US Politics

Iowa Caucus: Back Haley to step forward as primary season begins

Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley
Nikki Haley now looks to be Trump's only plausible challenger

With primary season upon us, Paul Krishnamurty looks at the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire Primary, and recommends at least one bet on Nikki Haley...

  • Trump totally dominant in Iowa

  • DeSantis looks done

  • Christie withdrawal helps Haley

It appears that the race for Republican Nominee is almost a fait accomplit. Despite facing 91 criminal indictments and four trials, Donald Trump has retained and even extended an overwhelming lead over his rivals and trades at prohibitive odds of 1.261/4 with Betfair Exchange bettors.

Next Monday, the US Election cycle kicks off for real and we will see to what extent that poll lead reflects reality.

The opening race is the Iowa Caucus and here, the question is less whether he will win but by what margin. Trump is rated 98% likely to win the popular vote at odds of 1.021/50. He consistently leads polls here by more than 30%. The more exciting Iowa market is Betting Without Trump, in which Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis are vying for favouritism around even money.

Haley pulling ahead of DeSantis

Here, I'm a confident backer of Haley. She has the momentum and the latest poll from the respected Suffolk University has her 7% ahead of DeSantis. Despite critical endorsements in Iowa from Governor Kim Reynolds and evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, the DeSantis campaign appears to have imploded. Chasing Trump's supporters with the same or harder rhetoric has proved a dead end.

Haley, meanwhile may get an extra point or two from those previously supporting Chris Christie, who withdrew on Wednesday. Whilst her criticism of Trump has been limited, the former South Carolina Governor and UN Ambassador is now the only realistic option for Republicans opposed to Trump, or Trumpism. I doubt she can get within 25% of Trump here, but a clear second place will consolidate her position moving forward.

New Hampshire betting livening up

After that, they move on to New Hampshire and this is where the race just might get interesting. Indeed, the betting already has. From trading at 1.171/6 when I laid him last week, Trump has drifted out to 1.538/15 with Haley the only serious challenger at 2.915/8. Could we, against all odds, have a genuine contest on our hands?

A couple of polls had put Haley within four and seven percent - although two more had the deficit at 16 and 20%. However all were taken before Christie's withdrawal and he polled 12% in the last three.

Christie transfers could alter the race

Christie has been touring the state for months, imploring locals to reject Trump in the most direct language. The overwhelming majority of his supporters are expected to transfer to Haley, putting her at least within touching distance.

Those polls also included a few points of undecideds - I would speculate fewer people are undecided about Trump than anyone else in the race, and that this small segment is within reach for Haley - so 40%, even 45%, looks realistic for her.

It is important to remember the differences between the first two states.

Iowa Republicans are dominated by social conservatives and evangelical Christians. Trump has this segment of voters sewn up. Whereas New Hampshire is more liberal and contains a large number of independent voters, who are eligible to vote in an open primary and take great pride in participating in this famous contest.

Historically, this primary has proven a crucial indicator towards the nominations of both parties.

Independent voters could hurt Trump

New Hampshire has a history of backing moderate Republicans. Compare for instance Mitt Romney and John McCain's victories in 2012 and 2008, having lost Iowa to evangelical favourites Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee.

Trump did win here in 2016 against a crowded opposition, but his 35% share wasn't exceptional and he lacked a credible moderate alternative. In fact, Trump was regarded more moderate than Iowa winner Ted Cruz.

Once again, Trump is polling well below 50% - sub-40% in three of the last five. Given his unique advantage as a former President and perhaps the most famous person alive, these are ordinary numbers and in stark contrast to Iowa. This isn't natural territory for him.

New Hampshire's Republican Governor Chris Sununu - another moderate and critic of Trump - has endorsed Haley. If opponents coalese around Haley, there may be enough there to win.

Furthermore, this year's primary electorate may be even more moderate than usual. Voters who aren't affiliated to a party are free to register for either the Republican or Democrat primary. This time around, the latter is something of a non-event, as it is not sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee and Joe Biden won't be on the ballot.

Consequently, I expect more Democrat-leaning independents to vote in the Republican contest, presumably against Trump and perhaps pushing Haley's numbers a couple of points higher than the polls.

On the flipside, it is possible that, after Iowa, DeSantis and/or Vivek Ramaswamy could withdraw or see their support collapse. In both cases, these voters are likelier to transfer to Trump. Nevertheless, at least we get one exciting contest in what otherwise promises to be a very boring primary season.

Now or never for anti-Trumpers

If Trump does prevail in New Hampshire, I expect Haley's challenge to fade. When Haley started surging in the betting before Christmas, I wrote how hard it was to envisage the GOP base voting for her. That still stands. Beyond New Hampshire, there is no signal of close contests.

However I must stress how early it is in the schedule. Four years ago, Bernie Sanders was heavily odds-on after the first three primaries. When I tipped Biden at 15.5, many followers were incredulous. Within days of that bet, he was odds-on and Bernie looked a busted flush.

In 2016, Marco Rubio was favourite on the Republican side going into New Hampshire but out of the race by mid-March. Politics, and primaries, can change very quickly.

Now read Paul's best bets in the next President betting

Follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.

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