Former President Trump won the first Republican primary Tuesday in New Hampshire over his closest competitor, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, according to a projection by the Associated Press. Though the outcome was expected, it was significant nonetheless.
Here are some takeaways.
Yes, Haley remains in the race, for now. But Trump’s victory in the first primary state — which happens to have one of the more moderate and least Trump-friendly electorates in the GOP — all but seals his party’s nomination, setting up an expected rematch with President Biden.
The not-terribly-competitive nominating contest has underscored how much the GOP has become Trump’s party.
Trump left office with low approval ratings and two impeachments that followed an unprecedented attempt to overturn a lawful election. But he entered the nominating fight with many of the advantages of an incumbent, then scored wins in both Iowa and New Hampshire, a rare feat for a Republican presidential hopeful.
Endorsements tell part of that story. They don’t often matter, but two recent nods from former opponents demonstrate why Trump has been the default choice from the beginning. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott both got behind Trump soon after they left the race.
Neither man had much personal reason to embrace Trump. The former president relentlessly targeted DeSantis, who entered the race with high approval ratings, calling him “Desanctimonious” and mocking his appearance, among other insults. But both men endorsed Trump for the same reason they held back from attacking his vulnerabilities during the race: GOP voters still adore him. The two believe that if they want to have a future in the party, at least in the near term, they need to stay with Trump.
Does Haley drop out with her home state looming?
Haley has said repeatedly and recently that she will not depart the race after New Hampshire.
“New Hampshire is first in the nation, it is not last in the nation. This race is far from over,” she said Tuesday night after the race was called for Trump.
Most candidates make similar statements until the moment they leave the race. Haley’s underdog strategy depended on winning New Hampshire, which is filled with highly educated Republican and independent voters whom Haley has been seeking.
The race next heads to Nevada and the Virgin Islands, which hold Republican caucuses Feb. 8.
Polls show Haley down by nearly 40 percentage points to Trump in South Carolina, her home state, which holds its Republican primary Feb. 24. A big loss there would be damaging to her prospects, though not fatal. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio drew only 27% against Trump in his home state in 2016 and won reelection easily in 2022.
But many candidates, including Kamala Harris when she was a California senator, choose to avoid the potential stain on their resume that would come from losing in their home state. They dropped out before any ballots were cast in the 2020 race. In Harris’ case, it paid off with a nomination for vice president, though Haley seems unlikely to get the nod from Trump.
Another historic moment for a twice-impeached president
Trump’s win Tuesday, coupled with last week’s caucuses victory in Iowa, marked another historic moment. It was the first time he faced voters since leaving office, still refusing to accept the election results while encouraging an angry mob that stormed the Capitol.
He’s facing 91 criminal charges and has threatened, among other things, to terminate the constitution and give himself dictatorial powers for a day, while claiming that presidents enjoy absolute immunity from prosecution, even for acts that “cross the line.”
The question is a dividing line for many voters. In preliminary network exit polling, 85% of Haley’s voters said Trump, if convicted of a crime, is unfit to be president. Only 11% of Trump’s voters said that.
Democrats hope voters will start comparing Biden to ‘the alternative’
Biden for months has repeated the aphorism “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.” He argues that his low approval rating in polls — now below 40% — will matter less once people zero in on the binary choice between him and Trump.
That process is likely to intensify as Trump gets closer to securing the nomination.
The big question is whether the election, now forecast as close, will shift to Biden’s favor when voters take a closer look at Trump. Historically, Trump’s approval in polls has dropped as he gets more public exposure.
Turnout for a Trump-Biden rematch could fade
Voters showed up in huge numbers in 2018, 2020 and, in some states, 2022, in part because Trump inspires such strong positive and negative feelings. Abortion also a played a large role in 2022, following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn a constitutional right to the procedure.
Will that fervor persist in November, or are voters too fatigued and uninspired for a likely rematch that has turned off many?
That’s one of the biggest questions and one that both parties will pursue now that the general election is taking shape. Biden needs to shore up support from younger and Black voters, key groups for him in 2020 whose excitement has waned, according to polls. Trump needs to minimize losses in the suburbs, where educated Republican women have defected.
What happens to third parties? Will they fade as usual or play spoiler?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has been drawing double digits in some polls as an independent candidate. A centrist political group called “No Labels” has been floating its own third-party ticket, though no one has signed up to run.
History shows that these candidacies tend to fade by the time voters cast ballots. But they have had an impact, including in 1992, when Ross Perot drew 19% of the vote. Debate continues over which of the two major candidates he hurt worse: Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush with a mere 43% of the popular vote. In 2000, Ralph Nader may have topped the balance for George W. Bush in his race against Al Gore.
Conventional wisdom holds that Biden will be hurt by a third-party candidate because Trump’s core base is so passionate and loyal. But that remains unclear, especially in the case of Kennedy, whose conspiratorial views on vaccines and other topics align with those of many Trump supporters.