Trump’s Latest Victim: The Discerning New Hampshire Voter
Plus: How Democrats got ahead of the curve.
New Hampshirites have participated in the country’s first primary every year since 1920, and across the decades they’ve earned a reputation for being some of the most discerning voters in the Union. That reputation has been the subject of books and thinkpieces, and it might help explain why the rest of the country simply accepted it when the Granite State passed a law in 1975 formalizing its first-in-the-nation status. But New Hampshire’s reputation in this area has taken a beating thanks in large part to Donald Trump.
During this campaign, Trump is not doing any of the things candidates normally do because he doesn’t have to. He has never reintroduced himself to voters, he’s avoided policy specifics like the plague1, he’s spent much of the campaign cycle in and out of court for repeatedly defaming a woman a jury determined he is liable for sexually abusing, and he has repeatedly stumbled over his words in ways that suggest he either is very tired, is mentally not all there, or just doesn’t care.
So far, the anti-strategy hasn’t hurt him, and his rivals have struggled to maneuver within the more traditional strictures of national political campaigns. While normal politicking and retail events have been unnecessary for Trump, they were fruitless for Ron DeSantis, who had fallen into the single digits by the time he suspended his campaign over the weekend, and polling indicates they haven’t been enough to help Nikki Haley close the gap with Trump.
While traversing New Hampshire this week, I saw a lot of the factors that helped create this situation. The typical undecided voters who emerge cicada-like every four years to trill for press attention at various campaign stops—they were absolutely everywhere in 2016—have scarcely appeared at events I’ve attended this time around. Instead, the voters I’ve encountered have all had their minds made up well in advance of hearing any candidate speak.
Trump’s supporters have remained fanatical in their devotion to him; the true MAGA core has arguably become something like a cult. As I wandered through the crowd outside the venue for his final rally2 in Laconia, I found that nearly everyone3 openly expressed this level of ride-or-die commitment to the man. A couple of Trump supporters I spoke to were straight from central casting, just the way Trump likes ’em.
I first chatted with Chris from Gilford, New Hampshire. A man in his fifties with a thick New England accent, Chris repeated many of the lines Trump says of himself, arguing that the former president is “the one that can fix it all” and can’t be bought off because he’s already so rich.
Then there was an older man with a long beard and a standard red “Trump 45” hat who introduced himself to me as “Big Jim from Concord.” Big Jim didn’t give a single candidate another look because he knows Trump will become the nominee. He anticipates a resounding victory in New Hampshire and more victories to come in 2024. “No other candidate” could crack down on drugs, immigration, or terrorism or bring the crippled economy back to roaring good health, according to Big Jim.
While Big Jim is a day-one Trump voter—he backed him in the primary and general in both of Trump’s other elections—Chris was different. He told me he only started “really paying attention to” and participating in politics after 2020. Despite entering the game so late, he got up to speed on today’s GOP quickly: There was no need to even look at a junior-varsity MAGA candidate like DeSantis, Chris said, because “even if they were 75 to 80 percent like Trump, they weren’t Trump.”
I’ve also run into a fair number of independents and Democrats strategically looking to deny Trump anything they can by voting against him in the Republican primary. (Partisan affiliation is not a requirement for voting in either party’s New Hampshire’s primary.) There were quite a few of these at Nikki Haley’s get-out-the-vote rally in Franklin on Monday morning. I think I met more Democrats—or at least anti-Trump independents—at that event than red-blooded Republicans.
Take Bob from Tilton, who voted for Biden in 2020 and wrote in Bernie Sanders in 2016. He told me he was committed to Nikki Haley for tactical reasons only:
She’s the last-ditch effort to stop Trump. Plain and simple.
While Haley has worked hard to avoid alienating MAGA Republicans throughout her campaign, now that she is the last challenger standing against Trump, some vibe consolidation has taken place. The unifying themes of the two candidates’ events were, “Trump is bad, therefore he must be stopped,” and “Trump is the savior, therefore he must be crowned.” No one I spoke with seemed interested in considering their other options. Conservative independents described purely negative motivations: They simply wanted to avoid renominating Trump, and they didn’t seem to have a positive desire to embrace any particular Republican alternative, even those who most closely mirrored their own views. Trump loyalists, meanwhile, are single minded: They demand that he will be the nominee again, and they’re a big enough force that they will very likely have their way.
New Hampshire’s position as the first primary state used to make sense. It has both urban and rural areas, and its economy very closely resembles U.S. averages. It’s small enough that a candidate with a platoon of reporters in tow can still get pretty much anywhere in the state in under two hours, which means campaigns get the best use of their time and resources. Given the small state’s 400-seat House of Representatives, it sometimes seems as though everyone you meet in New Hampshire either knows an elected official or is one, which has probably contributed to the voting public’s outsized political acumen. (Despite having a population smaller than that of the city of San Antonio, New Hampshire boasts one of the largest lower houses in the world, with a membership total equal to that of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies.)
But the conditions that once made New Hampshire the ideal state to make the first pitch to voters no longer obtain. The state’s smallness, which makes it easily navigable by car, matters less in an age of multibillion-dollar campaigns with private jets. And New Hampshire is far more demographically uniform than some other early-voting states, like South Carolina or Michigan. (More on what that means for Democrats in a moment.)
New Hampshire’s Republican lawmakers have largely lined up behind Trump; no one else was ever really considered. Even Haley’s highest-profile endorser, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, acknowledged, “I don't think any endorsement really matters.” (It’s worth noting that he said this while repeatedly telling the world he will vote for Trump when the time comes, even if he’s a convicted felon by then.)
The leading Republican candidate has no interest in courting voters because he doesn’t feel he needs to, and voters are showing him he’s right. In a distant second and praying for an upset to keep her campaign alive, Haley isn’t getting the traction or enthusiasm that typically results from the sort of tireless politicking she’s been doing nonstop for months. Part of Haley’s stump speech is that the Republican primary is an “election” and “not a coronation.” She said this multiple times Monday, both on the trail and on Fox News. But the voters just want to see that crown.
Democrats recognized the party’s over in New Hampshire
At the national level, the Democrats seem to understand just how outdated New Hampshire’s reputation really is, and they have changed their primary schedule to displace it from its first position despite some protest. At the direction of President Joe Biden, Democrats moved South Carolina to the front of the race. Because New Hampshire Democrats won’t comply on the calendar issue—partly because their primary date is a matter of state law—Biden isn’t on the ballot there, and their delegates won’t count towards the total for nomination. The primary challenge to Biden being mounted by Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) has its best chance of putting up some numbers in New Hampshire as a result, but because those ballots won’t affect the national primary, Phillips’s challenge comes across as more of an anti-Biden PR campaign than a legitimate run for the presidency.
Phillips has cast himself as a youthful alternative to Biden. He’s run a campaign in New Hampshire reminiscent of contests for the open primaries of years past, even if most of his attacks on Biden appear to mimic Republican talking points. In need of cash, Phillips has been taken under the wing of mischievous billionaires like Bill Ackman. Phillips has since started flip-flopping on whether he’d attempt a third-party run if he doesn’t obtain the nomination, even though he previously called third-party 2024 campaigns “a terrible disservice to this country.” He’s since backtracked on supporting such a run if it drew votes from the Democratic nominee. (In another sign of shifting priorities, he recently scrubbed his campaign website of language about diversity, equity, and inclusion after being publicly prompted to do so by Ackman, a devoted critic of DEI.)
After alienating friends and colleagues back on Capitol Hill, Phillips has started campaigning alongside Andrew Yang, the 2020 Democratic longshot who splintered off to form his own political party.
Waiting for Phillips’s town hall in Manchester to start on Monday night, I spoke with Yang, who said, “Don't let anyone for a moment make you think that the DNC is not competing [in New Hampshire]. They spent $1.25 million on the write-in campaign [for Joe Biden].” This is true: Democrats have mounted a small effort to get Democrats to write in Joe Biden’s name in the primary, but their main purpose in doing so is to minimize bad press clippings for the president’s expected less-than-stellar performance in a state whose delegates won’t count towards the overall nomination.
Yang added that he believes the Democratic National Committee is “suppressing democracy” by skipping over New Hampshire.
The people deserve a real say. The DNC has tried to suppress that say by stripping New Hampshire delegates, trying to discourage people from voting, and canceling the primaries in Florida and North Carolina. They’re out there saying “we’re championing democracy” on one hand and then suppressing it with the other.
Regardless, Democrats have moved on to South Carolina, which has a more diverse demographic mix. New Hampshire is almost 93 percent white while South Carolina is about 70; it also has over a quarter of a million more military veterans than New Hampshire and a greater total population by almost four million. Will skipping over New Hampshire in the primary season alienate Granite State Democrats for the general election? Probably not. But increasing efforts in South Carolina could certainly lead to new political inroads in that state.
Sign(s) of the times
If you recall the Press Pass dispatch from the Iowa State Fair last summer, I observed what I believe was a massive drop in campaign merchandise being worn or advertised by attendees compared to past open primaries like 2016. There were few MAGA hats there and even fewer supporters eager to follow around or listen to the various candidates pitching their wares to potential caucusgoers. That perception was backed up last week when abysmal turnout at this year’s Iowa caucuses gave Trump an easy victory. It was one of the lowest-participation caucuses in recent memory.
The situation in New Hampshire looks similar. Campaign signs are few and far between. I’ve seen the occasional TRUMP placard nailed to a tree along the highway and a few “NH <3 NH” (that is, New Hampshire loves Nikki Haley) yard signs in front of homes, but these represent a fraction of the signage I saw around here in 2016. Eight years ago in downtown Manchester, there was a forest of Bernie Sanders signs, Hillary’s arrow-H pointing across every street corner, Trump flags flapping at various angles, and still other advertisements for Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich.
Big Jim told me he’s confident that in November, “It’s not gonna be taken away [from Trump] again” thanks to what he’s predicting will be the biggest turnout in a generation. Asked how he squares that with the historically low turnout in Iowa, Big Jim told me:
Iowa isn’t real. It’s a caucus and not a real primary.
Real or not, this time around, the lack of signs is jarring. Could absence of signage be signage of an absence? We’ll know when the votes are tallied tonight. It could simply be that Republican voters don’t want to add more junk to New Hampshire’s landfills after the primary is done.
Or like COVID precautions circa 2020.
The Trump campaign denied The Bulwark press credentials, but I went anyway and waited in line with The People.
I did talk to one independent who was only attending to fulfill her keen interest in politics, but she was afraid to speak above a mouselike volume or offer too much detail. “I don’t know how they would react if they knew,” she said, gesturing to the crowd around her. She then mouthed, “I like Nikki Haley.”