With a billowing smokestack, the Trump train charged into the New Hampshire primary. The national Republican Party seemed to be consolidating around the former president. Within a week of the Iowa caucuses, both Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis, for a long time Trump’s leading rival, had dropped out. The one-on-one race that eluded the 2016 Republican primary was at last at hand, with Nikki Haley as the sole prominent Trump challenger.
The New Hampshire primary has dug the graves for presidential campaigns as well as resuscitated them. Lyndon Johnson’s narrow win there in 1968 tolled the end of his presidency. The Granite State made Bill Clinton the “comeback kid” and helped rejuvenate John McCain’s campaign in 2008. After winning New Hampshire by 11 points, Trump’s campaign has further momentum heading into South Carolina next month. But some warning lights may flash in the tracks ahead.
As with Iowa, Trump’s coalition in New Hampshire is quite different compared with 2016. That year, he won a plurality of both moderate and conservative voters. In addition to winning registered Republicans, he also won the independents, who form a crucial swing bloc in the primary. This time around, he lost New Hampshire voters who identify as moderate by almost 50 points. Long the standard-bearer for Republicans nationally, Trump relied on support from registered Republicans (winning that group by almost 50 points) and self-identified “conservatives.” The polarization around college education that has increasingly defined American politics can also be seen in Tuesday’s result. Trump handily won voters without a college degree, while Haley prevailed with college graduates (albeit by a slimmer margin).
Backed by popular New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu, Haley focused on turning out independents. According to exit polls, about half of the primary electorate were not Republicans, and Haley dominated with this group, winning 60 percent of independents. Tuesday’s results showed why Haley has gotten some traction in the primary but also outline the difficulties she faces ahead.
Haley has mounted sustained criticisms of Trump only recently, but her candidacy was implicitly contra-Trump and anti-populist. She focused on foreign policy themes (such as backing Ukraine against Russia’s invasion) that alienate some of Trump’s populist allies. In effect, her measured tones contrast with Trump’s brass knuckles. It’s an approach that would seem well-calibrated for a state like New Hampshire, yet she could only muster around 43 percent of the vote yesterday.
In a split field, that 43 percent could have made New Hampshire a close race; in a two-person match-up, it’s achingly far from a majority. Haley’s gambit in Iowa might in part have been responsible for her disappointment on Tuesday night. At the core of Haley’s Iowa strategy was ensuring that DeSantis couldn’t win or place a close second. Her plan was a tactical success: DeSantis barely broke 20 percent, and Trump enjoyed a victory margin near 30 points. But sinking DeSantis might have also been a strategic setback. The Florida governor’s presence in the race could have sapped some populist and socially conservative voters from Trump. Once he withdrew, many of those voters went to Trump, and DeSantis’s quasi-endorsement of the former president only added to the sense that Trump was moving closer to being the presumptive nominee.
Haley faces a bigger strategic challenge. She has pitched her message toward a coalition of Trump-skeptical voters, but elements of this coalition are at odds with one another. For instance, Haley’s economic agenda often appeals to the fiscal conservatives who dominated Republican politics in the beginning of this century, with an emphasis on tax cuts, deregulation, and entitlement reform. But many independents and Democratic-leaning voters (and now, a good number of Republicans) are repelled by anything that could be read as an entitlement cut. Trump and his allies have attacked Haley over her position on entitlement reforms and claimed that she wanted to cut Social Security.
The very policy elements that make Haley attractive to some Trump critics (especially in the American commentariat) may imperil her ability to win over the voters she would need to make it a close race. In the more socially conservative states ahead, she may face even more political headwinds.
If these results indicate the long odds Haley confronts to win the primary, they also signal some of the structural challenges that Trump may face in a general election. His win over Haley was decisive but not overwhelming. And some of the data from exit polls suggest that a significant portion of Haley’s vote does not come simply from otherwise-Democratic voters who decided to vote in the New Hampshire primary this year. More than 80 percent of the electorate had voted in a Republican primary before, and Haley won 40 percent of these voters. Throughout the primary, Trump has tried to position himself as the de facto incumbent and has been treated that way by many Republicans. An “incumbent” getting only 60 percent of the vote from past Republican primary voters wouldn’t seem to be operating from a position of strength.
Even the topline results might have ominous hints for the GOP. When the incumbent Republican president George H. W. Bush scored a 16-point win over Patrick Buchanan (53 percent–37 percent) in the 1992 primary, the New York Times termed it a “less-than-impressive victory” and reported that Buchanan had won independents. Like Trump in the 2024 primary, Bush in 1992 relied on the votes of locked-in Republicans to make up for a weaker standing with independents. Bush won, but Buchanan’s showing in the primaries indicated deep vulnerabilities in the Republican coalition. The Democrats went on to win the White House that year.
The challenge facing Republicans in 2024 might be the inverse of what bedeviled the GOP in 1992, when a working-class revolt fueled Ross Perot’s independent bid and helped usher Bill Clinton into the presidency. Under Donald Trump, Republicans have expanded their base in the working class, but struggles with college-educated voters—especially in the suburbs—have cost the GOP for three cycles in a row (2018, 2020, and 2022). New Hampshire’s well-heeled and hyper-educated Manchester suburb of Bedford exemplifies the shift. Trump won it by seven points in 2016 but lost it by three in 2020. In Tuesday’s primary, Haley won there by six points.
In New Hampshire, Trump significantly underperformed his polling. His RealClearPolitics polling lead was almost 20 points, and public polls taken after DeSantis dropped out gave him a lead well over 20 points, making his 11-point victory a significant drop-off. Polls also overestimated Trump-branded candidates in the 2022 midterms. One swallow does not make a spring, but the polls could be underestimating the shift of suburban and independent voters away from Trump-style politics, especially after 2020.
The political obstacles that Trump and Haley face reflect a bigger quandary for the Republican Party. In short, it seems like it needs both Trump and Haley voters in order to rack up commanding majorities. Partly because of the defection of high-income earners to the Democratic Party, Republicans must bolster their standing with working-class voters—while at the same time not losing more ground with college-educated suburbanites. Republican governors who have been able to thread this needle—such as Ron DeSantis, Brian Kemp, and Glenn Youngkin—have overperformed relative to the party nationally.
Two constants, then, remain for the GOP: Trump’s continued dominance, and the unresolved question of how to synthesize a full-spectrum coalition.
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