Trump Clears the New Hampshire Hurdle

Haley can’t win the Republican nomination without Republicans; Biden avoids a Granite State slipup with write-in showing

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KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— While one can poke some holes in Donald Trump’s New Hampshire showing, he dispatched Nikki Haley in a state friendly to her coalition.

— Haley is dominating with moderates and independents, but, as obvious as it may sound, winning conservatives and Republicans is the way to win the Republican presidential nomination. Trump has them.

— President Biden avoided what could have been some negative short-term headlines by easily winning as a write-in candidate in what amounted to a beauty contest Democratic primary.

The Granite State speaks

On its face, Donald Trump’s performance in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday night was solid. In a state where the Republican primary electorate has more moderates and independents and is less religious than Iowa—demographic features that made the state much more gettable on paper for Trump’s remaining major rival, Nikki Haley—Trump ended up winning by what is at the moment an 11-point margin. This sets him up well for upcoming contests in states where the electorate should be more favorable to him—most notably, South Carolina, which is Haley’s home state.

New Hampshire loomed as a hurdle for Trump in his bid to score an early, decisive romp to becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, and he cleared it with relative ease. He became the first Republican in a truly contested race since Gerald Ford in 1976 to win both Iowa and New Hampshire in the same nominating season, and neither early state was particularly close.

That said, it appears that Trump underperformed the polls a little bit, perhaps not benefiting as much from the exit of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) as late polls might have suggested. Trump’s lead over Haley in the final polling averages was close to 20 points, a margin that was a good deal larger than where it appears as though he’ll end up (final vote counting is still ongoing as we published this analysis on Wednesday morning). It seems reasonable, perhaps, to wonder if Trump—who is not formally an incumbent, but is on his way to a third straight Republican Party presidential nomination—is quite as strong within his party as he could or should be, given that close to half the electorate in both Iowa and New Hampshire went with someone else in the opening contests. Of course, this doesn’t mean much for the nominating contest itself—Trump is not running against 50%, he’s running against his opposition, a group that has been whittled down to just Haley.

More and more prominent figures in the party are coming out of the woodwork to endorse Trump—a few days ago, as DeSantis put out a video announcing the end of his campaign, he endorsed Trump. Similarly, former Trump nomination rivals entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) threw their support to the former president, and both flanked him on stage in New Hampshire last night.

Just like in Iowa, Trump assembled a New Hampshire coalition, and share of the vote, far more impressive than what he did back in 2016, when he was just facing GOP electorates for the first time. Trump went from 24% in Iowa in 2016 to 51% in 2024, and from 35% in New Hampshire to 55% this time (again, with the caveat that the vote count is not final). His improvements came through big increases in his vote share with voters who call themselves conservative. We went through this in our Iowa analysis last week, and the same thing played out in New Hampshire. Based on 2016 and 2024 exit polls of the New Hampshire primary conducted by Edison Research for a group of major media companies, Trump won 32% of self-described moderates/liberals and 37% of self-described conservatives in 2016. This time, Trump got a whopping 70% of self-described conservatives—but only 22% of moderates/liberals. In Iowa, he got 22% of moderates/liberals after winning 33% in 2016, per the Edison entrance polls for 2016 and 2024. Dominating with conservatives goes a long way toward winning a party, the Republican Party, that is dominated by conservatives. But the erosion with moderates may suggest some problems with the general electorate.

For Haley, her strong support among moderates gives her a base—but it doesn’t do her much good if she can’t turn in stronger performances among conservatives.

The main reason why Haley was so reliant on a good New Hampshire performance is that its electorate was ideologically friendlier to her than many other upcoming GOP primary electorates are likely to be.

Unlike In Iowa, where the combined share of moderates/liberals in the GOP caucus was just 11%, according to the entrance poll, New Hampshire’s combined share of moderates/liberals was a much-higher 34%. Haley easily won that group in both states—she got 63% of those voters in Iowa, and 75% in New Hampshire. One other way of looking at this is by comparing undeclared voters—those not registered with either party—to registered Republicans, a comparison that likely overlaps to a significant degree with the moderate versus conservative split. Undeclared voters made up 46% of the New Hampshire electorate per the exit poll, and she won that group 65%-34%. But registered Republicans made up 50%, and Trump won them 74%-25%.

A candidate just can’t win the nomination of the conservative Republican Party by getting blown out among conservatives and Republicans. Particularly when most of the upcoming primaries are going to have more conservative electorates than New Hampshire does.

Looking ahead, the next key contests are South Carolina (Feb. 24), Michigan (Feb. 27), and then a significant number of primaries on Super Tuesday, March 5.

Of the states with upcoming GOP primaries where we have 2016 primary exit polls—a list that does not include California, a major Super Tuesday contest this year that voted too late in 2016 to have an exit poll—the share of voters who identified as moderate or liberal was only around 20% in most of them: Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas had moderate/liberal shares of just between 18%-22%. Michigan was slightly higher at 25%, with Massachusetts (38%), Vermont (33%), and Virginia (28%) standing out as having greater moderate/liberal shares. But none of these states was even 40% moderate/liberal, and given the New Hampshire results, it’s hard to see how Haley would win any of them (maybe she could spring a surprise in a Massachusetts or Vermont, but that doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things).

Haley’s vote pattern in New Hampshire tracked somewhat with how a Democrat might perform in a general election there. Indeed, as CBS News’s Kabir Khanna pointed out, Haley was doing better in places where Joe Biden did better in the 2020 election, with a relatively high correlation between her town/city share of the primary vote and his share of the general election vote (the author worked with Khanna and the CBS News election data desk on Tuesday night). In Iowa, the only county that Haley won was Johnson, home of the University of Iowa, which is also the bluest county in the state in general elections. At the town/city level in New Hampshire, Haley’s best performance (she got 85% there) was in Hanover, home of Dartmouth College—that also was Biden’s best city/town in 2020 (for both Haley and Biden, we are excluding a few tiny places where they technically did better but where hardly any votes were cast).

Just west of Manchester, Haley carried Bedford, a rock-ribbed Republican town for much of recent history that Biden flipped in 2020. Meanwhile, Trump carried the city of Berlin in the northern part of the state by 30 points—after going to Barack Obama by almost 40 points both times he was on the general election ballot, Biden carried it by just 7. Last week, suburban Dallas County was one of the few Iowa counties where Trump took under 40% of the vote, while he beat his statewide share in many northeastern counties that went to Obama in general elections over a decade ago.

On Tuesday night, Haley vowed to fight on. We do wonder if she may reconsider once we start to see post-New Hampshire polling of South Carolina. It would be surprising if she was not down big to Trump there, given that the electorate is going to be much less moderate than New Hampshire’s was (there has been hardly any recent nonpartisan South Carolina polling). Maybe something changes that, but we think Trump will be leading comfortably, and the delegate math might get daunting quickly.

We already know Trump is going to sweep the delegates in the Nevada caucus on Thursday, Feb. 8—Haley is not even competing there, as she opted to participate in a state-run primary that awards no delegates held on Tuesday, Feb. 6—and Haley would have to be very competitive with Trump in South Carolina to have any chance of getting delegates there, as the state is winner-take-all at the statewide and congressional district level. Back in 2016, Trump got 32% there with Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) at 22% apiece. But Trump won every delegate.

Biden’s write-in showing

The Democratic primary season kicked off—sort of—on Tuesday night in New Hampshire, although the primary had no bearing on delegate allocation. The primary was held in violation of Democratic Party rules, as the party has sought to downgrade New Hampshire from serving as the first, standalone primary. President Biden, thus, did not even file for the primary, and his minor Democratic rivals, most notably Rep. Dean Phillips (D, MN-3), attempted to use the primary to try to illustrate Biden’s weaknesses.

Phillips and his allies put real money into New Hampshire—more than $5 million in paid media, according to AdImpact figures reported by Politico—while Biden’s allies ended up running a write-in campaign that had some funding (so the Biden forces made an effort to avoid a hiccup in New Hampshire).

As of this writing, Biden appeared to be on track to get somewhere in the 60s in terms of his vote share as a write-in candidate, with Phillips way back at around 20%. Previous recent incumbent presidents have generally won about 80% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Incumbents running in New Hampshire presidential primary, 1952-2020

Sources: CQ Press for results prior to 1972; New Hampshire Public Radio for results from 1972-present.

Given that Biden was a write-in, it seems unfair to compare him to that 80% standard; indeed, history is not much of a guide given the unusual circumstances. That said, this was not 1968, when Lyndon Johnson—also running as a write-in—was held slightly under 50%, with Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-MN) getting a little over 40%. That rebuke helped nudge Johnson into retirement—this certainly is not the kind of performance that would push Biden to reconsider running.

Conclusion

A few months ago, we speculated that Trump and Biden might be the first combination of modern major party nominees to each sweep the presidential nominating season. New Hampshire was arguably both candidates’ biggest challenge, at least in the early part of the calendar. Biden was not even formally on the ballot in New Hampshire, and New Hampshire’s electorate is less favorable to Trump than many other Republican states. Ultimately they both did fine. It may be that something unforeseen derails a Biden-Trump rematch—have you heard that both of these candidates are old?—but if that happens, it doesn’t look like it’ll be the primary voters who do the derailing.