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Republicans who want to beat Trump take a second look at being the first loser

With Trump nearing 80 years old and facing legal issues, some Republicans believe an alternative might have a chance by finishing a decisive second.
Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speak during the third Republican presidential primary debate in Miami, Fla. on Nov. 8, 2023.
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speak at the third Republican presidential primary debate in Miami on Nov. 8.Shuran Huang for NBC News

With each passing day, former President Donald Trump’s grip on the Republican primary campaign looks even tighter.

So with the Iowa caucuses fast approaching, some Republicans who want to see a Trump alternative are considering an alternative strategy to upend him: have one of his rivals finish in a convincing second place and be the last person standing should Trump have to exit the race.

A handful of GOP donors and strategists acknowledged in recent conversations with NBC News that insiders are starting to put more stock in a strong second-place finish, thinking that, should Trump’s legal woes or his advanced age catch up to him, the next best finisher would have the most legitimate claim to be the nominee at next year’s convention.

Though it is obviously a long-shot strategy, such scheming could lead former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and others to stay in the race longer than the delegate math may otherwise suggest they should. 

Bobbie Kilberg, a prominent Republican fundraiser who was an adviser to the four GOP presidents who preceded Trump and is supporting former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the primaries, said she believes the fight for second may be worth more for the field than simply being the first-place loser.

“I do think it is possible that Trump could not come in first place in one or more of the first three primaries, not likely but possible,” she said. “This is all part of the donor conversation. And neither Haley nor Christie nor DeSantis should get out of the race until this plays out.”

A Republican operative echoed Kilberg, saying it’s a notion among the rival campaigns that the race for second place is important not just for who would take on Trump in a one-on-one matchup, but also for who could be the one to replace him should he be forced from the race. 

“Whoever comes in second would have the best shot,” the operative said. But “it’s also about coming in a strong second. Performance and separation from third place matters for making that case.”

DeSantis and Haley have been locked in a brutal battle for second place over the past two months, with each lobbing a stream of near-constant attacks at the other. As the primary campaign got underway, DeSantis was viewed as a clear No. 2 behind Trump, but Haley has gained momentum with each passing primary debate, catching up to him in polls in Iowa while surpassing him in New Hampshire and South Carolina. 

But both have incredible polling deficits to make up against Trump. Nationally, NBC News’ November survey found Trump up 40 points over DeSantis and 45 over Haley. The RealClearPolitics average of several polls has Trump up nearly 50 points on DeSantis nationwide, while he leads Haley by more than 50. At this point in 2015, when Trump went on to lose Iowa to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, his lead in national surveys was just 13 points.

Of course, presidential primaries are determined on a state-by-state basis, and Trump’s rivals view Iowa as perhaps their best shot to take him down. But surveys there show DeSantis and Haley trailing significantly. The NBC News/Des Moines Register poll of Iowa from slightly more than a month ago found Trump up 27 points on both DeSantis and Haley, who were tied. It’s a similar story in New Hampshire and South Carolina — states where Trump enjoys roughly 30-point edges over Haley and wider leads over DeSantis.

So it makes sense that some Republicans view an unorthodox path to the nomination as, increasingly, the only path.

“The intense battle for runner-up used to determine positioning in four years,” a second GOP strategist said. “Now, it may decide front-runner status in four months.”

Trump, who turns 78 next year, recently released a note from his physician reporting that he is in “excellent” physical and cognitive health, though it didn’t include details to support the findings. His legal proceedings are advancing rapidly in four jurisdictions, where he faces charges connected to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, alleged mishandling of classified documents and hush-money payments ahead of the 2016 election. Those trials are set to get underway next year, and they could have Trump spending a large chunk of the campaign in court.

The Republican candidates have said their focus is on not finishing a decisive second, but on actually winning. And while Haley and DeSantis have spent a lot of time sparring with each other in recent months, they each have carved out anti-Trump messages. Haley has positioned herself as more electable than Trump, whom she has called “the most disliked politician in America,” while recently arguing that voters want to reject the “chaos” of recent years. DeSantis has argued that he, unlike Trump, would be laser-focused on policy wins the conservative base desires and could ensure eight years of right-wing leadership while a term-limited Trump can offer only four.

Asked about whether they see the battle for second as potentially having more immediate value than in years past, a Haley official said: “Our goal is just to do as well as we can in all three early states.”

“Who knows what the world looks like in a few weeks?” this person said. “But we are just head-down, putting in the work. The goal is to do as well as we possibly can.”

Dan Eberhart, a pro-DeSantis GOP donor, questioned whether finishing second and hoping for the best has long been the aim of Trump's primary rivals.

"Has this been the plan the entire time?” he said, adding, "We are all pretending there’s a primary when everyone on stage combined equals 35%. Gov. DeSantis has done everything right but Trump still has to trip over himself for this to matter."

DeSantis’ campaign directed NBC News to his recent comments to KCCI-TV of Des Moines, in which he said, “Well, people may be trying to do second, not me.”

“I mean, we’re in it to win it,” he said. “You would not have had Gov. Kim Reynolds endorse us for second. That’s not how she rolls.”

Asked in an interview that aired Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” whether he would drop out if he didn’t finish first or second in Iowa, DeSantis said: “We’re going to win Iowa.”

“I think it’s going to help propel us to the nomination, but I think we’ll have a lot of work that we’ll have to do beyond that,” he said. “I don’t think you’d take anything for granted.”

South Carolina state Rep. Chris Wooten, a Haley backer, told NBC News he believes “common sense kind of prevails in that scenario” when he was asked whether candidates will stay in the race longer because of Trump’s legal battles, adding that there will be a point in the near future when the battle for second is solely between Haley and DeSantis.

“And I think the fight will just continue,” he said. “But it makes complete sense to stay in as long as possible to see.”

They’re not alone in the race just yet, with businessman Vivek Ramaswamy — who has been much warmer to Trump than his rivals — as well as Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson seeking the nomination, too.

In an interview with Fox Business on Monday, Christie said: “Look, you can’t beat the man without beating the man.”

“You’re not going to do it by hoping for something to happen,” he said. “Look, I was at the race in 2016. None of us — me, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, John Kasich — none of us took the Trump threat seriously. And we all thought, well, at some point he’ll drop out or at some point fade away, and we all waited. Hope is not a strategy.”

Trump’s rivals do have the opportunity to pick up some delegates to next summer’s convention during the primary campaign, with more than half of the delegates being awarded in a proportional system — though some states have minimum thresholds to gain any, while others may award all of their delegates to candidates who secure more than 50% of the vote, according to the Republican National Committee’s recently released nominating process.

“I can’t speak to a specific strategy being employed, because I’ve never been involved in a campaign whose purpose was to actually be the first-place loser,” said Chris LaCivita, Trump’s co-campaign manager. "Regardless, neither one of these losers’ strategies will impede our goal, which is evicting crooked Joe Biden from the White House.”

And other Republicans, including those who have been part of campaigns that finished second or third in critical early-state races, say the idea that there’s immediate benefit just around the corner for the second-place winner — should dominoes fall in order — is a pipe dream.

“All I can say about finishing second in the presidential primary is congratulations,” said Terry Sullivan, Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign manager in 2016. “Second place is the first loser.”