MANCHESTER, N.H. — Something is missing in New Hampshire. If there is real competition here, few can sense it. On this final weekend before Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation primary election, a time when presidential candidates should be in a frenzied push to persuade voters, the state is unusually quiet.
After taking it slowly for days, Nikki Haley, fighting to deny former president Donald Trump a second overwhelming victory after the Iowa caucuses, was on the move, finally, with a series of Saturday stops. Trump’s day called for a single rally in Manchester. Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis skipped out to spend the day in South Carolina, where polls show him faring moderately better but whose primary isn’t until late February.
Veterans of past New Hampshire primaries are puzzled by what they have seen this week. They are especially curious about Haley’s overall strategy here and her decision not to participate in two scheduled debates, including one on WMUR-TV, the dominant channel in the state. That choice alone upended the traditional rhythm of the final week of campaigning and potentially robbed Haley of the opportunity to reach the unaffiliated voters she needs to win.
Strategists also question whether Haley has found a message to energize those voters. At a Friday night rally, she delivered her standard stump speech with little embellishment, rather than a full-throated closing message aimed at Trump and one that describes the real stakes if the party nominates him again. On Saturday, after Trump on Friday confused her with former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, she raised a question about his mental acuity, but her attacks remain limited.
“She says in her stump speech, ‘I’m going to give you hard truths,’ and then she gives you easy truths,” said Fergus Cullen, a past chairman of the state Republican Party.
It was left to New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, Haley’s most prominent supporter, to provide the spark and energy when he introduced the former U.N. ambassador and former South Carolina governor at a rally Friday night. At this point, Haley is struggling to avoid another significant drubbing after finishing third and more than 30 percentage points behind Trump in Iowa.
Kathy Sullivan, a former New Hampshire Democratic Party chair, contrasted Haley’s campaign efforts ahead of this weekend with those of Hillary Clinton in 2008. Clinton had run third to Barack Obama in Iowa, and the then-senator from Illinois appeared headed toward a second win in New Hampshire. Clinton threw herself into the campaign here and shocked Obama on primary day with a victory.
“She worked her butt off,” Sullivan said of Clinton. “She didn’t stop. Town halls all over the state. Doing the debates. That’s how she came back and won.” Sullivan said in a Friday interview that she felt that Haley had been “dialing it in.”
Haley’s pace picked up starting Friday, but whether she can narrow what has been a double-digit gap with Trump is questionable, especially without having done the WMUR-ABC News debate. Those debates often have been defining moments in primaries here. Ronald Reagan, after losing Iowa in 1980, used two debates to mount a successful comeback. Clinton gained in 2008 when Obama offered a tepid “you’re likable enough” comment after one of the moderators had asked her why voters did not seem to like her.
After Iowa, Haley and DeSantis appeared in televised town halls here hosted by CNN, but those are not the same as participating in a debate on the channel that more New Hampshire voters watch than any other.
“WMUR is like apple pie,” said Neil Levesque, director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. “It’s not just a news station. The people on it are like our neighbors. … I’m sure it was annoying [for Haley] to have to debate DeSantis again. For the rest of us, it’s 90 minutes of time where she was going to be in our living rooms.”
Beyond questions about Haley’s campaign, both Republicans and Democrats who have been involved in campaigns here lament that something more intangible has been lost. New Hampshire’s primary, they say, has fallen, victim to the lack of real competition in the Republican nomination battle, the absence of President Biden on the Democratic ballot, changes in campaign styles and practices, the dominance of super PACs and the nationalization of presidential politics.
“I’m not nostalgic about the past,” Cullen said. “[But] it’s a fact. There’s been fewer candidates, fewer events, less substance, less opportunity for engagement between average citizens and candidates. This campaign has really taken place on cable TV. … New Hampshire is the backdrop and voters are extras on a set.”
“It’s radically different,” said Mike Vlacich, who was Clinton’s state director here in 2016. “I hate to oversimplify, but we have two presumptive nominees already. Most people have already assumed this is kind of a race for second. Everything falls from there.”
New Hampshire, like Iowa, long has had its detractors, who see the mostly White Granite State as unrepresentative of an increasingly diverse America and who believe that political leaders and ordinary citizens alike have an undeserved sense of privilege about its status as host of the first presidential primary.
In this campaign cycle, Democrats moved against the state. Biden, who finished fifth here four years ago, pushed the Democratic National Committee to redraw the nominating calendar, eliminating Iowa as one of the early contests, elevating South Carolina’s primary to first on the schedule and trying to force New Hampshire to hold its primary on the same day as Nevada’s.
Yet New Hampshire’s state law requires its primary to be ahead of all other similar events, and so Tuesday will see both a Republican and a Democratic contest. Deferring to the DNC rules, Biden did not file for the primary ballot, but his allies have organized a write-in effort to prevent him from being embarrassed by Rep. Dean Phillips (Minn.) or Marianne Williamson, long-shot challengers who registered to appear on the ballot.
For all the criticism of the state by outsiders, New Hampshire’s citizens have been among the most politically engaged in the country over the long history of the primary. Secretary of State David Scanlan predicted Friday that Tuesday’s election will see record turnout in the Republican primary, saying he expects 322,000 people to cast ballots. In 2016, the last contested Republican primary, 287,000 people turned out to vote.
Still, this final weekend lacks the intensity of cycles past. Mike Dennehy, a veteran Republican strategist, said he sees the emergence of super PACs as one cause of the sense of diminished activity. “Super PACs are running campaigns now, not people,” he said.
All the candidates depend on these super PACs, which can take in millions of dollars in ways a candidate’s official campaign cannot, due to federal election laws. That gives them undue influence, but at a cost.
Jim Merrill, who has been involved in multiple Republican presidential campaigns here, said something is lost. “It’s more difficult for the campaigns to connect [with voters], harder for them to set deeper roots,” he said. “You lose a sense of control and with that a loss of touch and feel. The PACs become the tail wagging the dog.”
Trump, who won the primary here in 2016 after losing Iowa, has his committed supporters but has never run a typical New Hampshire campaign. “Donald Trump in 2016 won without doing town halls, taking questions from voters, without even shaking hands with more than 100 people,” Merrill said. “People say maybe all that retail stuff is overrated. … It’s hard to argue otherwise. Haley to her credit has made herself available.”
Haley has the help of Sununu, part of a dynastic Republican family in the state, and therefore connections that DeSantis, who is barely competing here, does not have. How much Sununu can do for her in these last hours is the question.
New Hampshire has seen candidates surge in the final 72 hours. Clinton did that in 2008. Gary Hart did it in 1984 when he shocked Walter F. Mondale in the primary. In 2000, John McCain used a laserlike focus on New Hampshire and its independent-minded voters to upset heavily favored George W. Bush.
Haley will need to replicate some of that magic by Tuesday if she hopes to show momentum heading to her home state of South Carolina. At the start of the weekend, that has yet to happen.