Poll of Iowa and New Hampshire shows Nikki Haley ... sort of formidable against Trump in a primary

“Formidable” is a stretch when you see the data but it’s the word Politico chose, so, sure, let’s go with it.

It’d be safer to say that early polling shows Haley could be formidable if, if, if something momentous happened between now and the 2020 primaries to damage Trump and convince Republican voters believe that an incumbent president might not be their best bet for winning the presidency. But that’s all but impossible, even if Mueller ends up accusing him of obstruction of justice. Try to imagine a scenario in which a hypothetical president’s job approval collapses due to scandal to the point where the party nominates someone else after his first term, and then the national electorate elects that person instead of the nominee of the other party. How would a Trump scandal that’s severe enough to wreck his own political fortunes not also wreck the fortunes of the GOP writ large?

Particularly when the likely substitute nominee, Pence or Haley, was close enough to Trump to have worked in his cabinet.

The poll comes from Defend Democracy Together, a Bill Kristol outfit. He’s been searching for a primary or independent challenger to Trump for more than two years, once almost persuading NRO writer David French to take the plunge. He’ll have to keep searching. No one with a future in the party would do something like this; try Flake or Sasse instead.

The survey, which polled likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa as well as Republican primary voters in New Hampshire, found that nearly half — 47 percent — would consider another option to Trump in 2020. Of those polled, Haley topped the list among the probable early state voters, with 52 percent saying they were open to considering her as an alternative to Trump. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who announced on Tuesday that she is resigning her position at the end of the year, also had the smallest percentage of respondents — 40 percent — say they would not consider her at all…

Both [the pollster] and a spokesman for Defend Democracy Together declined to provide the names of the other potential 2020 primary challenges they polled, but Kalmans said Haley was the only candidate a majority of respondents said they would consider supporting as a Trump alternative. Applecart’s survey was conducted Sept. 18-23, before Haley announced her resignation. The firm reached approximately 1,200 likely Iowa caucus-goers and approximately 1,200 Republican and nonaffiliated New Hampshire primary voters by phone, and the results carry a 2.8 percent margin of error.

Lotta math on the old blog site today. If mine is correct, Haley would start with a bit less than a quarter of the primary electorate potentially in her corner: Fewer than half of Republicans would consider a candidate besides Trump to begin with, and of that group a smidgen more than half would consider Haley. Is that “formidable”? The glass-half-full view: Sure, a quarter of the primary electorate isn’t a bad place to start against a sitting POTUS. If Trump hit choppy political waters, if the economy slowed down, if Democrats won the House this fall and used their subpoena power to uncover dirt on him next year, that quarter could balloon.

Highly unlikely, though, says the glass-half-empty view. Note that the 52 percent figure in the excerpt isn’t people who say they would support Haley as an alternative to Trump, they said they’d “consider” it. Some, maybe most, would end up opting for POTUS in the end. Plus, in an era of “negative partisanship,” deeply damaging attacks by Mueller and House Democrats wouldn’t pry Republican voters away from Trump, they’d bind them to him more closely. Supporting Haley or any other primary challenger while Trump is under siege would be seen as an act of partisan treason even greater than opposing Kavanaugh’s confirmation. The Republican wagons will circle tightly around Trump come January if in fact the Dems retake the House, which is highly likely. And while it’s true that challenging a sitting president in a Republican primary isn’t necessarily a career-ender — see, e.g., Reagan, Ronald — you need to remember the circumstances of Reagan’s ’76 challenge to Ford. He was the candidate of the right, the populist outsider running against the entrenched establishmentarian. In so doing he endeared himself to large parts of the conservative voters who would become his base in 1980. For Haley, the outcome would be the opposite: She’d be the favorite of old-guard conservative establishmentarians seeking to weaken the populist outsider president. Even if she lost, she’d never be forgiven by grassroots Republican voters. Her presidential dreams would be done.

And if, on Earth 2, the Kristol scenario came true and somehow Haley unseated Trump for the nomination, what chance would she have in the general election? The GOP would be in the same predicament it faced in 2016 when people like Mike Lee tried to block Trump on the convention floor. Even if it had worked, maybe 30 percent of the party would have boycotted the general election in protest. If you think that estimate’s too high, fine: Ten percent. Still enough to hand the election to Hillary. Haley as nominee would face the same doomed outcome, with an added bonus that Trump as outgoing president would almost certainly refuse to endorse her and might even encourage his supporters to stay home. He’s not going to lose magnanimously and he’s nowhere near enough of a party man to support someone who humiliated him by defeating him just because normal political convention suggests that he should. As a result, Haley would lose the general election and her career would be over. And she would foresee all this, which is why she’ll never run.

Flake and Sasse are the only games in town. The only reason to primary Trump is to earn a moral victory, using the presidential spotlight to showcase an earnest, good-government alternative to Trumpism. Either one would fit the bill although Sasse has less political baggage and looks the “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” part better than Flake does.