MANCHESTER, NH – Once upon a time there was a chance to make a breakthrough in New Hampshire, for the moderates, the mavericks and the underdogs in presidential politics.
Former Senator John McCain, an independent-leaning Republican, revived his bloodless campaign with a victory in the state’s first presidential primary in 2008. Bill Clinton, a centrist Democrat from Arkansas, became the “comeback kid” by running here in 1992 expectations were exceeded. And little-known Georgia peanut farmer Jimmy Carter would claim the presidency after winning the state’s 1976 Democratic primary.
But this year, New Hampshire’s most important tradition may be little more than a fairytale, as the presidential field largely overlooks the Granite State.
Democratic officials, who have aligned themselves with President Joe Biden, have already done thatin favor of South Carolina. And the crowded Republican field is focusing its money, time and attention on Iowa, betting that the Midwestern state’s religious conservatives will most likely help them stop former President Donald Trump’s march toward the Republican nomination.
This weekend alone, no fewer than eight Republican White House hopefuls are coming to Iowa for the annual meeting of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. It’s the third multi-candidate meeting in the state in two months, while New Hampshire has yet to host one.
The shift toward Iowa, which will host the nation’s first presidential election on Jan. 15, shortly before the first New Hampshire primary, began in recent years as the national Republican Party lurched to the right. But as New Hampshire’s prominence continues to fade in 2024, it’s unclear whether there will be enough oxygen or opportunity for anyone to emerge as a serious Trump challenger in the state best known for its political turmoil.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the most aggressively anti-Trump Republican in the race, is the only GOP White House candidate campaigning in New Hampshire as of Monday. He spends the vast majority of his time in the Granite State – and South Carolina, to a lesser extent.
“There are a lot of people competing hard in Iowa, and not as many people competing hard in New Hampshire,” Christie said in an interview. “I think it’s a mistake and I think I’m going to take advantage of it.”
He acknowledged Trump’s strength within the Republican base but suggested the former president ultimately cannot create the broad coalition likely needed to defeat Biden next November.
“If the candidate is Donald Trump, we are going to lose the general election. And I think that’s tragic for the country and for our party, but I think it’s completely avoidable,” Christie said. “But if it starts, it starts here.”
Republican officials in New Hampshire are even more willing than most to speak out against Trump.
Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has spoken out strongly against Trump and is trying to boost his rivals. Former GOP chair Jennifer Horn is a fierce Trump critic. And former New Hampshire Republican National Committeeman Steve Duprey endorsed Biden over Trump in 2020.
In an interview, Sununu admitted that Trump is dominating the race, but emphasized that the majority of Republican primaries remain open to someone else.
“People are clearly looking for an alternative,” Sununu said. “There’s a lot of opportunity for that alternative – I’m not saying he’s more moderate – I think it’s just a new generation of conservative leadership.”
The evolving dynamic between Iowa and New Hampshire underlines a growing tension within a Republican Party that must ultimately appeal to both the conservative base and the moderates and independents who play an outsized role in the general election. The presidential caucuses in Iowa tend to include the most conservative Republican voters, especially evangelical Christians. New Hampshire, however, hosts “open” primaries in which voters can participate regardless of party affiliation.
Marc Colcombe, a 63-year-old Republican voter from Hillsborough, New Hampshire, said he is looking for a presidential candidate who “understands that everyone has something good to offer and who nurtures relationships and brings everyone together.”
Colcombe, a former Trump supporter, says he is now deeply concerned that no one appears to be a viable alternative to the divisive former president. He shared his fears this week at a Christie appearance at a local brewery, which might have attracted as many press as voters.
“You have to put your ego aside and do what’s right,” Colcombe said. “Trump can’t do that because his ego governs everything he does.”
And while there is real opposition to Trump in New Hampshire, his rivals are spending most of their time and money on Iowa for the foreseeable future.
Republican presidential candidates and their allies have set aside nearly $30 million for TV, radio and online ads in Iowa, compared with $19 million in New Hampshire for the period from Sunday through the first phase of the campaign, according to an AP analysis of AdImpact data. The difference in spending has been consistent since Trump launched his campaign last fall. As of Friday, Republican candidates and their allies have already spent $38 million on ads in Iowa, compared to less than $23 million in New Hampshire.
Meanwhile, Christie had New Hampshire to herself this week. In the same seven-day period, eight GOP candidates made at least 32 separate appearances in Iowa.
Former Vice President Mike Pence appeared at more than a dozen public events in Iowa this week. Conservative entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy made three stops in Iowa alone on Thursday. Both Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott were scheduled to make at least three stops of their own in Iowa this weekend. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was scheduled to appear there at least twice.
There are exceptions to the trend.
Haley, who may be more popular with the establishment wing of her party than with the grassroots, has split her time evenly between New Hampshire and Iowa.
She is in the middle of her 10th trip to Iowa, where she will attend 44 campaign events, according to spokesperson Nachama Soloveichik. Haley has hosted another 49 events in New Hampshire across nine separate trips, although a 10th is planned next week.
“Our team is committed to both Iowa and New Hampshire because Nikki is campaigning for every vote,” Soloveichik said. “No one will beat Nikki Haley.”
DeSantis, who has cast himself as Trump’s main rival, has increasingly turned his focus to Iowa as he struggles for momentum. After this weekend, Florida’s governor will have made 23 appearances in New Hampshire, compared to 70 in Iowa, spokesman Andrew Romeo said. He said DeSantis is not ignoring New Hampshire after he attended a Fourth of July celebration and unveiled his economic policies.
For Ramaswamy, who battled DeSantis for second place in the primary, Wednesday night’s rally in Davenport marked his 100th event in Iowa, spokesperson Tricia McLaughlin said. He hosted 65 events in New Hampshire, including two last Sunday.
Despite the Iowa bias, McLaughlin noted that Ramaswamy has multiple county chairmen for every county and nearly 50 municipal chairmen in New Hampshire.
Veteran New Hampshire Republican strategist Mike Dennehy noted that the shift toward Iowa, which began in the recent election, coincides with the Republican Party’s shift to the right.
“For better or worse, the candidates running for president are more conservative than in years past. To be completely honest, I’m not sure George W. Bush would fit into this field,” Dennehy said, underscoring the party’s political challenge in the years ahead. general elections of the year. “Republicans need to win over moderate to right-wing Republicans who are not evangelical voters or are not far-right conservative voters. … New Hampshire plays a critical role for that purpose.”
And despite New Hampshire’s legendary role as a launching pad for underdogs, Dennehy is skeptical there will be a happy ending for Trump’s rivals in 2024.
“I wouldn’t bet on anything right now — except Trump winning,” he said.