A Most Unusual New Hampshire Primary

[ Posted Monday, January 22nd, 2024 – 17:02 UTC ]

As usual, the first presidential primary in the country will take place in New Hampshire tomorrow night. But this won't be your garden-variety Granite State primary, on either side of the aisle. For Republicans, their choices have already dwindled to only two, while on the Democratic side the frontrunner isn't even on the ballot. Neither one of those things is normal.

Let's take the Republicans first. Yesterday, Ron DeSantis hung up his cowboy boots (or, to mock him one last time, "his white go-go boots"). He promptly slunk back to Florida, where the Miami Herald greeted him with a scathing editorial:

It's not just that [Florida Governor Ron DeSantis] was steamrolled by Donald Trump. DeSantis never appeared to want to save the GOP. He was more interested in making it a more ravenous, angrier and intolerant party. That worked for Trump, but didn't work for the governor with all the charisma of burned toast.


With DeSantis out of the GOP contest, it is now the "two-person race" that Nikki Haley optimistically hoped for after she placed third in Iowa. However, all the polling indicates that while Haley might pull close to Trump, in the end he's still going to beat her. The margin of victory will matter to pundits and political wonks, but not so much to anybody else. Trump will be two-for-two if he wins tomorrow night, and that might just be enough to essentially declare the race over.

This is all highly unusual. While some weaker presidential candidates do tend to drop out before Iowa or New Hampshire even vote, it is rare indeed that only two remain viable heading into New Hampshire. This is exactly what all the people who wanted to see Trump lose have been hoping for all along, and lo and behold it has come to pass -- a two-person race: Trump and someone who is not Trump.

But even this isn't likely to work. Trump's grip on the base of the Republican Party remains stronger than ever, and the only real question is whether he'll beat Haley by double digits or not tomorrow night. Of course, every single poll could be wrong (it's happened before) and Haley could eke out a surprise upset tomorrow night -- which might indeed make it a two-person race worth paying attention to. But then again, maybe not.

Let's say Haley edges Trump out tomorrow night, just for the sake of discussion. Unaffiliated voters are allowed to cast ballots in either primary contest tomorrow night, and there are a lot of "no party preference" voters in the state (both the Democrats and the Republicans have about 30 percent of the electorate each, while a whopping 40 percent are unaffiliated). Since the Democratic race is already a foregone conclusion, perhaps most of the unaffiliated voters will decide to vote in the GOP's contest tomorrow. If enough of them are anti-Trump, Haley does indeed have the chance for a big upset. So it's still a possibility.

The next state to vote is Nevada, and Republicans there now have a confusing "primary and a caucus" system in place. The primary will go to Haley, since she's the only candidate remaining with her name on the ballot, while the caucuses will go to Trump, for the exact same reason -- anyone who filed for the GOP primary was barred from running in the caucus, so Trump will be the only candidate remaining. The primary will be held a few days before the caucuses, so perhaps Haley will get some sort of media bump from her "win," but it will prove to be completely meaningless, since all the delegates to the Republican National Convention will be awarded via the caucuses. So Haley will "win" a Pyrrhic victory and then Trump will corral all the delegates a few days later.

Then it'll be on to South Carolina. This is where Haley was supposed to really pick up momentum, since it is her home state. But her past stint as governor looks like it isn't going to do it for her, at least not unless there truly is a monumental shift in the dynamics of the race by then. Trump is currently crushing Haley in the South Carolina polls, and will likely continue to do so. And the rule of thumb in politics is generally: "If you can't win your home state, you won't win anywhere else." There will be a multiweek break before South Carolina votes, and if Haley does win New Hampshire she'll probably attract tens of millions in donor cash, but in the end it likely won't do her much good even in her home state.

The only way Haley is even going to be viable heading into Super Tuesday is if she wins both New Hampshire and South Carolina, and the chances of that happening are vanishingly small, no matter how much donor money she throws at anti-Trump ads. So while it would certainly be more interesting to see Haley make a real run at Trump (speaking personally, as a writer about politics), I'm not exactly getting my hopes up.

If Trump wins tomorrow night as expected, then the entire rest of the GOP primary calendar will be nothing short of a coronation. New Hampshire will cement his victory -- which, as I said, is highly unusual. Few presidential candidates have wrapped up the nomination so early in the process -- although, as I have been reminding everyone, Trump isn't really running in an "open" race so much as he is running as an incumbent, which makes for a very different contest.

Speaking of incumbents, Joe Biden will not be on the Democratic ballot tomorrow night. This is a misstep of his own making. Biden -- at the last minute and without warning -- scrambled the Democratic primary calendar to put South Carolina as technically the first state to hold a primary. Dethroning Iowa from first place was entirely expected -- Iowa screwed up the counting of the votes one time too many, and besides it is neither a battleground state any more for Democrats and not very representative of America (Iowa is overwhelmingly White). But few expected Biden to also boot New Hampshire from their "first in the nation" status (which I've personally been calling a serious mistake ever since it was announced).

New Hampshire voters are fiercely proud of their first-in-line status. They (quite rightly) point to the fact that they are so small that retail politics is possible in their state for even candidates with modest campaign chests. Meeting the voters -- multiple times -- is seen as a requirement in the tiny state, and candidates hold endless town halls so the people can get to know them. And it is actually written into state law that the state's primary must be held before all others. With a Republican state government, they were never going to change their calendar to knuckle under to the Democrats' demand that they let South Carolina go first instead. So the Democratic primary will happen as usual tomorrow night.

Except it won't be "as usual," since (1) it won't count, and (2) the sitting president won't be on the ballot. Democratic Party rules prohibit candidates from filing or campaigning in the state for an unofficially-sanctioned primary, so Biden did neither. This means only the fringe candidates will be on the Democratic ballot (Dean Phillips and Marianne Williamson).

Having one of them win even an unsanctioned primary would not be the best launch for Joe Biden's campaign, of course, so New Hampshire Democrats have mounted a write-in movement to get people to vote for him anyway. Amusingly, the secretary of state's office provided guidance to election officials which instructed them to count any write-in vote that was obviously for Biden, which will allow for such informal choices as: "Joe and Kamala," or even: "Joey B." to count.

This is highly unusual for New Hampshire. They're not used to having to have a write-in campaign for the frontrunner, because no other incumbent president ever managed to get them booted from first place before now. If Biden wins via a write-in campaign (as everyone expects him to), it will be just as meaningless a victory as Nikki Haley's Nevada primary win, because zero delegates will be awarded as a result (although, to be fair, the D.N.C. will likely relent and seat the New Hampshire delegates at the convention anyway, and allow them to cast their votes for Biden).

Tomorrow night will not be "business as usual" in New Hampshire. The first primary in the country will be downright unusual for both parties. Republicans are faced with only two choices, and if the polling turns out to be right, the GOP field is going to effectively dwindle to just one in the aftermath. Democrats are going to have to vote for Biden (or perhaps "Joey B.") by actually writing his name in, since the sitting president won't actually be on the ballot. Granted, the outcome itself will quite likely be pretty boring ("Trump And Biden Win!") but the path they will each take to get there won't be the normal one at all.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


3 Comments on “A Most Unusual New Hampshire Primary”

  1. [1] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    i believe it's going to be closer than people think. haley isn't just an anti-trump candidate, for anyone who actually watched the debates she is really, really sharp. i'm opposed to just about everything she stands for, but if she did end up being president i wouldn't be embarassed by the fact. and i think that goes for a lot of new hampshire independents too.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I couldn't agree more, Joshua ... just watched her again this morning, this time outside of a polling station and she sounded very impressive.

  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Very impressive ... in the context of a very weak Republican primary season, she is the best in class, so to speak.

    Of course, I'll take all that back when she agrees to being Trump's running mate.

    What she should be doing now until she suspends her campaign is leaving the joking aside with regard to Trump's antics and "go full Liz Cheney" x 11!

Comments for this article are closed.