his stance on abortion clear by signing a ban to stop abortions from taking place past six weeks.
Alongside major policy debates, the candidates also settled personal vendettas. Haley exposed DeSantis’ poor financial management, comparing her prudent expenditure with the lax approach of DeSantis’ campaign: ‘If he can’t handle the financial parts of a campaign, how’s he going to handle the economy when he goes to the White House?’. Meanwhile, DeSantis branded Haley’s less severe Republican policies as not going far enough; Haley’s preference for Ukraine aid he labelled a ‘carbon copy’ of Biden policy.
The Iowa caucus saw Trump receive 20 delegates, DeSantis 9, and Haley 8. DeSantis’ success over Haley, however, was short-lived given his suspension of the Presidential campaign on the 21st January. DeSantis admitted he could see no ‘clear path to victory’ and endorsed Trump.
So why has Haley’s campaign proven to be more successful than DeSantis? DeSantis failed to differentiate himself from Trump. As a staunch Trump supporter, even publicising the Trump campaign in 2018 with a slapstick video depicting the indoctrination of his children with Trump’s agenda, DeSantis struggled to form an independent identity. DeSantis’ main distinction from Trump relied on his age and less mirky criminal record, however his policies echoed Trump’s. Haley, however, presents policies diverging from Trump, speaking with a nuanced experience of immigrant parents, and working at the United Nations. Additionally, on the level of character, Haley distinguishes herself from Trump because she doesn’t ‘take politics personally…[and focuses] on policy that’s going to make America stronger’.
It is now for Republicans to decide between Trump, a well-established figure with presidential experience but a dubious legal record, or Haley, a rising figure with more moderate Republican policies and Presidential election polls in her favour.
What does this mean for the Republican Party? With DeSantis’ campaign suspended, Haley stands as the only rival to Trump. Trump has outperformed Haley so far in the primaries, however, Haley continues to garner significant support both from donors and voters. It is now for Republicans to decide between Trump, a well-established figure with presidential experience but a dubious legal record, or Haley, a rising figure with more moderate Republican policies and Presidential election polls in her favour.
From the perspective of the Democratic Party, there is a split between those that strategically support Trump being placed in the race against Biden and those inclined towards Haley. Some Democrats do not wish to risk the possibility of a second term of Trump, and regard Haley as the more tolerable option. Notably, billionaire banker, Jamie Dimon has donated to Haley’s campaign, encouraging Democrats to ‘Get a choice on the Republican side that might be better than Trump’. Within this strategic game, Dimon still intends to ‘enthusiastically vote for Joe Biden’ in the Presidential election, while exerting control over the potential outcome either way.
As Republican primaries progress, the power now lies with the voters. The voters of the primaries must balance a vote of conscience aligned with the candidate best representing their policy priorities, while also factoring in the likelihood of that candidate’s success in a general election. Among the campaigning and the slogans, lies a vital choice with the power to determine the next Presidency and the course of the US.