Can Trump win over independents and anti-Trump Republicans?

The results of New Hampshire’s primary proved only marginally less definitive than Donald Trump and his allies apparently hoped. The former president defeated Nikki Haley handily, but Trump’s eleven-point margin of victory failed to satisfy the former president. If we can glean anything from Trump’s graceless, gratuitous goading of his all-but vanquished opponent in a post-vote speech in which he complained carelessly of Haley’s refusal to concede her defeat (she did, explicitly, and congratulated Trump on his victory), he is overcome with insecurity. He should be.

The race in New Hampshire was characterized by unexpectedly high turnout on both sides of the Trump question. Registered Republicans turned out in droves to ratify Trump’s role as the leader of their party, and the former president won nearly three-quarters of the GOP vote, according to exit polling. Indeed, he won the highest raw vote total of any candidate in the New Hampshire primaries ever. But anti-Trump forces were just as enthused to register their dissatisfaction with Trump. He won just one-third of unaffiliated voters — a pronounced drop off from the 2020 election, in which he won 37 percent of the independent vote and still lost the state to Joe Biden. In 2016, Trump won 36 percent of independents in the primary and 45 percent in that year’s general election (when he also lost the state to Hillary Clinton).

When the general electorate is as polarized as it has been in recent election cycles, non-aligned voters are the whole ballgame in key swing states. But Trump’s problems are not limited to the number of independent voters who just can’t pull the lever for him (63 percent of independents in this year’s New Hampshire primary said they would not vote for Trump in November). The former president also has to worry about Republicans who still identify as Republicans but are nonetheless hostile to Trump.

According to AP VoteCast, just under one-fifth of the Republican electorate in the Granite State won’t vote for Trump in the general election. That’s not dissimilar from the 15 percent of Republican Iowa caucus-goers who said the same. According to an even more dire Fox News Voter Analysis, a shocking 35 percent of New Hampshire Republicans said they would refuse to hold their nose for the former president in the fall.

Those hard feelings, some of which are surely attributable to the bitter internecine primary dynamic, will fade. But if those Republicans stop identifying as Republican over the course of the year, Trump’s problem will be harder to identify in polls and, therefore, harder to diagnose. The former president may still secure the support of at least 90 percent of his party — generally considered the threshold national candidates must secure to remain competitive — but that could by then be a percentage of an overall smaller universe of Republicans.

The first two contests of what looks set to be a truncated primary season suggest a clear pattern. Trump enjoys the diehard support of about half of the GOP primary electorate that has voted so far, despite his commanding performance among registered Republicans. But the other half — moderate Republicans, soft GOP-aligned voters, and the unaffiliated majority makers both parties need to attract — aren’t just skeptical of Trump’s third bid for the White House. Many of them seem outright repulsed by the prospect.

Donald Trump passed on the opportunity presented by his victory last night to heal the bonds of Republican kinship frayed by the primary and focus the GOP’s attention on the general election. His unrelenting attacks on Haley for refusing to kiss his ring indicate his intention to prosecute the primary campaign until she relents. That will satisfy voters who approach politics as they would a spectator sport, but it does Trump no favors in November.

In Iowa, turnout was markedly lower in urban and suburban areas of the state where voters have marginally higher incomes and higher attainment levels than elsewhere in the state — a disproportionate drop-off that cannot be explained by bad weather alone. In areas of New Hampshire with similar density and demographics, turnout was high — but, with the exception of areas with a large population of working-class voters such as Manchester and its surroundings, those voters turned out for Haley. The suburbs decided presidential elections. Trump lost them in 2020 and, on this trajectory, he’s set to lose them again in 2024.

If Trump-skeptical Republicans and the independents harbor irreparable animosity toward the former president, the feeling is mutual among the president’s backers. These two disparate factions of the GOP are increasingly uncomfortable with their co-partisans, and the tent might not be big enough for the both of them. Trump himself could model the conciliatory behavior he would like to see from his voters, but that’s hard to imagine. Trump doesn’t do charm offensives — not for long, anyway.

“The GOP primary has laid bare the stark and indisputable reality that while Trump has the united support of his MAGA base, he is struggling to make himself palatable to these key constituencies that will ultimately decide the election this November,” Quentin Fulks, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, told reporters Wednesday.

Even Ron DeSantis, who suspended his own presidential campaign Sunday, told conservative radio host Steve Deace that he’d spoken to lifelong conservatives who indicated they don’t want to vote for Trump in 2024.

“He’s got to figure out a way to solve that. I think there’s an enthusiasm problem overall,” DeSantis said.

The Trump campaign and its allies have shrugged off much of the data out of New Hampshire, arguing Haley’s strength with moderate and independent voters merely highlights her weakness with actual Republicans.

“Nikki ‘Birdbrain’ Haley can NEVER win in the General Election because she will NEVER get MAGA!” Trump wrote Wednesday on his Truth Social platform.

The Trump campaign noted that the former president’s nearly 170,000 votes received in New Hampshire was a record-setting total for a presidential primary in either party. The former president has never had much of an issue turning out his base supporters, and he overwhelmingly won self-identified Republicans in New Hampshire.

Trump and his aides have also dismissed electability arguments against him by frequently highlighting general election polls that show him leading Biden both at the national level and in key swing states including Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia.

“I’m taking the NH exit polls with a grain of salt. Having lived in that state (NH) in the past, there is so many Massachusetts expats there it is hard to determine what’s real and what isn’t,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “And it’s not one of the six battleground states, plus 10 months is a political lifetime.” 

Biden’s team has a full 10 months to remind voters about Trump’s fixation on exacting revenge on his enemies and to draw a contrast on pivotal issues such as abortion and the economy. The longer Haley stays in the primary race, the more time and money Trump will likely spend attacking her and campaigning for a largely Republican audience.

The former president may be perfectly comfortable with a smaller Republican Party that is, in every respect, a Trump party, but that is not a winning political coalition. It’s a fan club. Which of those two enterprises Trump hopes to lead remains to be seen.  

Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher (aka HP Pundit) is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a free thinking independent bringing you news and commentary with a dose of much needed common sense.

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