A New Hampshire mirage? Takeaways from a close(ish) GOP primary

Donald Trump has appeared to be an unstoppable force plowing his way toward the Republican nomination for the presidency, gaining strength in the polls as his rivals scrambled for second place before they gave up and dropped out.

But for a fleeting moment Tuesday, the contest took on the appearance of an at least vaguely competitive race. Trump beat his last rival standing, Nikki Haley, in the New Hampshire primary. But with about half the votes counted as of Tuesday night, Trump only had a roughly 10-point edge on Haley.

In a race that Trump leads by more than 50 points nationally, it was a jarring shift, and one that led Haley to take a triumphant tone even in defeat, telling supporters in Concord, N.H., that she was “just getting started.”

“This race is far from over,” Haley crowed.

As a matter of the electoral calendar, the moderate former South Carolina governor was correct: only two states have cast votes in the Republican primary.

But even as Haley beamed at her election night party and Trump fumed at his — reminding the audience that Haley “didn’t win; she lost” — it seemed that the former governor’s path may have closed.

New Hampshire has been seen as a unique case: A state where crowds of independent voters casting ballots in an open primary could buoy Haley. If Haley couldn’t win New Hampshire, some analysts have held, she would not win any state in the primary.

And, as Trump stressed repeatedly, Haley did not win New Hampshire. Yes, Haley had proven she could hang with Trump in one Republican primary election. But Trump might have sealed a clean sweep of the nation.

Here are three takeaways from the New Hampshire primary:

Nikki Haley was not blown out by Donald Trump in New Hampshire. But she didn’t win either. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Haley comes up short

Taking a celebratory tone, Haley told her supporters that she is the safer general election candidate for her party. But her party showed, once again, that it is firmly behind the 45th president.

Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist in Texas, said Haley needed to muscle her way to a stronger performance in New Hampshire to shift the trajectory of the race, and that she may now be headed toward a humbling defeat in her home state of South Carolina next month.

“This primary’s over. And there’s a pretty good chance when we look back we can conclude it was over after Iowa,” Mackowiak said, referring to last week’s caucuses in Iowa, where Trump beat Haley and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida by about 30 points each.

“She had to do better than tonight,” he said. “At some point the math is the math.”

A good night for Biden

The Democratic primary in New Hampshire, also conducted Tuesday, became a curiosity after the Democratic Party moved to make South Carolina its first nominating contest.

New Hampshire rebelled, holding a primary anyway that was not for delegates and that did not have Biden on the ballot. The president, mired in poor poll numbers and dogged by nonstop stream of concerns about his advanced age of 81, still won a write-in campaign, overcoming his upstart rival Rep. Dean Phillips. 

At the same time, Biden supporters could also see reasons for hope in the Republican results: Despite Trump’s firm grip on his base, anti-Trump Republicans and independent voters in New Hampshire registered strong opposition to the former president, and turnout was robust in many precincts.

“Haley overperformed recent polling,” Doug Heye, a consultant and former Republican National Committee communications director, said by text, adding that the results affirmed “that Trump’s nomination is risky for holding on to the White House — as well as for Trump acolytes down ballot.”

A grumpy Trump

Perhaps for that reason, Trump seemed frustrated by the results. Before any votes had been reported — and before Trump angrily slinging arrows at Haley on social media and in his speech — the former president was already complaining.

“SO RIDICULOUS THAT DEMOCRATS AND INDEPENDENTS ARE ALLOWED TO VOTE IN THE REPUBLICAN PRIMARY,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform shortly after 6 p.m., almost two hours before the last polls closed.

The trouble for Trump: Democrats and independents will surely be allowed to vote in the general election.

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