New Hampshire Republicans will be watching to see if former President Donald Trump wins a decisive victory in their first-in-nation primary Tuesday or loses ground to Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor. Democrats will want to know whether their primary was as “meaningless” as national party leaders warned it would be.
Trump, after dominating the vote in Iowa, has a double-digit lead among New Hampshire’s likely Republican voters, an advantage that Haley hopes to close by appealing to the independents who make up 39% of the electorate in the state. She finally got the head-to-head contest she wanted after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis dropped out on Sunday, leaving her to celebrate with the line, “May the best woman win.”
But on the Democratic side, President Joe Biden has yet to face an official contest. The national party designated South Carolina’s primary the first of its season, a new calendar that toppled Iowa and New Hampshire from their treasured spots leading off the presidential races. If Iowa accepted the demotion and substituted a mail-in primary whose results won’t be known until March, not so New Hampshire. It is going ahead with both of its primaries, defying the national Democrats, who in response told state party leaders to educate the public that their contest “is a non-binding presidential preference event and is meaningless.”
To voters like Renate Plitzko of Dover, Biden’s refusal to participate in the New Hampshire primary, official or not, disqualifies him for another term. She called him “a coward.”
“If he wants to be re-voted into the White House, then he has to do something about it,” she said. “He should come to New Hampshire. Whoever is not in New Hampshire, they should not be president.”
New Hampshire allows undeclared voters to vote in either primary. An independent, Plitzko said she had voted for Trump twice. This campaign, she has heard all the candidates speak and had attended Trump’s rally in Rochester Sunday night but as of Monday was still undecided, she said.
Now retired, Plitzko owned a cleaning company, Cleanvergnugen, that she began after moving to the United States from Germany 40 years ago. For her, the top issues are the economy and the record number of migrants crossing the border into the United States.
Party leaders say elevating South Carolina better reflects the country’s diversity and gives greater importance to African Americans’ preferences, but political analysts in New Hampshire see an opportunity for Biden to cultivate a relationship that has been particularly important to his political chances. Candidates who perform as dismally as Biden did in New Hampshire in 2020 do not typically turn their campaigns around and become president, said Dante Scala, a professor of political science and international affairs at the University of New Hampshire.
“So all of a sudden there’s was an incumbent president who had no allegiance, no special reason to be loyal to New Hampshire and its place on the calendar,” Scala said. “Biden didn’t owe New Hampshire anything and he certainly acted that way.”
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Biden came in fifth place in New Hampshire in 2020, in a race won by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from neighboring Vermont. Biden’s presidential bid was saved two weeks later by his success in the South Carolina primary, particularly among African American voters. The endorsement of South Carolina’s Rep. James Clyburn, formerly the third-ranking Democrat and top African American in the House, was seen as key.
“Nobody is talking about it in front of microphones but everybody knows this is about Biden and Clyburn and South Carolina and this is not about what’s best for the order of things in the primary system,” said Scott Spradling of the Spradling Group, a former political director of WMUR-TV in Manchester and a commentator on NBC10 in Boston. “There’s this eye-rolling response in New Hampshire to this claim that this is for the good of all. Because it’s not.”
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Neil Levesque, the director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, argued that Biden was a weak candidate afraid to test his presidency in the state’s primary, the first in the country since 1920. Biden has struggled in the polls and in a November NBC national poll, had only a 40% approval rating, the lowest of his presidency, over his handling of foreign policy and the Israel-Hamas war,
“The president decided that he wanted party bosses and not voters to choose who was going to be the Democratic nominee,” said “He didn’t want to compete in elections.”
“It’s really an anti-Democratic move,” Levesque said.
Ahead of the voting, Trump appeared solidly in the lead by 22 percentage points, according to a Suffolk University/NBC10 Boston/Boston Globe tracking poll of 500 likely Republican primary voters. He was ahead with 60% of the vote in the poll released Tuesday morning, with Haley at 38% and a margin of error of 4.4%.
Haley is doing well with moderates but not as well as Trump with registered Republicans. According to three recent polls — two of the tracking polls from Suffolk University and another from St. Anselm College — she is winning with independents by 10 to 20 percentage points compared to Trump by 40 points, according to NBC News.
The GOP match-up follows Trump’s overwhelming victory in the Iowa caucuses, where he earned 51% of the vote. DeSantis edged ahead of Haley for second place though both candidates trailed Trump significantly. DeSantis had 21% of the vote to 19% for Haley.
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Trump has campaigned on his own terms, declining to participate in any debates, and in the week before the New Hampshire primary, Haley said she would pull out of the two remaining ones there unless Trump reversed himself. The debates were cancelled.
With Biden in the White House, Democrats could have expected a quieter season even if their primary were still at the top of the national party’s calendar and Biden’s name appeared on the ballot. Biden’s best known Democratic primary challengers, Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota and author Marianne Williamson, do not appear to have gained traction in the state.
“There is nothing in the polling so far that suggests that there’s a surge for Dean Phillips,” Scala said. “But it’s a weird situation and it’s hard to gauge.”
Only a quarter of the likely Democratic voters said that they would be enthusiastic about a Biden nomination and they disapproved of his performance as president, according to a Nov. 17, 2023, poll from The Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire and CNN. But Trump is even more unpopular with this group, and nearly two-thirds said they planned to write in Biden’s name for the primary.
Democrats in the state in fact have organized a write-in campaign to try to ensure that their primary gets national attention even with Biden’s name missing from the ballot. They call it a grassroots effort by Democrats and independents who want to protect democracy from MAGA extremism.
“I think it’s really important that we send a message nationally,” Matt Wilhelm, the New Hampshire House Democratic Leader, told NBC earlier this month. “All the Republican candidates are here, so they’ll have a story coming out of New Hampshire. It’s important that the Democrats do as well.”
A day before the first-in-the-nation primaries, New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan described how soon results should be expected (especially in light of the Biden write-in campaign), what factored in to his turnout estimate, what makes 2024 unique and his reaction to a robocall spoofing President Joe Biden’s voice that “reinforces kind of a national concern that has been out there about the effect of artificial intelligence and how it might impact elections and campaigns in negative ways.”
Biden’s campaign says it is not involved in the effort. But some analysts accuse Biden of trying to have it both ways, officially skipping New Hampshire in favor of South Carolina but allowing his surrogates to make a case for his re-election.
Although Biden has not campaigned in the state, his cabinet members have made a number of visits in the weeks leading up to the primary. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg arrived to talk about infrastructure projects and Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm came to discuss energy efficiency and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo made a stop in December, among others.
“I’m shocked,” Scala said. “Quite a coincidence it is that Pete Buttigieg showed up in the last week or so. And Jennifer Granholm and so forth.”
Scala said that political elites — commentators, activists and others — were particularly riled by New Hampshire’s loss of the first Democratic primary. A change had long been debated given the size and demographics of both New Hampshire and Iowa, but this time it had the support of the president.
“Among elites I think there was a clear sense of anger and betrayal,” he said. “There was a sense that they had been blindsided. They had been speaking confidentially prior to the calendar changes that things would be fine and then they weren’t.”
Of the rank-and-file Democrats, he said, “Not that they’re not upset but I don’t see that intensity of feeling about it that you see among elites and activists.”
2024 presidential candidates
Greyed out candidates have suspended their campaigns
New Hampshire state law requires that its primaries be the first in the country. After the Democratic National Committee told state Democrats its primary would be “meaningless” — and that it would refuse to award delegates based on its results — New Hampshire’s attorney general’s office sent off a cease-and-desist letter. The state’s party chairman, Ray Buckley, said Democrats were simply abiding by New Hampshire law.
“Well, it’s safe to say in New Hampshire, the DNC is less popular than the [New York] Yankees,” he said in a statement.
Buckley said he expected a great turnout for the primary, though commentators predicted confusion as voters tried to write in Biden’s name.
“Of course they’re mad at the DNC, of course they’re ambivalent about Joe Biden but they also feel, I think, this is the best we’ve got,” Spradling said. “Because if it’s not Joe Biden, it’s looking like it’s going to be Donald Trump and for Democrats that makes the process and choices a no-brainer.”
As for the future of the primary, some residents are hoping the decision will be reversed for future presidential races. New Hampshire residents are willing to ask smart questions of the candidates and do their research, Spradling said. It’s a small state in which all candidates can afford to campaign and which allows independent voters to make a difference, he said.
Levesque said the primary reflects a serious effort of vetting from voters who are engaged and used to weeding out weak candidates.
“It’s not just about crusty New Hampshire voters,” he said.
But Scala questioned whether the state would be able to make a case for regaining the first-in-the-nation primary given the diversity of the country. The League of Women Voters notes that the state is about 89% white, compared to 59% for the country as a whole. Where would New Hampshire find allies from within the Democratic party for the change, Scala asked. And within the state, he said, he would expect resistance to changing the law that requires state officials to ensure the primaries are first.
“What would the argument be from New Hampshire Democrats to essentially reverse a decision now?” he asked.
Eli Rosenberg contributed to this report.