In New Hampshire, Haley Needs to Prove Trump’s Grip on the GOP Isn’t Absolute

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It took her almost a year for Nikki Haley to land her ultimate goal: a one-on-one race against Donald Trump. But now that she's reached that position, outlasting a long list of men vying for the same spot, it might not be as enviable as she once considered it. And it might last about as long as the shrinking piles of graying snow beside the winding and treacherous roads New Hampshire voters will take to the ballot boxes on Tuesday.

Haley, who served as Trump’s rep to the United Nations before beginning her effort to claim the top job herself, has shown a mix of flinty pluck and feisty resolve during the last week. Her disappointing third-place finish in Iowa was a wake-up call about just how tricky it is to outmaneuver Trump’s outsized ego and all that it represents inside a Republican Party unable to shake its orbital pull. Ratcheting up her rhetoric since decamping from Iowa—where she won just one of the state’s 99 counties and by a 1-vote margin to boot—Haley has tried to convince her fellow Republicans it’s not too late to derail the seemingly anointed return of Trump. Through a gritted grin, Haley has made perhaps the most credible case against Trump since the spring of 2016, when Ted Cruz’s last-ditch effort proved too tardy to matter.

“America doesn’t do coronations,” she said Monday in the Lakes Region town of Franklin, N.H. “We believe in choices. We believe in democracy, and we believe in freedom. I have said I love the live-free-or-die state, but you know what? I want to make it a live-free-or-die country.”

Now, with just Haley standing in the way of Trump claiming the GOP nomination for a third time, the moment she sought has arrived. But a path to a win is hard to find. The final Boston Globe/ Suffolk University/ NBC10 tracking poll showed Haley a full 19 points behind Trump, who enjoyed 57% support.

As she’s outlasted contender after contener not named Trump, few of their supporters have shifted to her. Some slowly found their natural home back in Trump’s shadow. Despite the belief that a unified Republican Party could deny Trump the nomination if only the field would narrow—I am among those guilty on this front, to be fair—the notion of a coalescing around a Trump alternative never materialized. The phantom idea of an anti-Trump lost credibility as most of those vying for the title made clear their priority was maintaining their future in GOP politics, ensuring they would spend months treating Trump with kid gloves. 

To her credit, Haley (belatedly) decided to take her chances. The result has been a week of critiques that came across as a deluge without sufficient space to sink in. A final pair of debates set for New Hampshire were scrapped as Haley refused to participate in any more sessions unless Trump bothered to show up. (Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who ended his furtive effort on Sunday and backed Trump, was not worth Haley’s time, apparently.)

Haley is a political fighter, for sure, and she made the case that her strongest basket of support could come from New Hampshire voters who aren’t particularly hardened as partisans. The biggest political party in the state are those voters who don’t identify as Republicans or Democrats; they can decide on Primary Day if they want to take a D or an R ballot at their local fire hall, library, church, or school. In 2016, the last time Republicans had an open contest for the nomination, a full 42% of participants were so-called unaffiliated voters. Trump carried them at the same level as he carried self-identified Republicans, at 36%, on his march to victory.

Haley this time is trying to persuade these voters not to repeat that mistake. The Post/ Monmouth poll finds a majority of likely Republican voters say Trump did something wrong or illegal on Jan. 6, 2021. Among the 53% of voters who share that view, a striking 91% are with Haley. Among the unaffiliated voters, Haley enjoys a 10-point advantage over Trump, 48%-38%. While that delta is impressive, it’s worth recalling that Sen. John McCain leaned on his appeal with the same bloc in 2000 to best party favorite, George W. Bush, thanks to a 42-point advantage among the indies. The political mythologies in New Hampshire are as fanciful as they are sacrosanct, especially the Legend of McCain; that doesn’t mean they’re easy to replicate. (And, it’s worth emphasizing: Bush still won the nomination.)

In the modern era, no Republican has nicked back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. Granite Staters are reluctant—if not hostile—to ratifying the results coming out of Iowa. The unofficial mantra among the political class follows that Iowa picks corn while New Hampshire picks Presidents. It’s clever, but it’s also not entirely wrong. New Hampshire voters demand the personal touch, and seldom reach back to insincere interlopers. Key word: seldom.

(Democrats, sour on the very white populace in New Hampshire, decided to launch their nominating contest in South Carolina on Feb. 3. Biden isn’t even on the New Hampshire Democratic ballot, the winner of which will gain no delegates.)

Unaffiliated strategists have watched Haley do the work in a way that impressed them. In fact, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who mulled a 2024 White House run of his own before deciding to retire from politics at the end of this term rather than fight for a party that his family helped define for five decades, threw his lot in with Haley. But the fact remains that she is still running in a state in the throes of a Trump fever. The final Washington Post/ Monmouth poll found a plurality of likely Republican primary voters—51%—think Biden is an illegitimate President who is in the White House because of voter fraud. It’s tough to win as a reasonable conservative when the bulk are anything but.

So it’s against that backdrop that Haley is hustling. She seems to have found the right timing for a late rise, gotten lucky with the demise of her competitors, and finally shed the last of her fright over the Trump retribution. She may have a good Tuesday night at her campaign headquarters in Concord. But defining “good” is going to be a difficult sparing of spin. Her allies are advertising that “we are already plotting our course to South Carolina and beyond,” according to a pre-Primary Day memo from her super PAC helpers. At least for the moment, Haley and her allies are casting the race as one going until at least Feb. 24, when Haley’s home state of South Carolina weighs in.

Perhaps. But these campaigns aren’t free. Her deep-pocketed super PAC pals are working to raise more money as a protest against Trump’s return to power. But ultimately the candidate herself needs to be able to show she can deliver voters. It’s as trite as it is true: campaigns don’t run out of steam, but they do run out of donors who are willing to keep writing checks. The brutal trifecta of South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, Gov. Henry McMaster, and Rep. Nancy Mace all lining up with Trump left plenty of Palmetto State insiders piqued by the perceived lack of loyalty—and reminded them that Trump is still an unmatched bully.

There will be a good number of bank transfers on the donors’ screens as the polls close on Tuesday. Hitting the confirm button will hinge on how those donors are conditioned to see Haley’s numbers, and whether there is a reasonable belief that Haley is getting close to her goals, or if Trump is simply too big of a force to bump off course. Now that it’s a one-on-one race for the nomination, the verdict will be apparent, and quickly. For Haley, who has been pining for this exact head-to-head with her former boss, there’s nowhere to hide if this goes sideways.

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