The 2024 First in the Nation presidential primary was like an elementary school soccer game: Everybody got a trophy.
It may not feel like it to those emotionally invested in the vote totals, but nearly everybody who participated in the primary — from the candidates to the campaign vendors — had a good night Tuesday.
Start with the headline event, the GOP race. Did Donald Trump win? Absolutely. He got about 55 percent of the vote, he’s the only non-incumbent Republican to win Iowa and New Hampshire back-to-back, and he had a healthy 11-point margin of victory. When you win more than half the vote in the first two states — that’s winning.
But Nikki Haley had a pretty good night in New Hampshire, too. Six months ago, she was at 4 percent in the RealClearPolitics poll average for the state, a whopping 40 points behind Trump. Last week, polls consistently predicted she would lose to Trump by 15 to 20 points. And after a disappointing third place in Iowa and some campaign stumbles, her Granite State momentum appeared to be slipping away.
Instead, Haley grabbed 43 percent of the vote, exceeded expectations, and proved she can grow her support even as she takes incoming fire from Donald Trump.
Does she have a chance of winning the nomination? Probably not. But does she look like a stronger candidate today than she did on Monday? Did she come out of the primary in better shape than she was going in?
The same is true for President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep Dean Phillips. So many things could have gone wrong for the Biden campaign. A Biden loss was always unlikely, but not out of the question. A Bush vs. Buchanan 1992 outcome was always a possibility.
Instead, Biden’s likely to wind up with 60 percent of the vote — the bare minimum to avoid embarrassment. He skips the primary as a sop to his progressive base, and he gets out with a win — or at least a “not a loss.”
The same for Phillips, who was polling in Asa Hutchinson territory for most of the race. Getting 20 percent of the vote against an incumbent president in your party’s primary is respectable. It shows both that voters were willing to listen and that the candidate had something to say that they wanted to hear. Once again, Phillips won’t be the nominee, but he’s a more impressive political player today than he was on Monday.
Ok, so Marianne Williamson didn’t have a great night. Put her in the exception-that-proves-the-rule column.
Who were the other winners and losers of New Hampshire’s First in the Nation primary? Here’s your list:
Gov. Chris Sununu: No politician did themselves more good during the 2024 primary than Gov. Chris Sununu — and that includes Donald Trump. Sununu did it the old-fashioned way, too.
He earned it.
First, he took the risky move of endorsing Haley before Christmas, rather than waiting until after Iowa to see which Trump alternative had the most momentum. His gamble paid off. Haley was competitive with DeSantis in Iowa, which allowed her to hit the ground running in New Hampshire.
Running with her — or often ahead of her — was Sununu. The national press loved his mix of unabashed enthusiasm and political smarts. Because he was a surrogate, Sununu was able to go after Trump in a more aggressive — and therefore, more crowd-pleasing — way, insulting his age and intelligence and even throwing in the well-timed “F” bomb when the occasion arose.
“Sununu left me wishing he had run,” says political science professor Dr. Wayne Lesperance of New England College. “In many ways, he outcampaigned the candidate with his blunt assessment of Trump.”
“Every candidate’s dream endorsement and hardest working surrogate in America,” adds Granite State political operative Andy Leach. “And heads up to future candidates looking for Chris’s endorsement – if you get it, I hope you have the energy to keep up with him.”
If you’re a corporate executive who wants a Republican on your board who won’t send your woke Gen Z interns marching in the streets, you saw a lot to like in Chris Sununu during the primary. The same if you’re a national media outlet looking for a new pundit to fill the Kasich-Christie slot in your lineup.
And, of course, Sununu will now be on everyone’s shortlist for every political opening. Except Donald Trump’s.
Party Chairmen Chris Ager and Ray Buckley: Ray Buckley and the New Hampshire Democratic Party had their primary stripped from them by Biden and the DNC. Chris Ager and the GOP had Hurricane Trump barrelling down on them for months. With a messy write-in being waged on one side and a notoriously unforgiving frontrunner waging political war on the other, both party leaders had to navigate an unmapped minefield. And they did it without a hitch.
The First in the Nation Primary: One week ago, the future of the FITN primary looked uncertain, if not endangered. National media outlets were writing its obituary and political operatives and office holders were quietly talking about how much political capital to invest in what might be a doomed effort.
“Looked like it was ready to move into an assisted living facility,” former NHGOP chair Fergus Cullen quipped. “Then voters turned out, making the best case possible for our historical role.”
It’s true that candidates spent less time in New Hampshire this cycle than in the past, and it’s true that there were a lot more empty rooms at the Doubletree due to fewer members of the press. But if the politicians and press were off their games, the voters came through “bigly.”
“New Hampshire voters delivered an interesting primary that will ensure its survival,” according to GOP strategist Dave Carney.
GOP consultant Alicia Xanthopoulos says the FITN won “by demonstrating that an underdog can get traction in ways that would never happen in any other state. Trump is running with the power of incumbency behind him, and yet this is not a coronation. New Hampshire makes you work for it, and the FITN primary did its job.”
ALSO ON THE WINNERS’ LIST:
New England College: No debates were a bummer for Granite State political junkies, but New England College did host town halls with Ron DeSantis and Haley, as well as a debate between Democrats Phillips and Williamson. The addition of Dr. Nathan Shrader gave them additional earned media firepower, and NEC took advantage of it. Look out, Neil Levesque — you’ve got competition!
N.H. Secretary of State David Scanlan: “Scanlan’s team was flawless in pulling off this primary,” according to veteran strategist Tom Rath, “including setting the right date. Even with the write-in issue and record turnout (which Scanlan predicted), they got accurate results out quickly. Plus, they produced the best ‘I Voted’ stickers in the history of the primary.”
The Airport Diner: The Red Arrow is fine, but for candidate spotting, the best destination this cycle was the Airport Diner in Manchester. The local eatery hosted both WMUR’s Candidate Cafe series and NHJournal’s Diner Table Conversations, both of which featured extended conversations with most of the major candidates.
Nikki Haley: Yes, she’s also on the winners’ list, but she still lost in a state where nearly half of the voters in the GOP primary didn’t identify as Republicans, and where she outspent 2-to-1. She needed to make some progress with the actual GOP base, and she didn’t.
“There is absolutely no good news coming out of New Hampshire for Nikki Haley,” said GOP strategist Michael Dennehy. “She got utterly crushed among registered Republicans, 75 to 25 percent. Sure, she won 65 percent of independents, but when you can’t even compete for Republican primary voters, there is no hope to win the nomination.”
In sports, they say, “A win’s a win.” That’s true of a loss, too.
Donald Trump: He’s on both lists as well. His abysmal performance among moderate Republicans and truly independent voters is a huge warning flag that he doesn’t have a coalition that can win a general election nationwide, or here in New Hampshire. He campaigned hard in the Granite State and got his base energized. But did he grow that base? Or can he only grow the support of those running against him?
“Trump continues to be a turnout machine,” Cullen said. “For his opponents as well.”
The New Hampshire Democratic Party: Again, also on the winner’s list. But the flip side of their total sellout for Biden and cringe-worthy kowtowing with the write-in makes it perfectly clear the state party and the all-Democrat federal delegation are utterly powerless. It was the voters who rescued the primary, which was lost by the weak and inept Democratic leadership. Has any state ever had a delegation with this much seniority, but so little influence?
The Doubletree Hotel: There was a time when stopping by the downtown Manchester hotel (whatever its name at the time) during primary week meant fighting for parking spaces and elbowing your way to the bar. This week, you could park at the door and play Twister in the lobby.
Changing technology means fewer people needed to set up a TV set. Fewer news outlets covering politics means fewer reporters swilling drinks on the corporate credit card. Radio row has gone from a massive conference room to a closet. And frontrunner candidates in both parties with big leads in the polls means less media interest — and more empty hotel rooms.
“The FITN primary won because Trump won, which means he will continue to promote the Granite State.” — Michael Dennehy.
“Winner – political mail vendors and their wallets. Loser – the postal workers who had to lug those 15 pieces of political mail each day to the hundreds of homes on their route those final weeks.” — Andy Leach.
“The FITN primary won, because, whether America likes it or not, New Hampshire still continues to pick presidents.” — GOP strategist Matthew Bartlett.