Why Tim Scott's presidential campaign failed

A strong candidate on paper didn't capture voters' hearts in practice.

November 14, 2023, 10:16 AM

And then there were seven (major Republican candidates for president).

On Sunday, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott surprised everyone — including, reportedly, some of his own staffers — by dropping out of the race for president. It was an anti-climactic end for a campaign that, on paper, looked like it had a lot of potential. But the debates really took a toll on Scott's campaign, and rather than prolong the inevitable, he left the race early enough to keep his options open for the future.

When Scott jumped into the presidential race in May, there was a good case to be made that he was the third-most-likely Republican nominee, after former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. He had $22 million socked away from his Senate campaigns that he could use for the presidential race — more than any candidate not named Trump. He had managed to stay on the good side of both the pro-Trump and anti-Trump sides of the party with his positive message about America. The share of Republicans who had a favorable view of him was much higher (41 percent) than the share who had an unfavorable view (12 percent), and the fact that the other half didn't have an opinion of him indicated he had room to grow.

But all that potential never became reality. He never cracked 4 percent in 538's average of national polls. He plowed much of his campaign cash into TV ads in early states, and that did seem to work at first: By mid-August, according to 538's averages, he was polling at 12 percent in Iowa, 12 percent in South Carolina (his home state) and 8 percent in New Hampshire.

But then came the debates. According to the three 538/Washington Post/Ipsos polls conducted using Ipsos's KnowledgePanel after each debate, Scott failed to use the debates to make the case for himself.

At the first debate, only 4 percent of likely Republican primary voters who watched the debate said he had the best performance, which was tied for third-lowest among the eight candidates. But at the same time, only 2 percent said he had the worst performance — in other words, he simply didn't make much of an impression either way. He got similarly average marks at the second debate. And at the third debate, just last week, only 5 percent said he had the best performance, the lowest of any candidate. And 12 percent said he actually had the worst performance.

Our polls also found that Scott's net favorability rating among Republicans got worse after each debate. Clearly, voters weren't buying what Scott was selling.

But by dropping out relatively early (other candidates with even worse polling numbers, such as North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, remain in the race), he may have kept his options open for his political future. He never went nuclear on any other candidate, and he departs the race with still-solid favorability numbers, so he remains a viable future presidential candidate. At age 58, he could run again in 2028, 2032, 2036 or even 2040 and still be younger than Trump (or President Joe Biden) is today.

As for becoming the Republican vice presidential nominee — something that's widely rumored — Scott said on Sunday night, "Being vice president has never been on my to-do list for this campaign, and it's certainly not there now." Of course, it's always possible he could change his mind.

Now that Scott is out of the race, which other candidate(s) might benefit? Normally, this question is overrated — if a candidate drops out, it means they don't have much support, which means no one else stands to benefit much from their departure. But Scott actually does still have meaningful support in some of the early states. As of Sunday, he was at 7 percent in our Iowa polling average, 7 percent in South Carolina and 5 percent in New Hampshire. If most of that support goes to one candidate in particular — say, DeSantis or former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley — that could make them the main alternative to Trump in the early states.

The problem is, his support probably won't go to one candidate in particular. Scott says he won't endorse any of his one-time rivals. And according to a September poll from WPA Intelligence and FairVote, which showed what the GOP primary might look like if it used ranked-choice voting, Haley stood the most to gain nationally from Scott's elimination from the race … but DeSantis gained the most in the early states. (Still, it does look like those two will be the biggest beneficiaries of Scott's withdrawal, rather than Trump and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy.)

Something I wrote when former Vice President Mike Pence dropped out of the race bears repeating here too, though. Even if all of Scott's support goes to one candidate, that candidate will remain far behind Trump, who is polling at 57 percent nationally, 50 percent in South Carolina, 46 percent in Iowa and 44 percent in New Hampshire. In the grand scheme of things, Scott's withdrawal and where his supporters go won't matter unless something fundamentally changes and Trump loses significant support.