Republican primary voters will soon start the process of electing their standard bearer to take on President Biden next fall. Electability in a general election is an important criterion, or at least it used to be.
In my forthcoming book, “Beat the Incumbent,” I present a model and step-by-step process for challengers to take on incumbents. Applying that model to the Republican primary candidates, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has a lot going for her.
Conventional wisdom has it that elections with an incumbent are primarily a referendum on the incumbent. Compared to the current frontrunner of the Republican pack, Donald Trump, Haley is well-suited to make sure the race remains a referendum on Biden.
It’s Trump’s nature to constantly want to occupy the center of attention. And since Trump is a former president, it would be easy for Biden and Democrats to turn the election into a binary choice if Trump were the nominee.
The dynamics could easily change, in the sense of an incumbent versus incumbent race. One of the biggest advantages of a challenger is that he — or, in this case, she — is free to criticize.
If Republicans were to nominate Trump, they would give up this advantage, as Trump would have to defend his own record as president — for example, on COVID-19. Haley wouldn’t have that burden and is free to do what a challenger should be doing — namely, to prosecute the incumbent in a strategic manner.
Haley would also be better suited than Trump to run on a message of change that appeals to swing voters, who want to move on from both Biden and Trump. Despite all the talk about polarization, there still are middle-of-the-road swing voters, and they are still the ones to decide presidential elections.
Successful challengers offer the right amount of change and do so in the appropriate tone. They can accomplish this using a variety of tools, from patriotic and bipartisan rhetoric to policy moderation and key appointments or nominations.
One of the first steps successful challengers take after winning the nomination is to reach out to unify their party. Divided parties rarely win big general election victories. Ronald Reagan did this by naming his main competitor, George H. W. Bush, as his running-mate. Another way to unite the party is to pay down the campaign debt of your competitors.
Since Haley has served in Trump’s administration, and it ended without a falling-out, she is well positioned to unify the party, all the way from solid Trump supporters to those who simply want to win the general election and get rid of Biden.
High quality challengers often run for local office, win reelection, then move up the ladder and run for higher office. It’s not a guarantee of success (as the cases of Ron DeSantis and Chris Christie might illustrate), but winning reelection at the local level is an important test and shows candidates the issues they will likely face. Remember that many successful presidential candidates were once governors, including Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
One advantage of being a challenger is that, as the new kid in town, he or she becomes an object of interest to the media. Volodymyr Zelensky and Emmanuel Macron maximized this challenger advantage in their campaigns by creating real movements, in Ukraine and France, respectively. Even if Haley cannot duplicate this, she would certainly be of interest to the media given her age, sex and background. Just to compare, few journalists will write a piece on the childhood and upbringing of Joe Biden, or of Donald Trump, for that matter.
Almost all voters have made up their minds about Joe Biden and Donald Trump. They have seen them in the news for years and have plenty of information about them. In other words, the number of voters who could possibly change their minds about them is seriously limited. After all, what new information could they give voters that would make them change their minds?
Public opinion about Nikki Haley is much less defined. This represents both a potential upside and a vulnerability. Candidates who are new on the national level and have little time to prepare a campaign are particularly vulnerable to attacks. The recent controversy over Haley’s comments on the cause of the Civil War are a prelude to what is about to hit her. Remember how George W. Bush and Barack Obama won reelection? Both were vulnerable incumbents. As different as they may have been politically, they won by running the same kind of ruthless counter-offensive.
The chances for Haley to be the nominee and find herself in that position are not great as she is still trailing Trump considerably in the polls. But then again, the primary process is only just starting.
Dr. Louis Perron is a political consultant who has won dozens of elections around the globe. His forthcoming book, “Beat the Incumbent: Proven Strategies and Tactics to Win Elections,” is a step-by-step guide for challengers to take on incumbents at any level of government.
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