CONCORD, New Hampshire—If Donald Trump ever had a chance of having his march to the Republican presidential nomination sidetracked, it was going to start in the fiercely independent state of New Hampshire.
In Tuesday’s primary election, Nikki Haley didn’t derail Trump’s campaign. She may not even keep the race within single digits. But she didn’t exactly lay down either.
Haley’s performance wasn’t exactly what she hoped for, and yet it also wasn’t exactly what Trump predicted either. Both candidates managed to sound disappointed Tuesday night—with Trump raging that Haley wouldn’t drop out, and Haley not hiding that the outcome was a bit of a blow. Either way, New Hampshire offered a split decision. Trump may have inched closer to the nomination, but Haley did well enough to survive—at least for now.
While the final results won’t be available until both candidates have left the state, at no point in the night did Haley manage to give Trump a scare. After the polls closed at 8 p.m., it only took a matter of minutes for the Associated Press to call the primary for Trump. The former president is currently up by about 12 points with 44% of New Hampshire reporting.
Speaking to supporters at her election night party in Concord shortly after the race was called for Trump, Haley acknowledged the loss, but vowed to remain in the race.
“New Hampshire is first in the nation,” Haley said. “It is not the last in the nation.”
“In the next two months, millions of voters in over 20 states will have their say. We should honor them and allow them to vote, and guess what, in the next two months, Joe Biden isn’t going to get any younger or any better,” she added.
The closer margin of defeat prompted the Haley campaign to project optimism.
“If it’s under 10 points, we’re fine,” a source close to the Haley campaign told The Daily Beast right after the AP called the race. Keeping the margin in single digits, they said, would allow Haley to live and fight another day.
Trump and his team will, of course, celebrate the win, but it’s far from the massive victory Trump was predicting Monday night. Indeed, Trump was already complaining about the result before polls had even closed, posting to his Truth Social account that it was “SO RIDICULOUS” that Democrats and independents are allowed to vote in the primary. (Registered Democrats are not allowed to vote in the primary.)
“BUT WORD IS WE ARE DOING REALLY WELL!!!” Trump nevertheless insisted.
In subsequent posts on social media—made after New Hampshire was called and Haley spoke—Trump continued to fume about his victory, exclaiming “DELUSIONAL!” in reference to his rival. “Haley said she had to WIN in New Hampshire. She didn’t!!!”
Onstage in front of a cheering crowd in Nashua later, Trump told several lies, but one stood out—that he wasn’t mad.
“I don’t get mad,” he said. “I get even.”
Trump’s decision to turn his victory speech into a score-settling exercise was a curious one. He could have emphasized his win and taken a more magnanimous tone like he did in Iowa. Instead, he focused on the slight of Haley continuing her campaign.
“She’s doing like a speech like she won,” he said. “She didn’t win. She lost.”
During his victory speech, Trump also provided an ominous “little note to Nikki.”
“She’s not gonna win,” he said. “But if she did, she would be under investigation by those people in 15 minutes, and I could tell you five reasons why already. Not big reasons, a little stuff that she doesn’t want to talk about. But she will be under investigation within minutes.”
Still, Trump’s focus on Haley’s management of expectations obscures that his own political operation has been hampered by his inability to temper the expected margins. On Monday night, he was bringing up polls showing him beating Haley by 40 and 50 points, predicting the numbers will be “higher even than what you’re seeing.”
While Trump won Tuesday night, it was clear the race was a lot closer than the huge victory he was personally predicting.
Still, Trump and his supporters used the victory to jack up the pressure on Haley to drop out. In comments given to Fox News after the race was called, the former president called on Haley to drop out. “If she doesn’t drop out,” Trump said, “we have to waste money instead of spending it on Biden, which is our focus.”
With polls showing him widening his lead in the final days of the primary campaign, the former president’s team increasingly framed the contest to voters as an opportunity to end the 2024 primary outright and move on to defeating President Joe Biden.
Haley invested heavily in New Hampshire, betting that her appeal to the state’s independent center-right voters could translate to a close electoral margin that would send a message that enough GOP voters still wanted a Trump alternative.
While the former South Carolina governor and her top allies—namely, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu—seemed to inflate expectations for her performance before tamping them back down again, Haley clearly notched the “strong second” Sununu predicted in order to continue justifying her campaign into the next phase of the primary calendar.
Having demonstrated at least some strength, Haley is preparing for the primary in her home state of South Carolina on Feb. 24, where several polls show Trump with a commanding lead.
At the Haley campaign watch party in Concord, nearly two dozen camera rigs lined the back of the ballroom as her supporters nervously milled about.
Notably for a Republican campaign soiree, CNN was the preferred cable network across the big screens, not Fox News, which played on big screens at Haley’s caucus night party in Iowa. As the calls came in, however, the mood quickly soured. Eventually, the Haley team turned off the CNN feed in the main hall and prepared supporters to hear Haley speak around 8:15 p.m.
While Haley’s tone certainly wasn’t victorious, it also wasn’t defeated. Her performance, in her campaign’s mind at least, was at least enough to move forward with the primary in her home state of South Carolina on Feb. 24, where several polls show Trump with a commanding lead.
Although Haley’s campaign boasted in a pre-primary memo that “we aren’t going anywhere” and vowed to compete deep into the primary calendar, the big question is whether they will be able to raise the funds needed to sustain a campaign after a good, but not great, outcome in New Hampshire.
In the memo, Haley campaign manager Betsy Ankney talked up Haley’s chances in her home state, arguing that she has delivered unexpected victories there before. They also argued that the slate of 15 states voting on March 5 for Super Tuesday—like Minnesota, Virginia, Texas, and North Carolina—offer Haley plenty of room to pick up delegates and make the primary a real competition.
“We’ve heard multiple members of the press say New Hampshire is ‘the best it’s going to get’ for Nikki due to Independents and unaffiliated voters being able to vote in the Republican primary,” Haley campaign manager Betsy Ankney wrote in her Tuesday pre-election memo.
“The reality is that the path through Super Tuesday includes more states than not that have this dynamic… Until then, everyone should take a deep breath. The campaign has not even begun in any of these states yet.”
“See y’all in South Carolina,” the memo signed off.
No matter how well she did in New Hampshire, Haley was always going to face calls to drop out from Trump and a GOP establishment that has already begun to line up behind him. And despite the Haley camp’s bluster, the Super Tuesday states are something of a MAGA firewall, offering a number of inherent advantages to the former president.
That consolidation was on clear display in the final days of a New Hampshire primary campaign that has been conspicuously muted and lethargic compared to the unpredictable, high-energy primary seasons of the past.
In the wake of Trump’s dominant performance in the Iowa caucus, MAGA-aligned upstart Vivek Ramaswamy dropped out and immediately started campaigning for Trump in New Hampshire. Dealt a fatal blow by a distant second place finish in Iowa, Ron DeSantis ended his campaign on Sunday and quickly issued a reluctant endorsement of Trump.
At his final rally in New Hampshire on Monday night, Trump brought out a cavalcade of fallen primary rivals—Ramaswamy, Sen. Tim Scott, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum—on stage to hype up the crowd.
“If you want the race to be over tomorrow,” Scott called out to the crowd, “let me hear you scream!”
The crowd did, but the race will endure—at least for another day.
—Jake Lahut contributed reporting from CONCORD.