To be clear, no one in President Biden’s White House would ever root for Donald J. Trump. To a person, they consider him an existential threat to the nation. But as they watched Mr. Trump open the contest for the Republican presidential nomination with a romp through Iowa, they also saw something else: a pathway to a second term.
Mr. Biden’s best chance of winning re-election in the fall, in their view, is a rematch against Mr. Trump. The former president is so toxic, so polarizing that his presence on the November ballot, as Mr. Biden’s advisers see it, would be the most powerful incentive possible to lure disaffected Democrats and independents back into the camp of the poll-challenged president.
And so, some Democrats felt a little torn this week as the Republican race got underway. None of them would cry if Mr. Trump were taken down by someone like former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, who has one shot in New Hampshire next week to make it a race. Whatever Ms. Haley’s flaws, and Democrats see many, they do not believe she would pose the same danger to democracy that Mr. Trump does.
But if she won the Republican nomination, she might pose a bigger danger to Mr. Biden.
The paradox recalls 2016, when many Democrats were not unhappy when Mr. Trump won the Republican nomination, on the theory that the country would never elect a bumptious reality-television star who specialized in racist appeals and insult politics. Burned once, they are not so certain this time, but Democrats are banking on the hope that the country would not take back a defeated president who inspired a violent mob to help him keep power and has been charged with more felonies than Al Capone.
“I was not one of those Democrats who thought Trump would be easier to beat in 2016,” said Jennifer Palmieri, Hillary Clinton’s communications director in the election she lost to Mr. Trump. “Some Democrats root for Trump. I think it is better for the country” for him “to be defeated in the Republican Party and not continue to gain strength.” If Mr. Trump did lose, she added, she believed Biden could defeat Ms. Haley or Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.
But it might not be as easy. Ms. Haley would be vulnerable to Democratic attacks for enabling Mr. Trump as his ambassador to the United Nations, and even as a Republican candidate for president who largely declined to attack the former president and would not rule out voting for him if he won the nomination.
Yet she might not be as radioactive with undecided voters. And unlike Mr. Trump, who is 77, Ms. Haley, at age 51, would have an easier time making a generational case against Mr. Biden, 81, who even most Democratic voters say is too old for another term, according to polls.
A CBS News survey released on Sunday indicated that Ms. Haley was a stronger potential challenger to Mr. Biden than Mr. Trump at this stage of the race. She held an eight-point advantage over the incumbent president in a hypothetical matchup, 53 percent to 45 percent, while Mr. DeSantis had a three-point lead over Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump a two-point edge.
For public consumption, at least, Democrats stick with the we’ll-beat-anyone, they’re-all-tainted-by-Trump line, and the Democratic National Committee began laying the groundwork by regularly attacking her and other G.O.P. alternatives to Mr. Trump since the 2022 midterm elections. “We’ll be ready for Donald Trump or whatever MAGA extremist stumbles out of this process,” Ammar Moussa, a Biden campaign spokesman, said on Tuesday.
In private, however, some Democrats agree that Ms. Haley would be harder to defeat yet express far less fear about her winning than Mr. Trump, who has talked about being a dictator for 24 hours and using his office to exact retribution against his enemies.
“Most Democrats I know are frankly terrified at the prospect of another Trump presidency and that’s why you’ve seen President Biden and his team repeatedly highlight how dangerous a second Trump term would be,” said Lis Smith, a senior adviser to Pete Buttigieg during the 2020 Democratic primary campaign. “Haley might be polling better now, but her numbers would come down to earth when voters learn more about her positions and across-the-board support for the G.O.P.’s most unpopular policies.”
Democrats have tried before to game out which Republican candidates might be easier to beat in the fall, an exercise pitting pragmatism against principle. In 2022, some Democrats promoted far-right allies of Mr. Trump in G.O.P. primaries on the assumption that they would be easier to defeat in a general election, even though they had been excoriating just such candidates as dangerous to democracy.
Democrats are not repeating that sort of intervention at the presidential level this year. “If anyone is rooting for Trump, that’s nuts,” said Faiz Shakir, a senior adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist from Vermont who ran for president in 2016 and 2020. “Careful what you wish for. He undoubtedly drives enthusiasm in the electorate, which makes concerns about turnout for Biden critical.”
Tim Miller, a former Republican strategist who has become one of his party’s most vocal opponents of Mr. Trump, said Democrats should not fool themselves into thinking they will not face him again. “Dem strategists and journalists can play parlor games about the G.O.P. process all they want but the only meaningful question for the Democrats is how to wage a campaign against the dangerous candidate their opponents are preparing to nominate,” he said.
Unlike in 2016, Democrats can hardly say they did not see Mr. Trump coming. “Team Clinton missed the moment to understand that a populist movement from the left or right made up mainly on loose facts, grievances and white nationalism would not be corrected simply at the ballot box,” said Donna Brazile, who headed the Democratic National Committee that year. “But this is different,” she added. The movement has mushroomed “into a big cultural war with only two sides: You are either for Trump or against him. There is no middle ground.”
Mr. Biden has acted as if he fully expects to face Mr. Trump again and made clear he is motivated by a singular desire to vanquish his 2020 opponent all over again. He recently told reporters that he might not have run for a second term if Mr. Trump were not trying to make a comeback.
But Mr. Biden has also taken swipes at Ms. Haley, as he did during a speech in her home state of South Carolina last week when he mocked her for initially declining to say that slavery was the cause of the Civil War when asked at one of her campaign town hall meetings.
Mo Elleithee, a former Democratic strategist now serving as executive director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service, said it would be folly to try to predict which Republican would be better for Democrats. “The polarization in our politics means it’s going to be close no matter what,” he said. “Stop trying to game out who you want to campaign against, and start focusing on the guy you’re campaigning for. The stakes will be high no matter what.”