With a frigid and anticlimactic Iowa caucus night behind them, the Republican presidential field moved Tuesday to New Hampshire, where Nikki Haley has her best — and perhaps only — chance to prove that Donald Trump can still be beaten in a GOP primary.
The shift means more than a change of scenery: For a brief moment, the spotlight will be on independent voters and non-Trump Republicans, who have only limited sway in most GOP primaries but are a force here, and may also play a major role in November’s general election.
The prominence of moderates means three things for the GOP:
- Haley, the former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations, has a decent chance of beating the former president in next Tuesday’s primary.
- But because New Hampshire differs so much from the Republican norm, Trump remains the overwhelming favorite to win almost everywhere else.
- And the alienation of moderates from the GOP remains a significant risk for Trump’s chances in a general election against President Biden, despite the incumbent’s current weak standing.
Only 10% of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s supporters and 22% of Haley’s backers said they would vote for Trump in a general election matchup against the Democratic president, according to a Suffolk University survey of New Hampshire voters released before Christie dropped out of the race last week.
The general election threat to the GOP comes largely from voters like Christine Stover of Strafford, in eastern New Hampshire near the Maine state line, who went out on a recent snowy evening to join Christie’s town hall at a barbecue restaurant in nearby Rochester — the last public event the candidate held before quitting.
Stover, a project manager at the local telephone company, said that until recently, she had split her votes between Republicans and Democrats. In the 2022 midterm election, she voted a straight Democratic ticket for the first time.
She shifted her vote because of the decision that year by the Republican-appointed justices on the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the ruling that had guaranteed abortion rights in the U.S. for nearly half a century.
“At this point, I don’t see myself ever actually voting for another Republican again” for president, she said, although she was attracted enough by Christie to consider voting for him in the primary.
Her husband, Paul Stover, who voted for Trump in 2016, said he was less certain of his choice this time around, but added: “I really don’t want to vote for Trump.”
Like many voters, he’s put off thinking about the likelihood of another Trump-Biden showdown, hoping it might somehow be avoided.
“I’ll admit it: I haven’t thought that far ahead,” he said when asked what he would do if the rematch occurs.
“I’ll think about it more when I have to,” he added. “That could be part denial.”
Moderate voters form a much larger bloc in the state than in most Republican primaries: Recent polls by Suffolk University of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire indicated, for example, that 41% of likely voters in New Hampshire’s GOP primary define themselves as moderate or liberal, compared with 23% of likely caucusgoers in Iowa.
By contrast, evangelical Christians, the dominant force in the GOP in much of the country, made up only about a quarter of the vote in New Hampshire in 2016, according to exit polls, the last time Republicans had a nomination contest. Monday night in Iowa, evangelicals were 55% of the voters, according to the poll of caucus participants done by television networks.
In most of the rest of the country — including in Haley’s home state of South Carolina, which holds its GOP primary on Feb. 24, and in California, which votes on March 5 —the Republican electorate looks more like the voters in Iowa than those in New Hampshire.
Although Haley is a southern conservative who has had strong evangelical backing in her career, she has become by default the candidate of northern moderates who want to defeat Trump. It’s an alliance of convenience more than enthusiasm, but provides an outlet for a group that has increasingly been pushed to — or beyond — the margins of Republican politics.
Several polls released last week showed Haley closing in on the lead here, with Trump holding about 4 in 10 likely voters and the former South Carolina governor supported by between a quarter and a third of them, depending on the survey.
Polls and interviews with voters indicate that she’ll probably pick up most of those who had backed Christie, which could give Haley most of the votes she would need to close the gap with Trump.
New Hampshire’s postcard image is of rural towns built around churches with picturesque white steeples. In reality, the majority of the state’s population lives in suburbs within hailing distance of the Boston metropolis.
And while the state’s voters are no longer representative of the Republican Party, they do roughly resemble a key nationwide voting bloc — the type of mostly white, middle-of-the-road suburbanites who have abandoned the GOP in droves in the Trump era and who played a major role in driving Democratic victories in the 2022 midterm elections.
Jack Lagasse, an independent voter who attended the Christie event, said he expected to vote for Biden, despite worries about “his age, and the fact that if he doesn’t make it through the presidency, we’ll end up with Kamala Harris as the president.”
Biden will be 82 and Trump 78 by inauguration day 2025, which falls on Haley’s 53rd birthday.
Lagasse said he would vote for the Democrat “because of the vendetta that Trump has for everybody and the fact that he didn’t want to give up the presidency the last time.”
“I’m afraid he’s going to try to turn this country into a dictatorship,” he said, noting the argument that Trump’s lawyers had made to an appeals court earlier that day that unless he was impeached first, he would be immune from prosecution for any crime he may have committed while president, even if he ordered the military to assassinate a political rival.
While Trump’s core supporters express fervent enthusiasm for his candidacy, other Republicans show a marked reluctance even when they say they expect they’ll vote for him in the end.
Asked what she would do if faced with a Trump-Biden matchup, Christina Austin, an executive assistant at an auto parts company in Dover, on New Hampshire’s coast, gave a long sigh.
“I’m not certain,” she said.
“Biden’s been very, very weak” and is “not doing a lot of good for the country,” she said, but she added that Trump and his family have a lot of “baggage.”
The moderate Republicans and independents who say they may vote for Biden aren’t all new defectors from the GOP ranks. Many voted for Biden in 2020 and are drawn to this year’s GOP primary largely as a chance to try to block Trump. But their continued disaffection is a reminder that even as Biden struggles with divisions in his party, Trump has alienated a significant share of what was once the Republican vote.
In Suffolk’s New Hampshire poll, 7 in 10 Christie voters said they would back Biden in the event of a Trump-Biden race. And more than 4 in 10 Haley backers in Iowa would vote for Biden rather than Trump, a Des Moines Register/NBC News poll found.
The loss of such voters worries Ed Huminick, a real estate developer and local Republican official in his hometown of Salem, N.H., along the Massachusetts state line. A prominent Christie backer — and a potential convention delegate before the former New Jersey governor pulled out — he said he now plans to vote for Haley. But he is resigned to the likelihood that her efforts will be for naught.
“I’m a Republican. I will hold my nose and vote Republican,” he said, even if that means voting for Trump.
“I’m 71 years old, and a Republican since I’m 21 — 50 years,” he added. “That’s longer than Trump’s been a Republican.”
But, Huminick said, voters whose partisanship is not so ingrained won’t do the same. New Hampshire, a closely divided state, has been slowly shifting toward the Democrats, especially in federal elections, and renominating Trump could create a tipping point for the state, he fears.
“Right now, we have a Republican governor, a Republican state Senate and a Republican House,” he said. “I’m concerned that … we’ll have a Democratic governor, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House” if Trump is the nominee.
Like Paul Stover, many have simply decided not to decide for now, hoping that some combination of age, legal drama or mischance might avert a rematch they dread.
When Christie pulled out of the race, he singled out for thanks one supporter, Toni Pappas, a Republican activist and chair of the board of commissioners for Hillsborough County, which includes Manchester, the state’s largest city.
Asked afterward whether she thought Trump was fit for office, Pappas said: “No, he is not.”
Asked what she would do if he were the party’s nominee, she grimaced slightly before responding, “I don’t know.”