MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — Donald Trump thumped Nikki Haley in New Hampshire — but anti-Trump Republicans are hardly upset about it.
Even after Trump went two-for-two in the early nominating contests, the non-Trump movement sees increasingly positive signs that the former president can be beat in November.
Polls and exit surveys from Iowa and New Hampshire show swaths of the Republican electorate cast ballots specifically against Trump — and would refuse to vote for him in November. Independents who helped hand Trump a general election loss in 2020 helped fuel record turnout in New Hampshire’s GOP primary. And Trump didn’t make major strides in either state in the highly educated areas where he was weakest in 2016.
“It was definitely not a good night for Donald Trump,” Mike Madrid, a California GOP strategist and co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, said.
“By most metrics, the path to [stopping Trump] has become much clearer,” Madrid said. “The anti-Trump lane is discernible. It’s palpable. It’s big. It’s something that we can work with in a real, meaningful way.”
On the surface, the results from Iowa and New Hampshire look just plain bad for the anti-Trump movement. A former president facing 91 criminal charges and splitting his time between the courtroom and the campaign trail won over 50 percent of the vote in both states. In New Hampshire, where the GOP field quickly shrunk to two, independent voters, whose exit polls showed broke overwhelmingly for Haley, were trumped by Trump’s GOP base.
The next two contests offer even less hope for impeding Trump’s march toward the nomination. Haley is not competing for delegates in Nevada. And Trump leads her by double digits in polls of her home state of South Carolina.
Leaders of the effort to warn voters about a second Trump term say that focusing on the primary is a lost cause. They argue that Trump’s nomination is inevitable and that the focus should shift — now — to trying to defeat him in the general election.
“It’s all doom and gloom in the primary,” said Charlie Sykes, a conservative Wisconsin political commentator. “But this has been predictable for a long time now.”
Trump’s detractors point to data from Iowa and New Hampshire that show some warning signs for Trump, particularly among independents and more moderate Republicans. In New Hampshire, 64 percent of undeclared voters sided with Haley, according to exit polls.
NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll of voters in Iowa found that 43 percent of Haley supporters said they would back President Joe Biden over Trump.
And in New Hampshire, 46 percent of GOP primary voters said they would be dissatisfied if Trump became the GOP nominee, and 35 percent said they
would not vote for him in November.
Exit polls also showed four out of 10 people who cast a ballot for Haley in New Hampshire said they did so
out of distaste for Trump. And 94 percent of Haley’s voters said they would be
dissatisfied if Trump won the nomination.
That significant chunks of voters from two disparate (though still overwhelmingly white) electorates showed similar resistance to Trump is encouraging to both Sykes and Madrid.
“Looking at these numbers and Trump’s general approval [ratings] amongst Republicans and also election results from the last three elections, they are all pointing in a direction of getting worse for Trump — not better,” Madrid said.
Fergus Cullen, a “Never Trump” Republican and former New Hampshire Republican Party chair who voted for Haley on Tuesday, called those statistics “the best result from yesterday.”
Citing the 35 percent of voters who said they wouldn’t vote for Trump in the general election, Cullen said, “Imagine if 35 percent of GOP elected officials said the same thing. … Those of us who oppose Trump may not be able to prevent his renomination, but we should be able to prevent him from winning a general.”
Still, Trump has defied political gravity before, and many Trump critics after he left office once believed he was unlikely to win renomination. Cullen said Trump “does have some ability to find new voters and expand the electorate.”
Even though Biden and Trump have declared the general election effectively underway, Haley has not. The former South Carolina governor has vowed to continue through Super Tuesday, where her campaign argues a slate of open and semi-open primaries will give her a fighting chance.
And some Never Trumpers aren’t ready to look ahead to the general election yet. They want her to keep going.
“There’s tons and tons of ammunition for her to make the case that [Trump] is unfit to be president,” said Gordon Humphrey, a former U.S. senator from New Hampshire who left the party after Trump won the nomination in 2016 and supported Haley in Tuesday’s primary.
Yet Sean Van Anglen, a New Hampshire political consultant who was an early supporter of Trump in 2016 but voted for Haley this time, is already moving on. Van Anglen, who said he’d consider leaving the presidential line blank on his November ballot rather than vote for Trump or Biden, is looking to put together an effort to aid down-ballot Republicans who he believes could suffer with Trump again at the top of the ticket.
“We need to let the toddler run his temper tantrum out,” Van Anglen said. “Then let the adults come back into the room and take back control of our party and our country.”
Jessica Piper and Steve Shepard contributed to this report.