New Hampshire — the next stop in the Republican primary calendar — is known as the Granite State, named for the rock that gave rise to some of its mightiest peaks and mountains.
For former United Nations envoy Nikki Haley, however, the Granite State could be the cliff off which her presidential ambitions tumble.
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Tucked in snow-covered New England, a region in the northeastern United States, New Hampshire offers a unique opportunity for Haley. Its conservative voters lean more moderate, making the state’s primary on January 23 a beacon for rivals of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.
Haley could potentially win big in New Hampshire: A survey released on Tuesday from the American Research Group showed her with 33 percent support among the state’s Republican voters, just behind Trump’s 37 percent.
A victory in the state could offer her campaign the validation it has been seeking, showing that the former UN envoy can indeed be a serious contender against Trump.
“Haley really has to either win or be extremely close to Trump, given the expectations she’s been building up,” said Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank.
“If she doesn’t get within single digits, ideally within five points, her campaign is effectively over.”
James Davis, a Republican strategist and founder of the marketing firm Touchdown Strategies, added that Haley’s prospects in the 2024 presidential race hinge on Tuesday’s primary.
“It’s within striking distance for her to pull the win in New Hampshire — and that’s what she’s got to do.”
‘New Hampshire voters are different’
Even a victory in New Hampshire would still mean an uphill battle against Trump, who continues to trounce Haley and fellow Republican contender Ron DeSantis in national polls.
Trump’s towering lead was confirmed in the Iowa caucuses, the first event in a season of primaries and caucuses that will eventually determine which candidate receives the Republican nomination for the presidency.
Even before the Iowa caucuses closed, media outlets confirmed Trump would win, setting a record for the margins of his victory with 51 percent of the vote. In the so-called “race for second”, Haley received 19 percent support, behind Florida Governor DeSantis, who snagged 21 percent.
Still, Haley’s prospects may not be as low as they appear. Davis explained that DeSantis “had basically banked his campaign on Iowa”, while Haley “invested very little” in the state.
That means Haley’s “neck-and-neck” finish with DeSantis in Iowa could actually indicate momentum for her campaign moving forward, Davis said.
Several other factors may give Haley a boost as she heads to New Hampshire. Robert Boatright, a political science professor and elections expert at Clark University, said the most significant element was the simplest: New Hampshire is not Iowa.
Considered a “purple state” in a region otherwise dominated by Democrats, New Hampshire has a notable Republican base, not to mention a libertarian streak.
Its elections have therefore resulted in a mixed bag of political figures: Its governor is Republican, and its state legislature is Republican-controlled, but its representatives and senators in the US Congress are all Democrats.
“New Hampshire voters are different from Iowa voters in a number of important ways,” said Boatright. “It’s a wealthier state. It’s a less religious state. Republicans in New Hampshire tend to be more like the old Republican Party.”
That is largely why Trump’s Republican critics have singled out New Hampshire as a bellwether in this election cycle. One former candidate, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, focused his campaign almost exclusively on the state before withdrawing from the Republican race on January 10.
Unlike Christie, Haley has remained more circumspect in her criticism of Trump, a former president with a devoted following. She served in his administration from 2017 to 2018.
However, she has sharpened her attacks on Trump going into New Hampshire, taking particular aim at the 77-year-old’s age and the “chaos” of his leadership.
Trump too has taken swipes at Haley. He recently floated a conspiracy theory that Haley — a South Carolina native with Indian heritage — was born outside the US, falsely suggesting she was ineligible to be president.
Meanwhile, DeSantis is expected to be a non-factor in New Hampshire, where his campaign has not connected with voters. He has instead focused more on South Carolina, Haley’s home state, which is set to hold its Republican primary in late February.
The format of the vote itself is expected to benefit Haley, as well. Iowa holds caucuses, in which party members attend meetings across the state to debate and then choose a candidate.
But in New Hampshire, a primary is organised instead — asking that voters only cast a ballot, just as they would during a general election.
Olsen, from the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said this is an advantage for Haley. Typically, caucuses only “attract the true believers because of their time commitment”.
In a primary, however, “all you have to do is show up and give maybe 15 minutes of your time rather than three hours of your time. And that always helps the candidate who is less enamoured by the base.”
Boatright and Davis also said that the low turnout in Iowa made its caucuses a less reliable predictor for success in the Republican race. Only about 108,000 Iowans participated this year, comprising 14 percent of the state’s registered Republicans.
“Caucus-goers in Iowa are not necessarily all that representative of the state or even of Republican voters within the state,” said Boatright.
Davis echoed that point: “Iowa tends to be a field-narrower in terms of its process, rather than a kingmaker.”
The elephant in the room
Experts say early contests in the US primary season tend to be more about establishing a narrative than winning delegates, who ultimately vote to confirm the party’s nominee at a national convention.
New Hampshire is only the first primary race in a series that includes every state in the US. But a strong showing in the state can turbo-charge a campaign, sending a signal of vitality before other votes.
But Boatright questions whether Haley can make the case for the longevity of her campaign, especially as she faces potentially more Trump-friendly primary elections ahead.
“It still seems like there’s not really a convincing story that she can be competitive nationally,” he said.
“So she would really have to do smashingly well at New Hampshire, I think, to change that story.”
Meanwhile, a resounding victory for Trump in New Hampshire could heap pressure on Haley and DeSantis to drop out of the race “and not prolong it for the party”, said Davis.
Still, he noted that there is a big “asterisk” in this year’s primary season: Trump’s age and multiple criminal indictments could potentially derail his campaign.
“We have two septuagenarian frontrunners with [President Joe] Biden and Trump, and health is always a question,” Davis said. “Then Trump has all the court cases against him that he’s got to go through. Who knows where all of that ends?”
“There’s really never been any race like this, and so things could change on the dime pretty quickly.”