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Donald Trump has a big problem ahead

Donald Trump has a problem no matter what happens in New Hampshire on Tuesday night: There’s a whole swath of the Republican electorate and a good chunk of independents who appear firmly committed to not voting for him in November if he becomes the nominee.

It’s an issue that became starkly apparent in polling ahead of the Iowa caucuses, when an
NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll
of voters in that state found that fully 43 percent of Nikki Haley supporters said they would back President Joe Biden over Trump. And it’s a dynamic that has been on vivid display as the campaign shifted this week to New Hampshire.

“I can’t vote for Trump. He’s a crook. He’s too corrupt,” said Scott Simeone, 64, an independent voter from Amherst, who backed Trump in 2016 and 2020. “I voted for him, and I didn’t realize he’s as corrupt as he is.”

Primary elections can create intra-party divisions that, in the moment, seem impossible to heal. In 2008, a bloc of Hillary Clinton supporters started the PUMA (Party Unity My Ass) movement as a threat to never back Barack Obama after that bruising primary. Bernie Sanders’ supporters vowed to never support Clinton eight years later. In 2016, Trump himself faced pushback to his nomination all the way up to the convention floor.

But 2024 is different. Trump is not making his pitch to voters as a first time candidate. He is a known quantity who is being judged by the electorate not for the conduct of his current campaign so much as his time in office. And that, political veterans warn, makes it much harder for him to win back the people he’s alienated, including those once willing to vote Republican.

The data supports the idea that there are problems ahead for the former president. Even before the Iowa survey, a
New York Times/Siena College poll
found that — including independents who say they lean toward one party over the other — Biden had slightly more support among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (91 percent) than Trump did among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents (86 percent).

That’s far from a majority of Republicans preparing to pass on Trump in November. But in a close election, it could be enough to tip the scales for Democrats. At a minimum, it is a major liability for the GOP should the party, as expected, push Trump through as its nominee.

“It would be a massively difficult hill to climb, without a doubt,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Haley endorser, told reporters of the party’s chances of winning New Hampshire in the general election with Trump on top of the ticket, when asked by POLITICO. “And he’s already proven that. He’s lost before and according to the polls he will lose even bigger this time.”

Sean Van Anglen, a prominent and early Trump supporter in the state who now plans to vote for Haley on Tuesday, said if Trump becomes the nominee, he might have to blank that line on his November ballot.

“I don’t think I can vote for Trump,” he said. “I vote in every election, I’ve never left a box blank. And I might have to this time.”

That sentiment was not uncommon among Republicans here this week, especially among voters who came out to see Haley, the former U.N. ambassador.

“I liked him. But he just scares me now. Everybody that has ever worked for him is not any more,” said Lisa Tracy, of Salem. If it came down to Biden versus Trump, she said, “I would go with Biden.”

These problems are not entirely unique to Republicans. Biden himself is grappling with a Democratic Party where a portion of voters have soured on him and are either leaning towards or threatening to vote for a third party candidate or stay home in November.

“We need to keep showing that it can’t just be two parties that no one fully agrees with,” said Michelle Greene, a 34-year-old registered independent from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who saw Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who is challenging the president in a primary, in Hampton on Sunday.

Greene said it’s “definitely a concern” that a third-party candidate might siphon off votes from Biden in November. But she also wasn’t sure if she’d vote for Biden again, after backing him in 2020, in a head-to-head Biden-Trump rematch, adding that she “morally can’t support the lesser of two evils.”

How big a universe these groups of disaffected voters are could go a long way in determining the next president. But there are signs that, among independents at least, Trump is bleeding.

In the
New York Times/Siena College poll
last month, Biden led Trump among all independents in the poll, 50 percent to 38 percent.

At a brief press scrum on Saturday before Trump took the stage at a rally, the former president’s top adviser Chris LaCivita downplayed the numbers out of Iowa. A campaign spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

But at events across the Granite state over the past week, surrogates for Trump have stressed the need for Republican reconciliation, depicting Biden’s presidency as an existential threat.

Sununu, for his part, said he was ready to back Trump should he end up being the party’s standard-bearer. While Biden is a “decent person,” Sununu said, “his team is so bad.”

But what was notable about his argument was that it was delivered under duress. Sununu was speaking to a voter who had cornered him while he wiped snow from his car in a parking lot outside a Haley rally. That voter had wanted to know how he could possibly turn around and cast a vote for Trump after being so openly critical of his governance. Others who attended the event agreed.

Curtis Thornbrugh, 81, an independent from Rindge, had voted for Barry Goldwater, Bob Dole, and both Bushes before casting his ballot for Obama twice and Biden in 2020 (he did not say how he voted in 2016). He was open to backing Haley in 2024 but couldn’t see himself supporting Trump.

“I can’t find anything good to say and I try,” he explained. “He’s dangerous and the people around him are, too.”

Forbes Farmer, 79, a fellow independent from Rindge, also went to view Haley in person at that event. He said he’d lean towards supporting her if she ran against Biden in November.

Could he back Trump should he prevail?

“No, never,” Farmer said. “I absolutely hate Trump.”

Elena Schneider and Lisa Kashinsky contributed to this report.


January 2024