Haley vs. Trump: 5 things to watch in New Hampshire

Former President Trump and fellow Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley will go head-to-head in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary Tuesday, facing off as the last two top White House contenders in the GOP race.   

Trump easily won Iowa’s caucuses last week, and some observers say another Trump victory in the Granite State could all but secure him the Republican nomination.  

But Haley has boasted more competitive polling in New Hampshire, where unaffiliated voters can cast their ballots in the primary, and she stands out as the leading Trump alternative after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis exited the race over the weekend.  

Here are five things to watch in New Hampshire: 

Can Haley beat Trump? 

Haley came in at a disappointing third place in last week’s Iowa caucuses, which kicked off the party’s presidential nominating cycle. Although she clocked in just a few points behind DeSantis, Trump led both by double digits. 

Observers have long expected Haley to fare better in the Granite State than in Iowa, where DeSantis had invested heavily. And she’s been courting independent voters, who can participate in the primary under New Hampshire’s system, as well as Republicans who have soured on the former president, in the hopes of capitalizing on Trump’s weak spots in the state. 

But strategists are split on whether Haley has a real chance to take the win from Trump on Tuesday. 

The latest polling averages from The Hill/Decision Desk HQ put Trump up nearly 12 points over Haley in New Hampshire, roughly 48 percent to 36 percent. DeSantis, who endorsed Trump when he dropped out of the race, is polling at 6 percent — and his exit is predicted to favor the former president.  

Voter enthusiasm and turnout could tip the balance Tuesday, and a Haley win would pump up her campaign’s momentum while raising red flags for the former president.  

On the flip side, a Trump victory in New Hampshire after his big win in Iowa would likely add to the perception of many in the party that Trump has a lock on the nomination.

How close is the GOP finish? 

After Trump won by nearly 30 points in Iowa, one big question for Tuesday is how close the finish is between the former president and Haley in New Hampshire.

Both candidates are gunning for the win, but Trump is likely aiming to triumph by a big enough margin that he can “declare victory and say ‘this is effectively over,’” said New Hampshire based Republican strategist Jim Merrill. 

“For Haley, I don’t think she needs to win outright here, but she’s got to be close. It’s got to be competitive, so she can look at the results in New Hampshire and say, ‘This is, in fact, a two-person race,’” Merrill said.  

Strategists are split on what exactly a strong Haley finish would look like, and whether a close second place could keep her afloat alongside the former president as the race revs up toward Super Tuesday in March.   

“If she were within single digits, it would look like a big, positive surprise,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.  

Polls in the Granite State close at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Scala contends that if “at 8:01, the cable networks go on and say, ‘New Hampshire is too close to call,’” it could give Haley an “electric shock of a moment” to capture national attention and prove she’s at Trump’s heels.  

Where do DeSantis supporters turn? 

This month has seen the exits of four high-profile Republican contenders just before and after results from the Iowa caucuses rolled in.  

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) surprised some by dropping out before Iowans voted, while entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy suspended his bid after coming in fourth in the Hawkeye State. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) also dropped out this month after struggling to build momentum, and DeSantis ended his campaign just days before the Granite State weighed in.  

“One of the things Nikki Haley needed to have happen for a surprise victory [in New Hampshire] is for Vivek [Ramaswamy] and Ron DeSantis to stay in the race,” said Granite State-based Republican strategist Mike Dennehy.  

“She needed that Republican vote to be as splintered as much as it could possibly be, and then for her to pick up the heavy majority of independent voters,” Dennehy added.  

Haley is forecast to see a New Hampshire boost from Christie’s exit. At the same time, DeSantis threw his backing behind the former president, and his supporters are largely expected to default to Trump.  

That could bump up Trump’s margins in the state — and spell trouble for Haley moving forward in states like South Carolina, where DeSantis had been polling more strongly than in New Hampshire. 

How close is the margin in the Dem primary? 

Biden will be absent from New Hampshire’s Democratic ballot after tension between state and national Democrats over the party’s presidential nominating lineup. 

New Hampshire is bucking the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) efforts to push a new calendar that would have booted the state out of its first-in-the-nation primary slot — and state Democrats will hold their contest the same day as the Republican primary.  

But Biden was obligated to comply with the DNC’s rules and decided not to file to be on the New Hampshire Democrats’ ballot. The DNC has also said the primary will have no bearing on delegates for the party’s national convention this summer. 

At the same time, Biden’s supporters in New Hampshire have launched a write-in campaign as fellow Democratic candidates Marianne Williamson and Rep. Dean Phillips (Minn.) vie for the state.  

Scala, the professor, said he doesn’t think it matters what share of the votes Williamson and Phillips each snag, but Biden needs to win by a big enough margin to show “there’s nothing to see here, in terms of Democratic-base discontent.”

It’ll likely be important for the incumbent’s write-in effort to score a percentage in the Democratic race that’s higher than the percentage Trump wins in the Republican primary, Scala said.  

If Trump’s figure is bigger, “I think that would be an interesting benchmark that I’m sure the former president would make a great deal of noise about,” he said.  

What does Haley do after Tuesday if she doesn’t win? 

With Trump and Haley now in a two-person standoff, the stakes are high for Haley in New Hampshire and beyond.

The former U.N. ambassador is projecting confidence and batting back Trump’s attacks heading into Tuesday’s race, arguing the former president is “terrified of our momentum.”  

Haley’s been leaning heavily into an electability argument, pointing to polls that show her faring better than her Republican competitors in hypothetical match-ups about President Biden — but it’s unclear how motivating that message will be for voters at this point.

After the Granite State votes, attention turns to her home state of South Carolina. 

Republicans in the Palmetto State, of which Haley was formerly governor, vote roughly a month after New Hampshire, in the first-in-the-South primary on Feb. 24. 

Along with Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina is among the early states that political observers say could decide the 2024 GOP nominee. If Haley doesn’t win in the Granite State, she’d likely face questions about whether to continue her bid and an uphill battle to prove she’s a viable contender for the party nod.

“To lose Iowa and then to lose New Hampshire does not give the candidate the momentum they need to continue on,” Dennehy said.

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