I just saw that there’s a new ARG poll out this afternoon showing Donald Trump at 37% and Nikki Haley at 33% in New Hampshire. Christie is at 10% and Dead Bounce Ron is at 5%, if you’re a completist. This spurs me to share with you an editorial conversation we were just having about how we’re going to cover, how much of our editorial resources we’re going to put toward, the primaries in the next couple months. Can Haley beat Trump in New Hampshire? Do we care or does it matter if she does?
Staffing questions are our problem — not something you need to concern yourself with. But those discussions can provide some insight into how we see the race, so here goes. Specifically, we’re not going to put too many resources against these races. We’ll be there on elections nights. But broadly we don’t want to get too sucked into horse race coverage of elections that are only barely contested and largely don’t matter. What governs our coverage is the substance of the presidential race more than forms. And here the substance has gotten significantly untethered from the forms.
Could Haley beat Trump in New Hampshire or come close enough that it drives a press narrative about Trump’s strength or inevitability? I think that is possible. But if that happens what we’re talking about is just a different path toward Trump’s inevitable nomination. Rather than Trump basically going through an all-but-uncontested drive to the nomination, maybe Haley consolidates 25% of Republicans. Maybe 30%, though I think that’s quite unlikely.
This would be different. There would be a press narrative about Trump’s loosened hold on the GOP. He’d seem weaker. But he would still be the nominee almost to an absolute certainty.
First, New Hampshire is about the best shot a Trump challenger is ever going to have. New Hampshire just isn’t the Union-Leader-y conservative state it used to be. But even in the old days, it was a very New England kind of conservatism. Trump’s bases of support are evangelical Christian, Southern, rural and exurban. It’s a different kind of conservatism, even though of course Trump has many supporters in New Hampshire. The state is the anti-Trump forces’ best shot.
Second, unlike most states, New Hampshire allows crossover participation. A plurality of the state’s voters are undeclared/independent. They can participate in either primary. In voting and ideological terms, many of those independents are actually Democrats, just not formally as a matter of registration. Many more are not really partisan Republicans. All of those voters are potential boons for a non-Trump candidate. You can even participate if you’re a Democrat as long as you changed your registration a few months in advance of primary day. This is a big, big advantage for Haley or whoever the non-Trump might have been. The ARG poll I note above has Trump beating Haley 42% to 31% among Republicans and Haley beating Trump 36% to 29% among undeclared voters.
Third, the current RNC rules are heavily weighted toward winner-take-all contests. So even if we posited an almost unimaginable Spring 2024 in which Haley was pulling 40% of the vote to Trump’s 60%, it wouldn’t matter. He’d wrap up the nomination in short order. The winner gets all or virtually all of the delegates.
The narrative would change but not the result. That is about as certain as anything ever can be in politics.
That shift in narrative — one of Trump’s weakness, his loosening grip over the party — could have consequences in the general. But it won’t lose him the nomination.
My best guess is that Haley will have a relatively strong result in New Hampshire but fall short. But she’ll get close enough to spur a mini-media frenzy about Haleymentum and a shifting race. But he’ll clean her clock in every contest going forward and that will be the end of it.
But there’s a non-trivial chance she wins New Hampshire, that win helps consolidate double digit support in some subsequent races and a race narrative continues for a while. But he’ll still 100% be the nominee, for the reasons I explained above.