The First in the Nation primary is 42 days from today, and in many public schools, that means it is time for a report card or progress report.
So we have asked the Granite State Guru to grade how well the remaining major GOP presidential candidates (sorry, Asa Hutchinson) have been running their campaigns nationally and in New Hampshire. Who exceeded expectations, and who failed to make the mark?
We also asked the Guru what to make of the poll The Des Moines Register released on Monday morning that found former President Donald Trump with the support of 51 percent of likely caucusgoers. If Gov. Ron DeSantis (19 percent) and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley (16 percent) are really both below 20 percent when the Iowa caucus is complete, what would a massive Trump win like that mean in New Hampshire eight days later?
When it comes to grading the candidates’ performances, the consensus from the dozen or so political pros, insiders, and activists whose views are aggregated in the Granite State Guru is that former President Donald Trump has earned an “A” at the national level.
The Guru’s Grade on the GOP Candidates’ National Campaigns
- Trump: A
- Haley: B+
- Christie C-
- DeSantis: D+
- Ramaswamy: D-
Whether they believe Trump will be good or bad for the GOP, Granite State insiders agreed he has run a smart campaign under the circumstances.
“Trump has exceeded expectations by not allowing himself to be dragged into the ‘alternative’ fight,” one Guru said. “He has largely run his own campaign and has defined the Republican nomination fight on his terms.”
Another campaign professional put it this way: “Trump has a team of killers who are strategic, disciplined, and tough and have Trump poised to clinch the nomination in February, something that would have been unthinkable on January 7, 2021.”
“He’s under indictment, under constant attack in the press, and members of his own party want him out — and he’s never given up the lead. It’s never been close,” another added. “That’s ‘winning.’”
Haley was also singled out as the other candidate running a better-than-expected campaign, even if there’s skepticism that she can build a majority coalition in the primary to beat Trump.
“Haley has exceeded expectations. Anyone saying otherwise is lying,” one insider said.
“She’s on the cusp of achieving what every candidate wanted 12 months ago: A one-on-one shot against Trump. Doesn’t mean she converts on it, but if you can’t win without winning the semi-finals first.”
Gov. Chris Christie’s “Gentleman’s C” comes from a grudging admiration for his commitment to his mission — “He got in to attack Trump. He’s attacking Trump,” as one put it — even if it is nearly certain to be unsuccessful.
There was across-the-board agreement that Christie is good on the stump, and he has been getting a tremendous amount of earned media for a candidate stuck at three percent in the national polls. That is a tribute to political talent. But it’s not a strategy.
Speaking of strategy, DeSantis got brutally low marks for his. The words “fiasco” and “trainwreck” populated the responses.
“The DeSantis Iowa juggernaut seems to be just building up steam,” one of the Guru crew quipped.
“All he’s done is spend money and lose support. How is that anything but an ‘F?’” another added.
Tom Rath, a veteran New Hampshire political observer, was more gracious, suggesting DeSantis is suffering from the high expectations of his campaign’s early days.
“As Linus once observed, “There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.’” Rath told NHJournal. “That’s the DeSantis campaign. They still seem unable to crack the New Hampshire code.”
As for Vivek Ramaswamy, the best he could manage was to get damned with faint praise.
“He’s a complete jackass and maybe the least qualified candidate this century, not named Herman Cain. But he’s still here, and he’s made himself famous. Begrudgingly have to admit he’s exceeded expectations.”
The Guru’s Grade on the GOP Candidates’ New Hampshire Campaigns
- Haley: B+
- Christie: C+
- Trump: C
- DeSantis: D
- Ramaswamy: D+
The unified theme of the critiques on the Granite State campaigns vs. their national efforts: Location, location, location. The campaigns just aren’t here.
This was particularly noted regarding Trump, who has skipped retail politics entirely, sticking with rallies and plenty of earned media.
“Trump’s not here often. Then again, he’s not anywhere often. And he’s done nothing to position himself to manage or grow his base of support in state in the general election,” one Guru commented.
DeSantis is also viewed as having put New Hampshire on the back burner, though most of the insiders conceded he has good reason.
“DeSantis has a minimal presence in New Hampshire since going all in on Iowa. It’s understandable — but not good for grades!”
The Guru’s Prediction: Will Iowa Impact New Hampshire’s Vote?
Opinions were strongly split. Some insiders insisted Iowa’s vote would be meaningless to New Hampshire voters, throwing out the “Iowa picks corn, New Hampshire picks presidents” line. Others said this year is different.
“We’re not really a ‘follow the leader’ type electorate,” one insider said. “However, what a big Trump win could do is keep independents home. If they think the primary results are a foregone conclusion, they may not be motivated to bother to vote.”
Another campaign veteran added, If Trump steamrolls to victory in Iowa, then I do believe it will have a positive impact for Trump in the FITN, where he is currently sitting solidly at 45 percent. The results will likely have two effects: It will energize the Trump voters, and it will give pause to those who think Trump is vulnerable by giving him more of an air of certainty about the results of the entire nominating process.”
UNH Professor Dante Scala said the “Irrelevant Iowa” meme comes more from an accident of ideological history, one that doesn’t apply in 2024.
“The grain of truth is that socially conservative candidates (Cruz, Huckabee, Santorum) have a history of success in Iowa. New Hampshire Republicans (much more secular, socially moderate) are allergic to these sorts of candidates. So any momentum such candidates gain from Iowa quickly dissipates here because their base does not live here in large numbers,” Scala said.
And Trump, Scala noted, isn’t a marginal, social-conservative candidate. The Des Moines Register poll found Trump leading among all ideological groups, from evangelical conservatives to independents.
“Trump is, quite simply, the leader of his party with a wide base of support to match,” Scala said.
As a result, a big win in Iowa will have an impact in New Hampshire.
“There is already an aura of inevitability around Trump that will only grow if he puts up a solid win in Iowa. Lots of voters here, whether they admit it or not, will shrug and say, ‘Yep. I guess it’s Trump.’”