Is the New Hampshire GOP presidential primary a done deal for Donald Trump? Or is he facing a ‘dogfight’ for first place with Nikki Haley?
The former is the conventional wisdom of the political press and most Granite State GOP insiders. But Greg Moore, senior advisor with AFP Action and a veteran of New Hampshire Republican politics, says they’re wrong.
And the reason is turnout.
In 2016, when New Hampshire gave Trump his first-ever win as a political candidate, Republican turnout set a record with about 285,000 voters.
On Friday, Secretary of State David Scanlan predicted 322,000 voters would pull a GOP ballot on Tuesday — a nearly 20 percent increase.
And Moore, whose organization has endorsed Haley, says he believes the final number could be closer to 340,000. If that happens, Moore says, Haley has a real chance of pulling an upset win.
“For Haley, turnout is her friend,” Moore told NHJournal. “The closer the number is to 340,000 or 350,000, the better it is for her. She also needs to close the deal with the last remaining undecided voters and make sure they turn out to vote.”
That view is echoed by Gov. Chris Sununu (R-N.H.), Haley’s most enthusiastic supporter. He’s predicting 350,000 votes — or even higher.
“We would shock everyone if we won this thing, but it’s doable,” Sununu said Saturday.
The Trump campaign dismisses this scenario as wishful thinking from supporters of a Haley campaign that has stalled out after last fall’s impressive surge. Long before Scanlan’s prediction, Team Trump was already running the numbers on a primary with turnout approaching 350,000. And the result?
“We still win because we’re crushing Haley three-to-one with Republicans, who we know are going to turn out,” said Karoline Leavitt, national spokesperson for the Trump campaign.
The theory that high turnout helps Haley is based on the premise that the increase will come from unaffiliated voters showing up to vote against Donald Trump. And AFP Action has been working for months to identify those Republicans who aren’t fans of Trump and also don’t usually vote in primaries, also known as “low-propensity voters.”
Turning them out would help Haley, and Moore says AFP Action has the advantage on the ground.
“For Trump, he has to try to ramp up a ground operation that’s been lagging,” Moore said. “It’s hard to put together a 72-hour campaign overnight, but he needs to mobilize his GOTV efforts because he’s in a dogfight.”
Team Trump’s response?
“They said that in Iowa, too,” said Trump advisor James Blair.
According to the Trump campaign, they’ve got the real turnout operation because their voter contact is being done by motivated volunteers, not “paid political hacks going door to door and probably don’t even know the New Hampshire towns,” Leavitt said.
“We have 2,000 active volunteers across the state from Rockingham to the North Country. Yesterday alone, we had more than 350 of them knocking doors and making phone calls.”
Leavitt pointed to the packed campaign headquarters in Manchester on Saturday morning, where hundreds showed up to hear from Trump surrogate U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.). After a speech and a press gaggle, Stefanik — rumored to be on Trump’s shortlist for vice president — jumped on the phones to make calls with the volunteers.
Still, Granite State political veterans say AFP Action and its local leadership team know New Hampshire and their well-funded efforts should be taken seriously. Several GOP operatives added that the ground game has entered a new phase: turning out voters who have already been identified as supporting the pro-Haley (or anti-Trump) cause.
“This isn’t hiring strangers to knock on doors,” one veteran campaign pro said on background. “It’s reminding people who’ve already said they’re on our side that it’s time to go to the polls.”
Miller mocked the idea that Trump, who has consistently led Haley by about 15 points for weeks, is in any danger in New Hampshire, regardless of the latest “longshot” scenario making the rounds.
“The only thing that Nikki and her team of Democrats haven’t come forward with yet is what could happen if an asteroid hit the Earth –literally on primary day. Otherwise, these fantastic scenarios just divert from the fact that Nikki and her team have no energy, no enthusiasm, and no momentum.”
At the same time, during a rally Saturday night in Manchester, Trump heightened his attacks on Haley as essentially a Democratic candidate, backed by Democratic money and voters. And he suggested her voters shouldn’t be participating in a Republican primary.
“You have a governor here that allows Democrats to vote in the Republican primary. What’s that all about?” Trump complained. “This guy allows independents, many of whom are Democrats, and Democrats to vote in the Republican Party.
“And 50 percent of Haley’s voters [in Iowa] said they were voting for Joe Biden in November. What the hell kind of Republican candidate is that?” he added.
(Registered Democrats cannot vote in the New Hampshire GOP primary, or vice versa. But unaffiliated voters can vote in the primary of their choice.)
Trump’s attacks could be an attempt to drive up turnout by getting Republicans motivated to protect their own party’s primary from Democratic interlopers. Or it could be a worried candidate who sees turnout models showing a closer-than-expected race and who’s laying the groundwork to blame a surge of Democrats for Tuesday’s results.
Trump’s support among the base of the New Hampshire GOP is undeniable. In 2020, facing only token opposition from former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, nearly 130,000 people turned out to vote for Trump in the GOP primary. And, Blair said, the Trump campaign hasn’t ignored the low-propensity, leaning-away-from-Trump voters that AFP and other organizations might be trying to turn out. The campaign has been targeting some of those New Hampshire voters with messages about Haley’s record they believe will make them think twice.
“We’re going to make them hold their nose twice,” Blair said. “Not just to vote in a primary they may not otherwise vote in, but also to go out and vote for someone that they don’t even like.”
And then there’s the overall media spending.
Jim Merrill, who worked on the George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio campaigns, says there’s another Haley advantage that has gotten relatively little attention: Money.
“They’ve been pounding the mailboxes for months, targeting persuadable voters. Sure, the other campaigns have had some mail, too, but not like Haley and the groups backing her. Who knows what that will mean on Election Day, but it shouldn’t be ignored.”
“Three super PACs backing Haley — SFA Fund, Americans for Prosperity, and Independents Moving the Needle — have spent more than $24 million across TV, radio, and digital ads targeting New Hampshire, according to data from AdImpact, an ad tracking platform. Haley’s own campaign has chipped in another $4.7 million,” Politico reported. That’s about twice the $15.3 Trump and his MAGA, Inc. super PAC have spent.
The big picture of the primary remains the same: Trump is the most popular candidate in the field among Republican voters, and Haley would need a huge number of non-Republicans — not unaffiliated voters, many of whom lean Republican, but actual “I’m not a Republican” voters — to turn out on Tuesday.
Even the Trump campaign admits it’s not impossible. But, they say, it’s close to it.
“Haley and AFP are relying on unaffiliated voters, and 2012 was the highest percentage of them in the Republican primary, about 40 percent,” Leavitt said. “It’s never exceeded that, before or after.
“And while nothing is impossible in this world, it is becoming increasingly implausible that Nikki Haley can turn this from a Republican presidential primary — against a former Republican president with enthusiasm and momentum — into an unaffiliated primary. Which is what she needs to do.”