A version of this article was first published in the On the Trail 2024 newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox on Tuesday and Friday mornings here. To submit a question to next week’s Friday Mailbag, email onthetrail@deseretnews.com.

Good morning, friends. Welcome to On the Trail 2024, Deseret’s campaign newsletter.

3 things to know

  1. The South Carolina primary is this week. It’s Nikki Haley’s home state, but Donald Trump is expected to romp — he leads by 30 percentage points or more in many polls. Haley seems committed to staying in the race until after Super Tuesday, though, so the results in the Palmetto State may not have an effect there — though they could make-or-break her momentum as we approach March 5. I’ll be in South Carolina bringing you the latest news — follow along on X, Instagram or this newsletter.
  2. Trump was hit with his steepest penalty yet on Friday, ordered to pay over $350 million for business fraud. A New York court found Trump liable of falsely inflating the worth of some of his assets to obtain favorable rates from lenders, among other infractions. Read more here.
  3. No, Mitt Romney isn’t running for president, and his Senate colleague Joe Manchin isn’t, either. Manchin whipped up a minor frenzy last week by hinting — again — that he wanted to launch an independent bid, and he’d like Romney as his running mate. On Thursday, Romney told us that wasn’t happening. Within 24 hours, Manchin publicly said he wouldn’t be running, either. More here.

The Big Idea

A plan to save the primary

Plenty of people would like to declare the Republican presidential primary over. Trump leads in national polls by nearly 60 percentage points. In Iowa, he cruised to a blowout victory; in New Hampshire, the same. In Nevada, he secured 99% of the vote in an uncompetitive primary. Now, with only three states’ ballots cast, the Republican nomination is all but decided.

Is this how it should be? Gary Herbert doesn’t think so. The former Utah governor is an outspoken critic of the current GOP primary process. In 2016, while chairing the National Governors Association, Herbert slammed the Utah GOP’s decision to hold a caucus instead of a primary. In 2019, he officially made Utah a Super Tuesday state, attempting to add notoriety to the state’s primary. And in 2020, he called for a complete overhaul of the primary system, claiming the current format doesn’t bring out the best presidential candidates.

In the years since, Herbert’s views have only become more certain. “I think what we have right now is not serving the people very well,” Herbert told me during a recent phone conversation. Saying that the GOP primary is over, after just three states, is “shortsighted,” he said — not because he doubts Trump’s odds, but because he thinks the system that got us here is fundamentally broken.

After New Hampshire, “people say, ‘it’s over,’ after two states voting,” Herbert said. “We shouldn’t be running this by poll. It should be offensive to the other 48 states, with people saying, ‘You don’t have a need or a right to be able to vote and choose somebody.’”

Count Herbert among the offended. At present, the Republican primary calendar incentivizes candidates to pour time and resources into the early states while ignoring the others. Ron DeSantis spent over $50 million in Iowa, only to win less than 25,000 votes; Haley-affiliated super PACs spent over $24 million in New Hampshire, only for her to finish in a distant second place.

“Why is it that Iowa goes first?” Herbert said. “Why is it that New Hampshire goes second? New Hampshire is smaller than Utah.”

Herbert’s plan? Split the country into four regions and create a rotating calendar. Each state within a region would hold its primary on the same day or in a cluster, allowing candidates to focus on that geographic area. The primaries would occur in four waves, prolonged over several months. Every four years, the regions would take turns going first — giving each state, alongside the other states in its region, the opportunity to eventually be the “first-in-the-nation.”

“Everybody has a chance to vote,” Herbert said. “We count the votes when it’s all over and and we’ll see who actually wins. But now, we don’t even do that. I mean, see this election here. Two states have spoken and it’s over.”

Herbert has other ideas, too. He thinks ballot access should be simplified and the costs of running a presidential campaign lowered, so a wider swath of Americans can run, if they desire.

Herbert is still working through the details. He’s gathering his thoughts and fine-tuning some aspects of his plan, and when he’s finished, he’ll release a more detailed vision, perhaps through his Herbert Institute at Utah Valley University. “We’ll perfect it — we’ll come up with something that makes some sense, I think, about what is an option,” he said.

For now, Herbert is watching the race for the Republican nomination closely. He hasn’t made an endorsement, though he says he’s “certainly open” to either candidate who wishes to talk to him about endorsing. More than anything, he wants to see a fair race decided by the voters. “I don’t think (Haley) should drop out,” he said. “I think she should stay the course and give the states what they deserve. And that’s your right to choose — hear from the candidates, make a decision and then vote.”

What I’m reading

Pro-life Trump? As I’ve spoken with evangelical leaders in Iowa and South Carolina in recent months, their biggest qualm with Trump isn’t his legal issues or his character. It’s his stance on abortion — he’s seemed to “soften” this cycle, showing less support for federal bans and more enthusiasm for exceptions. But in an attempt at damage control, a week ahead of the South Carolina primary, the Trump team is now suggesting that Trump is, in fact, in favor of a 16-week federal ban. Trump Privately Favors a 16-Week Abortion Ban (Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Swan, The New York Times)

Americans are more optimistic about the economy, but that hasn’t helped Joe Biden’s favorability ratings or how U.S. voters view his handling of the economy. Why the disconnect? Some experts think the biggest uptick in economic outlook is stemming from Democrats — many of whom already support Biden. Americans are growing more optimistic about the economy — but it’s not helping President Biden just yet (Jacob Zinkula, Noah Sheidlower, and Juliana Kaplan, Business Insider)

Donald Trump Jr. is a well-known outdoorsman, as evidenced by his new hunting magazine, Field Ethos. Trump hunts in Utah with some frequency, though he wasn’t in attendance at the 2024 Western Hunting Expo in Salt Lake City last weekend, I’m told. Donald Trump Jr. Ventures Into the Lifestyle Space — and Brings the Culture War With Him (Rosie Gray, Politico Magazine)

One last thing — a reminder to follow our new On the Trail 2024 Instagram account.

Have a question for the next Friday mailbag? Drop me a line at onthetrail@deseretnews.com.

See you on the trail.

Editor’s Note: The Deseret News is committed to covering issues of substance in the 2024 presidential race from its unique perspective and editorial values. Our team of political reporters will bring you in-depth coverage of the most relevant news and information to help you make an informed decision. Find our complete coverage of the election here.