Sorry, Nikki: There’s No Path to the Nomination with Your New Hampshire Coalition
The new MAGA establishment confines Haley to the Never Trump ghetto.
I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED THE NEW HAMPSHIRE PRIMARY. The Granite State is this magical place where the colonial-style town hall buildings are just the right height and the residents actually live up to their reputation for being passionate about politics (a reputation that the pundits and pay-for-play Iowa strategists pretend the Hawkeye Staters share).
No matter where you go in New Hampshire—a farm, a factory, a spot where witches were once burned, the stoop where Ed Muskie “cried”—you’ll always find a gaggle of know-it-all bookworms, flinty blusterers, and political tourists ready to harshly question stuffed-shirt politicians.
But for me, New Hampshire has always carried extra importance because it was the one place that offered hope for candidates who share my brand of politics—a wintry mix of squishy Rockefeller Republicanism and Live Free or Die libertarianism.
That dynamic has historically made the New Hampshire contest a potential springboard for Moderate Mitts and McCainiac Mavericks who wanted a ticket to ride to the GOP nomination. No matter how badly your preferred candidate was doing in the national polls, no matter how hopeless a campaign seemed, you could always believe that New Hampshire would upend it all. Manchester was the place where our hopes died last.
There was one teensy little problem with all this false hope, though.
Success in New Hampshire was only sustainable for nominees who won not just the famously independent-minded undeclared voters, but the state’s GOP base, as well.
McCain’s shocking 2000 upset that solidified the New Hampshire myth-making didn’t lead anywhere at all, in fact. He was smeared in South Carolina and went on to win just six states that year: three others in New England, his Arizona home, and Michigan, which at the time allowed independent voters to participate in the primary. McCain’s RINO successors did even less well. My boss in 2012, Jon Huntsman, finished third with 17 percent and dropped out of the race a few days later. In 2016, John Kasich finished second with 15 percent and didn’t hit double digits anywhere else besides his home state of Ohio.
The reason for these flameouts is rather obvious: The type of high-information, college-educated New Englander who votes for a more moderate Republican is in relatively high supply in New Hampshire but barely exists anywhere else on the map. Most of the states have more restrictive rules than New Hampshire when it comes to crossover voting. None of them has the same culture of strategic voting that has developed over the years in the ‘First in the Nation’ primary state.
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So to make momentum out of New Hampshire sustainable, it takes a coalition that includes both crossover voters and those who are more representative of the party base. When John McCain (in 2008) and Mitt Romney (in 2012) parlayed success in New Hampshire to the nomination, they were both on their second presidential go-rounds. They had butched up their positions on immigration to help win over party regulars and earned backing from influential elected Republicans and conservative media figures who had come to terms with a fusion candidate who wasn’t exactly their cup of tea. Their national poll numbers at the time of the primary reflected the strength of their coalition.
NONE OF THIS IS TRUE FOR NIKKI HALEY. She’s getting crushed in the national polls. And the fusionist GOP coalition of the aughts doesn’t exist anymore. The days of Republican voters rallying round the flag for the donor class’s chosen candidate ended when Trump showed them a winning alternative that better satisfied their animal desires.
And even if there were a possibility that GOP primary voters might grow tired of all the losing and become more open to coalescing behind a candidate they were told was more electable (changing the behavior they have exhibited in every primary since 2016), the Republican elites are no longer even attempting to persuade them.
In the past week, the new MAGA establishment has weighed in, and they are all lined up behind the frontrunner. This weekend, ‘DeSanctus’ ended his disastrous bid by endorsing Trump, warning about the dangers of returning to the “corporatist” GOP.
Nikki Haley’s buddies from her 2016 Benetton ad, Marco Rubio and Tim Scott, both put on the gimp suit and submitted to Trump before a single primary contest had been waged. National Review’s Rich Lowry has already moved on to the veepstakes. The consultant class is telling Mike Pence to hang in there while they angle for roles in Trump 2.0. Fox is holding laugh-ins with the presumed nominee.
The old establishment that powered McCain’s and Mitt’s primary victories has been transformed into a hollowed-out husk of Trumpian supplication uninterested in even trying to resist the party’s MAGA takeover.
As Haley campaigned this week, the more conservative-aligned allies you might think she would have were totally absent. Her campaign was completely confined to the Never Trump ghetto; the only visible supporters on the trail were Judge Judy—who has a nose for losers, having campaigned for Mike Bloomberg in the 2020 Democratic contest—and Northeastern moderate governors Chris Sununu and Larry Hogan. Had my YouTube cohost Bill Kristol run for president, his endorsement roster wouldn’t have been meaningfully different.
As a result, Haley is now relying on a massive surge in turnout from people in this more moderate demo to win this week’s primary. Problem is, these voters aren’t really natural fits for her.
On the latest episode of the Focus Group podcast, we talked to New Hampshire voters who were registered Republican or undeclared and voted for Biden in 2020. And the thrill up the leg they had for McCain was absent in discussing Haley. It was hilarious listening to these center-left politics junkies agonize over whether they could bring themselves to turn out for her.
One voter, David—who is registered undeclared but has been a longtime Democratic voter, and who cited being influenced to participate in the GOP primary thanks to an MSNBC appearance by Obama 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe—was grappling with his options. “I may pull a Republican ballot and vote for Haley or I may vote Dem and write in Biden. If I were to vote for Haley it would be only as an anti-Trump vote because I will never vote for a Republican in the general election for president or dog catcher or anything,” David said.
And then there was Michelle, who said she would “probably vote for Nikki” but didn’t offer a ringing endorsement: “I don’t like Haley and I don’t really dislike Haley. I guess I don’t trust her. I don’t think she’s brave enough or strong enough to do what’s right.”
Needless to say, winning people who actively dislike you and value the strategic voting guidance of Obama advisers is not a path to the Republican nomination. But these are the folks who have Haley’s fate in their hands on Tuesday night. (For what it’s worth, if I were them, I’d suck it up and vote for her, too.)
But their decision only changes the time horizon for the inevitable. Winning them over grants her only a stay of execution. When it comes right down to it, the only stakes for Haley tomorrow are these: Does our Palmetto Rose earn enough crossover voters to allow her to die in her native Iodine State? Or does New Hampshire put her down more comfortably, ending the GOP primary for good before it really even started?