Opinion: Looking for November clues in New Hampshire

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley didn't really come close to winning Tuesday in New Hampshire's primary. But if you think of Donald Trump like an incumbent president, her 43% share of the ballots cast was a significant protest vote. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley didn't really come close to winning Tuesday in New Hampshire's primary. But if you think of Donald Trump like an incumbent president, her 43% share of the ballots cast was a significant protest vote. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

One of the fascinating things about covering a race for president is watching the evolution of a candidate’s message and how the voters respond.

In other words, what works in the snows of Iowa might not land as effectively in the hardscrabble of New Hampshire or the Lowcountry of South Carolina.

There was never any question on the ground this week in New Hampshire that Donald Trump remains the favorite for the GOP nomination. But Tuesday’s results weren’t the blowout that Trump had openly predicted.

At 43%, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley didn’t really come close to winning. But if you think of Trump like an incumbent president, 43% was a significant protest vote.

A historical comparison might be 1992, when conservative columnist Pat Buchanan won 37% against President George H.W. Bush. It was a worrisome sign for Bush, who lost that November.

And Tuesday’s results for Trump include similar concerns.

It was obvious at Haley’s final rallies in New Hampshire that many voters were there not because of her but simply because she was the last person standing against Trump.

She tried to mold her message to take advantage of that.

“Do you want more of the same?” Haley asked, as the crowd yelled back ‘No!’

“More of the same is not just Joe Biden; more of the same is Donald Trump, too,” Haley said.

While Haley saw a surge of support, one sure-fire applause line in Iowa was a dud in New Hampshire.

“We can never afford a President Kamala Harris,” Haley said to applause and loud replies of ”Amen” from a crowd in Ankeny, Iowa, earlier this month.

But when Haley tried that out in New Hampshire, it drew murmurs at one stop and silence at another. She didn’t use it at her final rally.

Some of that can be explained by exit polls, which showed that much of Haley’s support came from independents who hold the keys to victory in swing states.

In 2016, Trump barely lost in New Hampshire. In 2020, Biden beat him by over 5% — and the state’s GOP governor openly predicted that if Trump is on the ballot this November, Republicans will lose the Granite State once again.

“We are tired of losers, and we are tired of losing,” said Gov. Chris Sununu, who backed Haley.

Instead of focusing his victory speech on a general election race against Biden, Trump insulted Haley over her remarks, mocked her dress and suggested that Sununu was on drugs.

We’ll see if that’s a winning formula for November.

Jamie Dupree has covered national politics and Congress from Washington since the Reagan administration. His column appears weekly in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For more, check out his Capitol Hill newsletter at http://jamiedupree.substack.com.

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