Nikki Haley’s New Hampshire supporters are hoping for a come-from-behind upset win in Tuesday’s First in the Nation primary. But some say they are afraid a key ingredient for that victory may be missing.
On Wednesday, Granite State GOP circles were abuzz with the question: “Where’s Nikki?”
Instead of spending the week before the primary barnstorming the state, Haley only had one event a day on her public schedule. Plus, she was refusing to participate in either of the debates scheduled for the week, including the traditional WMUR debate on the campus of St. Anselm College.
Politicos and reporters alike were working the phones trying to find out what was happening. NBC News ran a story reporting her supporters were “disappointed” Haley appeared to be AWOL.
Ron DeSantis made the quixotic move of going to South Carolina right after the Iowa caucuses; was Haley bugging out on New Hampshire, too?
Late Wednesday came a report from David Drucker of The Dispatch that Haley had flown to South Carolina Tuesday to attend to her ailing father. It’s a family situation every voter can understand. But 24 hours later, her schedule was still light compared to presidential candidates in the past.
Or even former presidents today. Trump is keeping up an aggressive schedule of rallies and public appearances — a schedule also interrupted by family commitments when he spent Thursday in Florida attending his mother-in-law’s funeral.
Trump has multiple events across the state, including rallies in large venues like the Rochester Opera House, the Grappone Center in Concord, and the SNHU Arena.
Haley, on the other hand, still had just a single public event on her schedule each day until Thursday afternoon, when the campaign released a flurry of campaign stops for Friday and assurances of more to come. It was a move viewed as a reaction to the rising tide of complaints from her supporters.
However, most of the stops are brief “Get Out The Vote” visits to small venues like the Newfields Country Store — aka “retail politics” — as opposed to large group events where she can reach significant numbers of voters.
For example, Granite State campaign veterans rolled their eyes when the Haley campaign emailed tweets from national reporters saying they “can’t get in the building for Nikki Haley in Hooksett, as supporters turn out in small town events.”
“It’s Robie’s — there isn’t enough room in there to hold a book club,” one GOP consultant told NHJournal. “That’s a place you go to so you can fill it with your supporters, not talk to voters. I don’t know what they’re doing.”
Haley and her top surrogate, Gov. Chris Sununu, insist she’s working hard and not slowing down.
Asked about supporters complaining about the pace of the campaign, Haley told NHJournal, “We’ve been anywhere and everywhere. I got an hour of sleep the night of the Iowa caucuses. We came straight to New Hampshire and had a full day of events. Anywhere and everywhere.”
Sununu, who called Haley “my new best friend,” rejected the notion that she’s not maintaining a “Sununu schedule.”
“She is –she’s doing dozens of events,” he said. “It’s non-stop. I don’t get exhausted by much, but she’s doing it. She’s moving.”
But many political professionals say Haley isn’t running like someone who is within a few percentage points of upsetting a frontrunner or who sees New Hampshire as a must-win for her campaign.
“It’s definitely not the Bill Clinton campaign,” said former GOP state party chair Fergus Cullen. “In 1992, Bill Clinton was campaigning at a bowling alley on Concord Street on primary eve — after having hit the Puritan Backroom and walking through the kitchen to shake hands with anyone he could find who was still working.
“Now compare that to Haley’s schedule and the fact that she’s not doing the debates. Those debates would at least get good ratings in New Hampshire.”
UNH political science professor Dante Scala is also “surprised she and Sununu aren’t barnstorming the state. It’s not like she has debate prep to do.”
Many Granite State political observers commented on Haley’s decision to kill the debates, some worrying that it might set a precedent. Plus, some Republicans asked why wouldn’t someone who is behind want every media opportunity to make an impact on voters?
“As an incumbent, maybe, or somebody who’s a frontrunner — sure, you’re ahead, you’re not taking any risks,” campaign strategist Dave Carney told NBC News. “But when you’re in second place? You need to throw f—ing Hail Marys. You have five nights left.”
GOP strategist (and part-time New Hampshire resident) Mike Murphy wrote on his Substack Thursday that Haley was making a huge mistake by not doing as many TV debates as possible.
“New Hampshire loves a scrappy underdog and a debate like that would tee NH up to do what the Granite State voters love to do most. Cut an arrogant front-runner down to size,” Murphy wrote. “Ask Barack Obama. Ask George W. Bush. Ask LBJ. New Hampshire is not the Granite State, it is the Punisher state.”
And NBC numbers cruncher Steve Kornacki believes debates matter more in a state like New Hampshire.
“The New Hampshire electorate is unusually engaged, a level you don’t see in almost any other state,” Kornacki said on the Matt Lewis and the News podcast. “The turnout for these primaries is astronomical. We just came out of Iowa where you saw 110,000 participate in caucuses. Now you go to New Hampshire, which is half the size, and there’s likely to be 300,000 people voting in that primary. It’s that level of interest.
“And so if you throw a debate on WMUR in prime time in the closing days of the campaign, there’s an upside there. There was an opportunity there for Haley to really move some voters,” Kornacki said.