Welcome to the Loser's Ball
The incentives explain why Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley are trying to avoid catastrophic success.
Next stop: Iowa.
1. Back Down
If you came down from Mars and watched the Republican primary campaign over the last year, you’d think that neither Nikki Haley nor Ron DeSantis actually wanted to win the nomination.
Their campaigns were so strategically inept that it looked like they were trying not to win—like they viewed their candidacies not as entries into a melee, but as lottery tickets. In case something bad happened to Donald Trump.
But now that we’ve reached the voting, their ambivalence about victory has shifted into something downright perverse:
Ron DeSantis is hoping to finish third in Iowa while Nikki Haley is desperate to finish second in New Hampshire.
It might sounds crazy, but the incentives explain it all. Let’s go.
He is down to third place in the national polling average and is 50 points behind Trump.
If you’re Ron DeSantis, what are your incentives? They’re to get out of this clusterfork as quick as possible, taking the least amount of damage along the way.
There’s a problem: In Iowa, DeSantis is only 2 points behind Haley for second place.
DeSantis’s best-case scenario is that he finishes a close third in Iowa, pauses for a day, and then announces on Wednesday that he’s suspending his campaign. He scurries back to Tallahassee; watches the carnage unfold in New Hampshire; and hopes that seeing Haley get smoked dims the memory of his bumbling adventure.
The worst-case scenario for DeSantis is that he surprises in Iowa and finishes in a strong-ish second. Because that result would make it harder for him to pull the plug before New Hampshire. Donors and staff would claim momentum. The media would focus on him. It’s easy to stop a campaign on a low-note. It’s harder when you’ve just struck fool’s gold.
2. Nimarata’s Tale
Then there’s Haley.
I take it as given that her endgame is making the strongest possible play for a spot on the ticket with Trump.
So what do her incentives look like for the next five weeks?
She’d like to finish finish second in Iowa, because that would consolidate the narrative about her momentum. But does she really want to win New Hampshire?
Here’s what happens if Haley wins New Hampshire: