New Hampshire Street Signs Tell the Story of the Republican Primary

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If you want to understand the New Hampshire primary, stand at the corner of West Broadway and Valley Street in Derry, N.H.

There are two huge yard signs — one for Nikki Haley and one for Donald Trump — on adjacent houses. Perhaps a neighbor-on-neighbor feud?

Not exactly: When my colleague Michael Bender headed there recently, neighbors told him that the pro-Haley house had been vacant for years, and that political campaigns often planted their signs there. And the pro-Trump house was actually owned by an absentee landlord who lives in Florida.

It felt like one big metaphor for this campaign. The race looks like a real contest, with yard signs and all the usual campaign events. Yet when you dig a little deeper, there’s far less going on than it may seem.

Trump is the political version of a Florida-based absentee landlord. He barely held any campaign events in the state until the final week. Now the former president has come to collect what he believes is his due.

He has flown in for nightly rallies with a flurry of surrogates, including Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, Haley’s home state. That’s been enough to boost enthusiasm and extend his lead. Trump’s double-digit advantage has never wavered, only grown.

Meanwhile, Haley’s strongest appeal comes from voters who have largely abandoned the Republican Party as their political home. She’s relying on independent voters, or “undeclared” as they’re called here in New Hampshire. Those voters are a significant voting bloc, about 40 percent of the state’s electorate. But they’re not Republicans.

All of this adds up to something that feels like less than a serious competition. The biggest news over the weekend — when Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida dropped out of the race and endorsed Trump — did not seem to substantially move those margins.

Even if Haley somehow wins in New Hampshire, her path is difficult. The idea has been that first place in the primary contest could give her a jolt of momentum that sends her into the next key race in South Carolina. But she is trailing badly in her home state — and it’s self-evidently difficult to win a Republican nomination without the support of the party’s primary voters.

And if Trump wins tomorrow night? Well, then the general election basically starts Wednesday.

The best advice for that outcome may come from a neighbor on Valley Street. “Welcome to the madhouse,” he told Bender.

This analysis comes from The Tilt, a newsletter by Nate Cohn, The New York Times’s chief political analyst.

Ron DeSantis began the 2024 campaign as a formidable candidate, with early poll numbers that rivaled or even exceeded the likes of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.

In the end, that meant only that he had more room to fall.

There are countless reasons DeSantis fell apart and ultimately ended his campaign Sunday — including that Donald Trump proved once again to be a juggernaut.

But it’s worth returning to his apparent strength at the outset: that brief moment when DeSantis, or at least the idea of him, routinely led Trump in high-quality head-to-head polls.

It’s the only glimpse we’ve had into a post-Trump Republican Party.

Trump has said and done countless things that might have doomed any other politician. None of it really made any difference in his support — until November 2022. The disappointing Republican showing in the midterms damaged Trump in the polls, and DeSantis surged to take a clear lead that lasted months.

It’s worth noting a few things that may have helped make the post-midterm period different:

  • The attacks weren’t coming from liberals, but from conservative elites and conservative media.

  • The midterms made Trump look weak and like a loser. Unlike in the 2020 election, Republicans conceded their defeats. Trump himself acknowledged that the midterms were disappointing. This time, there were no alternative facts.

  • The midterms allowed DeSantis, who won in a landslide, to contrast favorably with Trump without needing to directly engage or attack him.

We’ll never know what might have happened if DeSantis had acted quickly to exploit the opportunity. He waited months to announce his candidacy, and the favorable conditions didn’t last long.

In late January, Trump went on offense and DeSantis didn’t punch back. Instead, the punches coming at Trump started arriving from the criminal justice system, not from the right. Conservatives rallied to his defense, as they have time and again.

The wagons had been circled by the time DeSantis started attacking Trump over the summer.

DeSantis briefly held the promise of uniting the moderate and conservative opposition to Trump around a new set of issues: the coronavirus response and the “woke” left.

The broad range of anti-woke and anti-pandemic politics meant that there were many moderates and conservatives who thought they agreed with DeSantis. They imagined him as a politician much like themselves, much in the same way that both antiwar progressives and centrist Democrats saw themselves in Obama in 2008.

It wasn’t so. The coalition behind the imagined DeSantis crumbled.

  • The new issues lost their punch. The pandemic ended. “Woke” steadily faded from the news. The uproar over critical race theory vanished. More traditional issues, including abortion and the border, became more salient.

  • The issues did not offer a clear contrast with Trump, who could hardly be derided as “woke” and wasn’t exactly remembered for his support of Covid-related restrictions.

  • The issues dragged DeSantis into the world of the way-too-online right, leaving his speeches riddled with arcane abbreviations like E.S.G. and deprived of any coherent, overarching message.

DeSantis campaigned as if he were entirely unaware of the delicate balancing act of coalitions necessary to defeat Trump.

For example, he never seemed to throw a bone to the establishment Republican wing of the party. He couldn’t even be acceptable to moderates on Ukraine, a favorite issue of the neoconservatives who inevitably had to play a role in any anti-Trump coalition.

DeSantis also offered barely any contrast with Trump on the issues. The strategy, sometimes known as “Trumpism without Trump,” supposed that Republican voters were ready to move on from Trump personally, even though they supported his views on the issues. Needless to say, that proved to be wrong.

DeSantis would have struggled to maintain an ideologically diverse anti-Trump coalition, even if he had been every bit as deft as Obama was in his 2008 victory over Hillary Clinton. The fight against “woke” was no Iraq War. National security, abortion, entitlements and other issues still divide Republicans, just as they did in 2016.

But for a glimpse of what a successful alternative to Trumpism might look like one day, the imagined DeSantis of the outset of the campaign is a good place to start. Campaigning against the excesses of the left has the potential to unite the right while appealing to a sliver of disaffected moderates or even liberals. If these or other new issues overwhelm the old ones, suddenly there might be an opening for conservative politics to look very different. — Nate Cohn

Read the full newsletter here.

Fact check: Ron DeSantis misattributed a quote about defeat to Winston Churchill.

Halo effect: Americans are feeling better about the economy. Will that help Biden?

Write-in: Biden’s not on the N.H. ballot, but his allies hope he’ll win anyway.

Deepfake trickery: New Hampshire officials will investigate A.I. robocalls mimicking Biden.

Why I’m voting: A fisherman urges Republicans to confront climate change.

Vows: G.O.P. voters said no to Tim Scott. His girlfriend said yes.

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