N.H. takeaways: Trump’s path to GOP victory becomes clearer

WASHINGTON (AP) — This time, New Hampshire didn’t surprise.

Instead, its famously fickle voters stuck to the script of delivering a ringing ratification of the front-runner, Donald Trump, the former president. His victory over a defiant Nikki Haley cemented his hold on core Republican voters and substantially reduced the chances of any challenger overtaking him.

Never before has a presidential candidate won the first two contests on the primary nomination calendar — as Trump has now done — and failed to emerge as the party’s general election nominee, substantially increasing the already quite likely prospect of a rematch between him and President Joe Biden.

Even so, there were signs of restiveness among voters for both men. Here are some key takeaways from Tuesday’s New Hampshire Primary.

TRUMP’S GLIDE PATH

New Hampshire seemed like a state that Trump could lose.

The state’s moderate tradition, the participation of independents, a huge advertising disparity and even a popular governor were all working against the former president.

He overcame all of that, somewhat easily, putting himself on a glide path to a third consecutive Republican presidential nomination that can likely be stopped at this point only by an unprecedented collapse or unforeseen external circumstances.

His base, immovable so far, has given him a structural advantage that few non-incumbents have ever had. He doesn’t need to persuade any new voters to win the nomination, he simply needs to ensure his people turned out. According to AP VoteCast, only about half of New Hampshire Republican voters identify with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement. And nearly half disagree with Trump’s big lie that the 2020 was stolen.

He won anyway.

A WIN THAT CAME WITH WARNINGS

Trump may be unstoppable in the primary campaign, but Tuesday’s vote offered evidence that he may have a more difficult time in the general election this fall.

Trump did not carry key groups of swing voters. Haley beat Trump among primary voters who identify as moderates, as well as independents. She also beat Trump among those with a college degree. And about half of New Hampshire Republican primary voters are very or somewhat concerned that Trump is too extreme to win the general election, according to AP VoteCast. Only about one-third say the same about Haley.

A significant number of voters in the Republican primary — about one-third — also believe that Trump broke the law either in his alleged attempt to interfere in the vote count in the 2020 presidential election, his role in what happened at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, or the classified documents found at his Florida home after he left the White House.

Such legal troubles helped unify core Republican voters behind his candidacy in recent months, but it’s hard to imagine those issues will be an asset with the much broader set of general election voters.

Trump is facing 91 felony counts across four criminal trials. And his court schedule is set up to ensure that voters won’t be able to forget about the legal drama, even if they want to. The federal trial over Trump’s alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election is tentatively set to begin on March 4, the day before Super Tuesday.

HALEY PUSHING AHEAD

Haley’s loss represents a significant defeat for anti-Trump forces that still exist within the Republican Party.

They finally got the head-to-head contest they had long been calling for. And it wasn’t enough.

Still, Haley strongly suggested she would stay in the race until at least her home state primary in South Carolina on Feb. 24.

“New Hampshire is first in the nation, it’s not last in the nation. This race is far from over,” Haley told cheering supporters in Concord.

Haley’s team was quick to note that roughly 5 in 10 primary voters do not support Trump. Her advisors insist she will stay in the race to serve as a vehicle for those anti-Trump forces who are still hoping that Trump might be forced out of the race by his legal problems, or perhaps a health emergency.

And at least for now, the 52-year-old former South Carolina governor still has math and donors on her side.

Trump cannot mathematically secure the delegate majority he needs to become the presumptive nominee before Super Tuesday on March 5. And, in exactly one week, she’s scheduled to embark upon a fundraising tour that includes stops in New York, Florida, California and Texas.

Her campaign is also launching a new $4 million advertising campaign in South Carolina that begins Wednesday.

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE?

For months, Haley and former Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, offered only muted criticism of the former president, wary of his popularity with the GOP base.

Each was more frontal in attacking him as voting drew nearer, especially Haley in the closing days before New Hampshire. It was too late to help DeSantis, who suspended his campaign Sunday after finishing a distant second in Iowa. This weekend, Haley drew attention to the 77-year-old former president seeming to confuse her and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, directly taking on his mental fitness in ways she’d only vaguely alluded to before.

The punches didn’t land, but Haley continued them Tuesday night, digging again at Trump’s mental fitness during her concession speech. “Most Americans do not want a rematch between Biden and Trump,” Haley said. “The first party to retire its 80-year-old candidate is going to be the party that wins this election.”

It was a road not taken until the last minute. Haley doesn’t have a lot of travel time left.

BIDEN’S WIN THAT DOESN’T COUNT

Joe Biden did not put his name on the ballot for the New Hampshire Primary. The results are not binding for convention delegates. He won anyway, thanks to an aggressive write-in campaign. Biden muscled the Democratic National Committee into making South Carolina, the state that set him on a path to the White House with a victory in 2020. The first official party primary is on Feb. 3.

Like Trump, Biden could read good news into the results, with more than 8 in 10 Democrats approving of his handling of the economy, along with a warning: 4 in 10 say that, at age 81, he’s too old to run, and about half disapprove of his handling of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, according to AP VoteCast.

Both men are clearly in commanding positions … for a rematch that many voters say they do not want.

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