Former President Donald Trump is a heavy favorite to win the 2024 Republican nomination. He’s getting over 60% in a number of national surveys of the GOP primary and holds the advantage in every early state that’s been polled.
Yet, recent data and history suggest that Trump may be in more trouble than is apparent at first glance in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire. Granite State Republicans, for whom Trump is not their first choice, seem to be searching for an alternative and may not settle on one until late in the campaign.
Take a look at CNN’s most recent survey of the state’s GOP primary conducted by the University of New Hampshire. Trump led the field with 39%, while no one else was anywhere close. Four candidates (businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis) were all between 10% and 13% of the primary vote.
The poll was devastating news for DeSantis, who has seen his numbers plummet this year. He had led the field with 42% in UNH’s January poll but has been tumbling since.
Trump, meanwhile, is as steady as he has ever been. Each of the last three UNH polls taken of the race had him between 37% and 42% of the vote.
This makes New Hampshire unique. Unlike his national standing, Trump is well under 50% here. He doesn’t even clear 50% when you take into account voters’ second choices.
It’s pretty clear that Trump can be beaten in New Hampshire, if the roughly 60% who aren’t with him now rally behind one candidate.
That’s easier said than done, but I think it’s possible given the data we have.
The fact that Trump’s share of the New Hampshire primary vote remains flat is notable. It shows that his voters are locked in but he isn’t gaining.
Not surprisingly, Trump supporters are far more likely to say they have definitely decided (69%) than supporters of the other candidates (18%).
And that’s certainly bad news for any individual non-Trump candidate, who can’t count on guaranteed support come primary time.
But looking at it another way: This also means there’s a large chunk of the New Hampshire Republican electorate searching for an alternative to Trump. That’s why 82% of the voters selecting someone besides Trump are not all-in for their candidate at this moment.
They may want to wait until the most viable alternative to Trump appears and then back that person. We don’t know whether such a candidate will emerge, but it’s plausible. Amid DeSantis’ big decline in the UNH polling, Christie, Haley and Ramaswamy have all made their first appearances in the double digits.
We’ve seen this happen before with Trump. Think back to the 2016 Iowa caucuses. Trump basically got what he was polling at this point in the cycle, finishing second. The eventual first- and third-place finishers in Iowa (Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) were polling in the single digits at this time.
This go-around, New Hampshire would be the perfect place for an upset of a heavy favorite.
Nationally, there’s never been a candidate who lost a primary after holding as large a polling lead as Trump has now. It has happened in New Hampshire, however, and not that long ago.
In the 2000 cycle, Republican front-runner George W. Bush was at 45% of the vote in UNH polling at this time. He was followed by Elizabeth Dole at 15% and John McCain at 12%. Dole ended her campaign before New Hampshire voted.
McCain, though, went on to beat Bush, 49% to 30%.
The Arizona senator was able to win, mostly on the backs of moderate and independent voters. That’s likely what a Trump challenger would need to do to catch him. We know from surveys that Trump is weakest with these voters. The UNH poll has Trump at 23% among moderates, 23% among self-identified independents (or Democrats) and 14% among those not registered with the Republican Party.
These are voting blocs that play a bigger role in New Hampshire primaries than in any of the other early-voting states, thanks to the Granite State’s more moderate overall electorate and the fact that independents can vote in the primaries. In 2016, New Hampshire GOP primary voters were twice as likely to identify as moderates and independents than Iowa Republican caucusgoers.
And keep this in mind: The winner of the Iowa GOP caucuses rarely wins the New Hampshire GOP primary. In fact, it’s never happened in the modern primary era when a sitting president was not competing in the Republican primaries.
Of course, even if someone emerges to be the John McCain of 2024, it might not do them any good in the long run. After all, Bush recovered from his New Hampshire loss to end up claiming the Republican nomination in 2000.
New Hampshire is just a building block to beating Trump. It will take a lot more.