How DeSantis and Haley see their potential paths to beating Trump

"This is a marathon, not a sprint," Haley said after losing Iowa.

January 17, 2024, 2:06 PM

The 2024 presidential race officially kicked off on Monday night with Iowa's Republican caucuses -- and the results reaffirmed what polling has shown for months: Many, if not all, GOP voters still favor former President Donald Trump as their White House pick.

Trump got 51% of the vote in the caucuses, about 30 points ahead of rivals Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley.

But the Florida governor and former U.N. ambassador have both promised to keep their campaigns going in the coming weeks. "This is a marathon, not a sprint," Haley said on Tuesday.

Polls have long indicated she and DeSantis have a steep hill to climb in competing with Trump across the rest of the 2024 primary race. Still, they have each laid out what they believe their paths are to potential victory.

Here's a look at what those paths might be.

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at his caucus night event, Jan. 15, 2024 in West Des Moines, Iowa.
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at his caucus night event, Jan. 15, 2024 in West Des Moines, Iowa.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

How DeSantis thinks he could beat Trump

Despite his double-digit loss to Trump in Iowa, DeSantis came in second behind the former president -- which his campaign touted as a sign of traction with voters.

"They threw everything at Ron DeSantis. They couldn’t kill him. He is not only still standing, but he’s now earned his ticket out of Iowa," a senior campaign official said in a statement to reporters. "This is going to be a long battle ahead, but that is what this campaign is built for. The stakes are too high for this nation and we will not back down."

But as DeSantis' leaves behind Iowa, the state in which he invested substantial time and resources, and often boasted of eventually winning, he next looks to New Hampshire's primary on Tuesday and then South Carolina's primary on Feb. 24.

DeSantis' standing in New Hampshire polls has crumbled, according to 538, so while it's customary for candidates to head there after Iowa, DeSantis is taking a bit of a detour to South Carolina.

His campaign maintains that there is opportunity in South Carolina, relative to New Hampshire, to put pressure on Haley in her home state, with DeSantis arguing she doesn't truly appeal to core Republican voters. DeSantis has also secured more endorsements from state legislators than she has.

DeSantis currently trails Haley in South Carolina polling but not by nearly as much as New Hampshire.

"We have, actually, have a great organization in South Carolina that hasn't gotten as much attention because there's so much focus on Iowa," DeSantis told reporters on Tuesday afternoon at the state Capitol, adding, "Here we've got a good footprint. But I think you're gonna see us be present more, not just in terms of me being in the state more, but also in terms of paid media, where we're going to be able to tell our story."

If Haley underperforms in South Carolina, the DeSantis campaign's thinking goes, she could be motivated to leave the race more quickly so DeSantis could go head-to-head with Trump at last and try to draw a contrast with the former president as a governor with a well established hard-line track record and none of Trump's legal issues.

But that doesn't mean DeSantis is ditching New Hampshire. "It's all about the accumulation of delegates," he said Tuesday.

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate and former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign town hall in Rye, New Hampshire, on Jan. 2, 2024.
Republican presidential candidate and former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign town hall in Rye, New Hampshire, on Jan. 2, 2024.
Brian Snyder/Reuters

How Haley thinks she could beat Trump

Following a third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, coming in just a few points behind DeSantis, Haley is now turning her full attention to New Hampshire for the next week, where she remains within striking distance of Trump, according to 538's polling average.

New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary could prove to be a crucial make-or-break moment for Haley in her push to be the main GOP alternative to Trump.

Despite Iowa's results, Haley declared the Republican primary a "two-person race" on Monday night -- a sentiment her campaign echoed in a state of the race memo circulated to members of the press.

"The field of candidates is effectively down to two, with only Trump and Nikki Haley having substantial support in both New Hampshire and South Carolina," the memo from campaign manager Betsy Ankeny read.

In December, Haley received another boost in New Hampshire, securing the heavily coveted endorsement of New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a popular anti-Trump Republican, who has aggressively hit the stump on her behalf and become one of her most vocal surrogates.

But Haley still trails Trump by more than 10 points in New Hampshire and it remains to be seen if a second-place finish in next week's primary would be enough to bolster her candidacy through South Carolina's primary next month. Polls still show Trump dominating the field in her home state and, unlike in New Hampshire, Haley would not be buoyed by independent voters.

Haley has pitched herself as a proven conservative who can appeal to the very voters who rejected Trump and Trump-style politics in recent elections.

"Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. That’s nothing to be proud of," she said earlier this week.

The importance of New Hampshire to Haley has revealed itself in part through the campaign's finances, with more than $26 million spent inundating the state with ads between her official campaign organization and her allied super PAC.

Haley has also aggressively hit the pavement, with 35 days recorded on the ground in the state and more than 50 events with voters notched, according to an ABC News analysis of events since February. And she wasted no time traveling to the state after Iowa's caucuses, showing face in New Hampshire's classic political haunt, the Red Arrow Diner, on Tuesday morning.

The surprise exit from the race of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie -- who made New Hampshire the cornerstone of his candidacy -- could also offer a potential boost to Haley.

Christie campaigned heavily to win the votes of some of New Hampshire's undeclared voters, a key bloc in the state that makes up nearly 40% of the electorate. Those voters are also able to vote in the Republican primary.

In a field that has winnowed from more than a dozen candidates to just three after the exit of Vivek Ramaswamy and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Monday, voters options will also be increasingly consolidated between the remainders -- something that could both help or hurt Haley.

"Undeclared voters in Hampshire are not moderate or liberal. There are a lot of conservatives, and Trump will get a lot of those voters, too," Dave Carney, a veteran Republican operative in New Hampshire, told ABC News.

But Haley has remained optimistic about her chances in the state, telling Fox News on Tuesday that she is "a stone's throw away from from Donald Trump" in New Hampshire.

As her aides pointed out, she has some reason for optimism as the No. 2 to Trump: In the last couple months, Haley has successfully leapfrogged DeSantis for second place in South Carolina, according to 538, with the Florida governor about 13% behind her.

As a former governor of South Carolina, Haley also has deeper and wider roots in the state than DeSantis.

"We expect it to be a two-person race in New Hampshire," Haley told ABC News on Sunday night ahead of the Iowa caucuses. "And then we go to my sweet state of South Carolina. So it's one state at a time. The goal is to be strong in every state until we finish."