Two weeks from today, it’s likely to be Nikki Haley vs. Donald Trump in the First in the Nation presidential primary.
Today, it’s UNH vs. Suffolk University, the political equivalent of Michigan vs. Washington on Monday night.
For months, Granite State political insiders have bemoaned how static the race has been. To keep the football metaphor alive, New Hampshire Institute of Politics Executive Director Neil Levesque has compared former President Donald Trump’s support to a goal post, set and unmoving at 45 percent or so. The rest of the field has been in play, as Nikki Haley’s breakout run is showing, but she hasn’t got close to the Trump goal line.
The new CNN/UNH poll has Trump below 40 percent and Haley right on his heels, 39 to 32 percent. As Jewish Insider’s Josh Kraushaar pointed out Tuesday morning, “It’s the first time I can recall: Haley + Christie > Trump in New Hampshire.”
Chris Christie is at 12 percent, Vivek Ramaswamy is at 8 percent, and — in one of the most brutal collapses of a GOP candidate in New Hampshire — Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) is in fifth place with just five percent.
The Haley campaign is talking up the good news.
“This poll is more proof of what we already knew: This is a two-person race,” Haley spokesperson Kate DeTurk. “Nikki Haley is surging, Donald Trump is dropping, and the DeSantis campaign obituary is being written.”
On New Hampshire radio host Jack Heath’s show Tuesday, Gov. Chris Sununu said the numbers are proof that New Hampshire is a Haley vs. Trump contest and that Haley has a real shot at an upset.
What would that mean for the primary race overall?
“Huge. It would be huge,” Sununu told Heath. “Because [Trump] has taken New Hamshire for granted, he hasn’t done any retail politics here, he didn’t answer any questions.” And, Sununu added, Haley would have a month to turn an upset victory in New Hampshire into a home-state win.
“Trump will be wide open to be beaten in South Carolina. A former governor in her home state knows just what she needs to do to win there,” Sununu said.
Not so fast, Trump supporters say. They point to another poll released Tuesday morning from USA Today, Suffolk University, and the Boston Globe. Suffolk’s survey of Granite State GOP primary voters is more in line with previous polling: Trump solid at 46 percent, Haley rising, but with just 26 percent support. As in the UNH poll, Christie remains at 12 percent, and DeSantis and Ramaswamy are stuck in single digits.
Why the discrepancy? On WFEA radio Tuesday morning, UNH Survey Center director Andy Smith said its “sampling frame” captures more unaffiliated voters, as well as the “churn” in the state’s population. “About every eight years, a third of the potential voters are different people. They either didn’t live in the state, or they weren’t old enough to vote.”
And those recent arrivals, largely registered as unaffiliated, are breaking for Haley, Smith said. The CNN/UNH poll breakdown for Republicans vs. non-Republicans in the primary breaks down like this:
Among those undeclared Republicans, Haley has a 43 to 17 percent lead. She also has a majority (55 percent) of self-identified moderate Republicans, who make up a third of the UNH Survey sample.
It should be noted the poll was taken well after Haley’s highly-publicized gaffe in responding to a Granite Stater’s question about the cause of the American Civil War.
Also worth noting: The CNN/UNH survey is a significant outlier from previous Granite State polling, in particular how New Hampshire Republicans feel about the candidates.
Only one pollster has put Trump below 40 percent in New Hampshire since mid-July, and it’s UNH. Trump’s RCP average before Tuesday was 47 percent.
“The unpopularity of this GOP field among NH primary voters is really something,” tweeted Semafor’s Dave Weigel, with Trump at just 47/38 percent favorable/unfavorable, or +9. Haley’s numbers are weak as well (39/35), and the rest of the GOP field is underwater.
That is a significant break with previous polling which found that, other than Christie, GOP primary voters have a generally positive view of their party’s candidates.
In the most recent St. Anselm College Survey Center poll, for example, Trump was +19 (59-40), and the UMass-Lowell/YouGov poll had Trump’s approval at 68/27 percent (+41). The rest of the field’s numbers are higher in early polling as well.
“We’ll see if the UNH polling is wrong as usual,” one longtime NHGOP strategist told NHJournal. “You know who votes in Republican primaries? People who like Republicans.”
Michael Dennehy, a veteran of many GOP campaigns in the Granite State, also focused on GOP voters.
“These two polls, and all of the previous polling for that matter, are relatively consistent with one number: Republicans. Trump is eviscerating Haley in the Suffolk poll 62-19 percent among Republicans. Trump is also beating her 58-21 percent in the UNH poll. For all intents and purposes, this race is over among Republican voters. They are sticking with Trump,” Dennehy said.
“But the unaffiliated are definitely moving to Haley. The final question remains: Can the Haley campaign boost turnout among unaffiliated voters and hold back the Trump attacks enough to overpower Republican voter strength?
“And the secondary question is, if Haley comes close to knocking off Trump in New Hampshire, is it a hollow victory as the race moves to states with closed primaries, where independents can’t vote?”
South Carolina and Michigan, the next major competitions after New Hampshire, both have open primaries.
One thing this latest round of polls and political events proves said veteran strategist Tom Rath, “New Hampshire really matters.”