PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Former president Donald Trump is aiming for a crushing victory in Iowa on Jan. 15. But it is the New Hampshire primary eight days later, where former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley has narrowed the gap with Trump, that is shaping up to be the most consequential early state — and perhaps the only shot to stop or slow Trump’s march to the GOP presidential nomination.
Of the first four states where Trump leads, New Hampshire is where he is most vulnerable and where Haley is strongest, according to interviews with voters and operatives and a review of polling. A big win for Trump in Iowa and then New Hampshire would effectively seal up the nomination for him. But a narrow victory or surprise defeat could change the dynamic with a long lull until the big contest.
Haley has surged within striking distance of a Jan. 23 victory that could shatter perceptions of Trump’s inevitability and serve a slingshot for the former South Carolina governor, narrowing the contest to a two-person race during the month-long slog before the Feb. 24 primary in her home state, where Trump has maintained an average lead of some 30 points over his rivals. But she also faces some major obstacles in the path ahead.
With its rich history of political upsets, New Hampshire has long relished its role as a wild card among the early-nominating states. Former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, father of current governor Chris Sununu, often joked that “Iowa picks corn while New Hampshire picks presidents” — alluding to the ability of the state’s relatively moderate electorate to recast the race after the conservative, evangelical voters of Iowa have their say on caucus night.
“I know we’ll get it right, and I trust you. I trust every single one of you. You know how to do this. You know Iowa starts it. You know that you correct it,” Haley said earlier this month at a town hall in Milford, a comment she later framed as early-state fun after facing criticism from her rivals.
One element of this cycle’s unpredictability is the outsize role that voters who are unaffiliated with either party could play in the GOP primary, because there is so little excitement on the Democratic side. President Biden will not appear on New Hampshire’s ballot after the Democratic National Committee changed the primary calendar and put South Carolina first instead, and the long-shot effort by Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) to challenge an incumbent president has fallen flat. Those “undeclared” voters — who span the ideological spectrum from libertarians, to ardent Trump supporters alienated by the mainstream GOP, to moderate voters who despise Trump — make up 39 percent of the state’s electorate and can cast a ballot in either primary on Election Day.
Diane Gronbeck of Hampton, N.H., one such undeclared voter, said she is supporting Haley now after voting for Biden in the last election. If it is a Biden-Trump rematch this year, she said she would vote for Trump because she’s concerned about Biden’s age. But she noted, “It’s the lesser of two evils maybe, I don’t know, but Trump is evil.”
Haley, in contrast, has energized her. “I really believe that Nikki Haley is a breath of fresh air and she will make a change,” she said.
Haley’s New Hampshire crowds have ballooned recently as optimism rises among independents and anti-Trump voters that the former South Carolina governor could defeat — if not close in on — the former president. The Milford event was her largest yet in the state, with 700 people packing a gym and more being turned away by the fire marshal. At her events, Haley often asks for a show of hands from those seeing her in person for the first time — frequently, the vast majority raise their hands. One that shot up at a recent Concord, N.C., event belonged to Jonathan Hughes, who voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020, but doesn’t believe either deserves a second term.
“She’s rising against the group as someone who might have a chance against Trump,” said Hughes, who is undecided. “I don’t want to see Trump win, and no one until now has had a chance to compete against him.”
Michael Jache, 69, who voted for Trump in 2020, came to the same event to catch a glimpse of Haley after ruling out Trump, who he thinks is primarily motivated by revenge. “I think he wants to just get back at anyone who was against him in turning over the 2020 election,” Jache said.
Haley has gained momentum running a campaign centered on electability and national consensus on abortion, and help from major ad investments in New Hampshire have boosted her polling strength against Biden in a general election. But the state’s longtime GOP political operatives such as Jim Merrill underscored that she has a very narrow path to victory and that no one should underestimate the strength of Trump’s New Hampshire operation.
“Haley’s first task was to come out of the scrum as the obvious number two — she did that, outlasting some and beating others,” Merrill said. “Now she’s at the top of that ridge line, but there’s a second ridge she’s got to climb and it’s Mount Trump. … He’s king of the hill here, but he’s not at 50 percent, so that door is cracked open for Haley to go through.”
Since declaring her candidacy in February, Haley has held 81 events in New Hampshire, doing the traditional question-and-answer sessions its voters have come to expect as they vet their candidates. Amid fierce competition with Republican rivals Ron DeSantis and Chris Christie, she won the coveted endorsement of Chris Sununu, the state’s popular Republican governor who has urged Christie to drop out to consolidate the anti-Trump vote. By winning the endorsement of Americans for Prosperity Action, the flagship group of the political network headed by billionaire Charles Koch, she secured scores of door-knockers to bolster her get-out-the-vote effort.
But Haley faces formidable obstacles as she tries to build a coalition to match Trump’s. With anti-Trump support splintering between her and Christie, there’s no guarantee that consolidation of the anti-Trump movement behind Haley will be enough to win. The former New Jersey governor is polling in the low double-digits after driving a message that is far more direct and cutting in his criticism of Trump. And he is showing no signs that he will be driven from the race, despite the pressure campaign by Sununu for him to be a “hero” by dropping out and backing Haley.
Though Haley’s campaign is now flush with cash and has a network of hundreds of volunteers in each of New Hampshire’s 10 counties, she is up against the fervent energy of Trump’s supporters and the finely tuned ground game of his campaign, which has been organizing its volunteers since March. Trump’s team has accused Haley and Christie of attempting to rig the primary by bringing in more liberals to vote on the Republican side — and they intend to amplify that message to their supporters in the final days before the primary.
For the first time, Trump’s campaign is also now targeting on the airwaves Haley’s record on immigration and taxes, criticizing her rhetoric on immigration and attempting to portray her as “too liberal” in a way that could hamper her momentum. While Haley’s campaign and SFA Inc., the super PAC allied with her campaign, dominated New Hampshire media markets in November and December, ad spending by the Trump campaign and MAGA Inc., the super PAC supporting him, shot up at the end of December to match her efforts, according to data from AdImpact. (DeSantis and allied groups have had no presence on the airwaves in the state since mid-November after he retooled his campaign to focus on Iowa.)
Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based GOP strategist, described Haley’s path to victory as “extremely difficult,” noting the way the Trump campaign has harnessed the “organic energy” of its volunteers into a highly organized operation.
“The last two campaigns they ran — it was a clown-car show,” Carney said of Trump’s previous efforts in 2020 and 2016, when he won the New Hampshire primary after rival Ted Cruz won the Iowa caucuses. This cycle, “every Saturday, they have over 300 volunteers targeting households — and they’ve been doing that for months. They have very organized phone banks. … They’ve run a very, very solid campaign that the other campaigns have not had the ability or the resources to do.”
Trump has focused his campaign message on retribution if reelected, and sought to portray his mounting legal cases as politically motivated prosecutions against him. On the trail, he has targeted his liberal opponents — referring to some as “vermin” and drawing criticism for using what some historians described as authoritarian rhetoric — and attempted to depict Biden as the true threat to democracy.
“People are concerned about the future, and right now, we could be on the brink of another world war. They want somebody in a leadership position who has the gumption, the stamina and the drive to hold the country and move it forward,” Lou Gargiulo, a former New Hampshire state representative who is supporting Trump, said at his rally last month in Durham, N.H. “People might challenge his style, but they love what he stands for.”
New Hampshire’s history of surprises has become the stuff of political legend, and allies of both Haley and Christie hope the state will upend political wisdom once again.
Historians often point to how Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) came out of nowhere in 1984 to defeat Vice President Walter Mondale, a late-breaking victory in the Democratic primary that was fueled by the state’s independents. Recovering from one of the lowest moments of his campaign, Bill Clinton famously declared that New Hampshire made him the “comeback kid” when he finished second in the primary in 1992.
John McCain, the former Republican senator from Arizona, bucked conventional wisdom in New Hampshire twice: first in 2000 with his 18-point victory over George W. Bush and then again in 2008, when the state’s voters resurrected his campaign after it seemed entirely written off.
Haley has never cut the kind of independent profile that drew so many voters to McCain in New Hampshire. But her campaign and their allies argue that she has broad appeal to voters across the political spectrum — particularly in an era when Trump’s rhetoric has alienated so many. She has repeatedly argued that the GOP must broaden its appeal by bringing as many people “in the tent” as possible and not pushing people away from the party, a message that has also been championed by Sununu.
“If you’re undeclared and you’re going to participate in the race, it’s going to be on this side, and more often than not, it’s going to be for that next generation of candidate,” Sununu told reporters after Haley’s town hall event in Rye, N.H. “The undeclareds aren’t going to just stick with the old school, they’re always going to go to that next generation. … They’re just excited about bringing this country together, and she’s the candidate — more than any other candidate in this race right now — that has the opportunity to do that.”
At the recent town hall in Rye, Haley was asked to address the fractious politics in Washington and how she would bring together some of the most strident partisans in both parties, such as Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). It was the kind of question Haley has relished as she has presented herself as a contender willing to both take on and work with partisans from both sides. She recalled how as governor of South Carolina, she reached across the aisle as she sought to heal the divisions in her state after the racially motivated massacre at a Black church in Charleston in 2015.
“It’s not what I say. It’s what I’ve done … the real test is when you go through a crisis. And you know that one wrong move could put people in danger, or could set things up on a different path,” Haley said to a packed room at the Wentworth by the Sea Country Club. “A leader shouldn’t judge who’s right or wrong, or who’s good or bad. A leader should bring out the best in people and show them a way forward. That is how I will lead.”
At multiple events during Haley’s first campaign trip of the year to New Hampshire, several attendees who spoke to The Washington Post identified themselves as Democrats or independents, describing concerns about Biden’s age, their opposition to Trump and excitement about Haley.
“The nice thing about New Hampshire is that it really is grass roots. You get to meet the candidates if you want to. They’re everywhere,” Derry resident Deb Konstant said while waiting in line to take a photo with Haley after seeing her in person for the first time at a town hall at a sports bar in Londonderry. As an independent, she said, she’s torn if it ends up being a choice between Trump and Biden. But now she is supporting Haley because she’s “fresh,” in contrast to Trump, who she described as “mean and nasty.”
Some of the voters described Haley as a moderate, and others said they believe she will work across the aisle more than her rivals. A large number expressed dread about a potential Biden-Trump rematch and said they don’t know how or if they would vote if that happens again.
“It’s refreshing to have an alternative to the front-runner, but also interesting to see how she plays it because she’s got to be careful not to alienate the front-runner’s voter base,” said Chris Avery, 63, one such voter who attended Haley’s event in Rye and joked that he would leave the country if faced with the same matchup.
“We’re hoping she passes muster, but otherwise we’re pretty discouraged with the field,” the Portsmouth resident said.
Christie and his allies have fiercely pushed back against the idea that Haley will be embraced by independents who want to defeat Trump. By obfuscating her positions, Christie has argued that Haley is trying to be all things to all people. He has argued that Haley is conscious of offending potential supporters, and that was a reason she did not mention slavery when asked what caused the Civil War. She has also applied that criticism in talking about Trump and often avoids directly attacking the former president, drawing attention to the fact that she has said she would pardon Trump and that she has refused to rule out serving as his running mate.
That careful line that Haley has drawn has offended voters such as Lori Davis, a Christie supporter who helped Trump’s grass-roots campaign efforts in 2016 but is now convinced he’s unfit to serve. Christie is the only one saying it, she said. When Christie told voters at a Bedford event last month that Haley had said Trump was fit for a second term, Davis exclaimed, “Oh my God.”
“Nikki wants to appear to be a very nice lady, and that works well at a tea party,” Davis later told The Post. “But someone needs to stop Trump.”
Isaac Arnsdorf contributed to this report.