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The Campaign Moment: Trump’s early wins come with warning signs

Welcome to The Campaign Moment, your guide to the biggest developments in the 2020 election. Er, 2024 election. (Did a friend forward this to you? If so sign, up here.)

Meet the new election, same as the old election … only older.

Donald Trump’s win in the New Hampshire GOP primary — along with President Biden’s landslide write-in win on the Democratic side — goes a long way toward ensuring a rematch that I am well aware voters seem to be dreading.

But here we are anyway, after Trump’s 11-point triumph last night joined his 30-point win in the Iowa caucuses last week. Seemingly even better for him, New Hampshire’s electorate was unusually conducive to a candidacy like Nikki Haley’s because it’s relatively moderate; her loss in a state like that just reinforces how elusive her path to victory is. Both Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and the Biden campaign agree the GOP nomination contest is effectively over.

But as for what Trump’s wins mean for the general election?

Trump’s New Hampshire win wasn’t quite as resounding as the polls suggested it would be. Haley did well enough to have a semi-plausible reason for sticking around, which she claims she will. Also, 46 percent of New Hampshire GOP primary voters chose to cast their ballots against a former president who, by all accounts, is on a glide path to the nomination.

So how much should we read into Trump’s healthy but not quite overwhelming wins in the first two states?

The first thing I want to emphasize is that New Hampshire’s GOP primary electorate is unusual. Exit polls showed nearly half of voters were not registered Republicans, one-third described themselves as moderates or liberals, and 6 percent personally identified as Democrats (they could vote as long as they were registered as independent).

You’re not going to see numbers that high in virtually any other key GOP contest. This contest featured an inordinate number of voters who might balk at Trump.

But even considering that, both the Iowa caucuses last week and New Hampshire on Tuesday suggested Trump will need to patch things up with a significant chunk of voters that he’ll need in the general election.

In Iowa, a Fox News voter analysis found 20 percent of Republican caucus-goers said they would be so dissatisfied with Trump being nominated that they wouldn’t vote for him in November. That number shot up to 35 percent in New Hampshire.

In comparison, just 13 percent of New Hampshire Democratic primary voters said the same of Biden.

This is a bit different than some evidence we saw last year. Then, polling suggested Democratic primary voters were even less sold on renominating Biden than Republicans were on renominating Trump. But the numbers from the early primary states suggest the reluctance to actually, ultimately pull the lever is greater on Trump’s side of the aisle.

Second, election-day surveys showed 31 percent of Iowa caucus-goers and 42 percent of New Hampshire GOP primary voters said Trump wouldn’t be fit to serve as president if he’s convicted of a crime. This could cause trouble down the line for Trump, given the number of legal cases in which he is currently entangled.

In both cases, the number who viewed a conviction as disqualifying is bigger than national polls have suggested. A November New York Times-Siena College poll, for instance, showed Trump losing about 20 percent of his support in such a scenario — and that was on the high end.

(Tuesday’s results also showed 73 percent of moderate/liberal voters and 64 percent of voters who don’t align with the MAGA movement said a conviction would render Trump unfit to serve.)

The last note of caution I’ll mention for Trump is the sheer split between independents and Republicans in New Hampshire. As Steve Kornacki noted, the astounding 71-point difference between how independents voted (Haley by 21 points) and Republicans voted (Trump by 50) is unprecedented in the 21st century. The gap in 2000, when John McCain did a lot better among independents, was around half that.

That huge gap suggests that, even accounting for how New Hampshire’s unique electorate, it was unusually divided along partisan lines in ways that could linger for Trump.

All of this goes a long way toward explaining the immense and instant pressure on Haley to drop out — complete with the head of the RNC issuing her extraordinary plea. Haley’s presence in the race, at the very least, threatens to prolong a contest that the data suggest is dividing the party in pretty significant ways. And that’s not what you want to talk about when you’re trying to get in general-election mode.

In the service of pushing Haley out, things are apparently going to get pretty ugly — in altogether familiar ways.

Trump has already pushed a baseless birther charge against Haley. He’s also launched into an extremely unsubtle attempt to otherize her by citing her Indian heritage. It’s effectively the same playbook he used against Barack Obama, Ted Cruz and Vice President Harris.

And Trump mined yet more rather dark territory on Tuesday night. He criticized Haley’s clothing as cheaper than it appears. He also baselessly suggested that scandal lurks beneath the surface with her, citing “five reasons” she would be under investigation if she wins — “not big reasons,” he qualified, but “little stuff that she doesn’t want to talk about.”

Trump has pulled many of these stunts before — think threatening to “spill the beans” on Ted Cruz’s wife in 2016, and suggesting last year that Ron DeSantis was gay and/or a pedophile — and he seems to be signaling that he’ll go there if Haley draws this out.

Trump won in 2016 despite pulling from this playbook. But that doesn’t mean it’s particularly helpful for a guy whose temperament and comments about women and racial issues have long given voters pause.

It wasn’t surprising given it involved the incumbent president. But Tuesday featured a rarity in American politics: a write-in candidate winning an election.

While the write-ins are still being tabulated, it looks as though Biden will defeat Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) in New Hampshire by about 50 points. (Biden didn’t compete in the state because of a primary calendar dispute.)

That’s something that has happened very infrequently on the national stage. Some other notable write-in winners from history:

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) won a three-way 2010 Senate race in Alaska after losing the Republican primary.Strom Thurmond (then a Democrat) won 63 percent as a write-in candidate in the 1954 Senate race in South Carolina.William Knowland (R) won one of California’s Senate seats in 1946 on a ballot that featured no candidates.Some House candidates have won after running as write-ins in either the primary or general elections. They include former congressmen Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio) and David Loebsack (D-Iowa) in 2006; Ron Packard (R-Calif.) in 1982; Joe Skeen (R-N.M.) in 1980; Gale Schisler (D-Ill.) in 1964; and Dale Alford (D-Ark.) in 1958. (Notably, Alford launched his campaign with only about a week to go, citing his opponent’s insufficient support for segregation amid the “Little Rock Nine.”)Then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, who hadn’t yet declared his intentions about seeking reelection, won the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic primary. But a closer-than-expected challenge from Eugene McCarthy contributed to Johnson soon opting not to run.“Trump’s New Hampshire victory brings Biden rematch into focus” (Washington Post)“How Trump crushed Haley’s momentum — and came closer to clinching the nomination” (Washington Post)“Will it really take Haley a month to read the writing on the wall?” (Washington Post)“The gamble Republicans are about to take on Trump” (Washington Post)“The Emasculation of Ron DeSantis by the Bully Donald Trump” (New York Times)“What Nikki Haley (Maybe) Learned in New Hampshire” (The Atlantic)

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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