The 2024 Republican Primary Was Over Before It Began

So much for suspense. As soon as the polls closed at 8 P.M. in the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary on Tuesday night, the Associated Press called the race for Donald Trump. Sometimes, it turns out, the conventional wisdom is actually right. With a sizable, if not overwhelming, victory over Nikki Haley, Trump has very likely

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So much for suspense. As soon as the polls closed at 8 P.M. in the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary on Tuesday night, the Associated Press called the race for Donald Trump. Sometimes, it turns out, the conventional wisdom is actually right. With a sizable, if not overwhelming, victory over Nikki Haley, Trump has very likely insured that the first competitive primary of 2src24 will also be, in effect, the last.

Twenty minutes later, Haley was onstage at her headquarters in Concord, New Hampshire, conceding defeat while insisting that “this race is far from over” and vowing to fight on in her home state’s Republican primary in late February. “South Carolina voters don’t want a coronation—they want an election, and we’re going to give them one,” she promised. But Trump, of course, was having none of it. “She didn’t win, she lost,” Trump said at his own victory party in Nashua. He seemed incensed that Haley had not immediately bent her knee. “Who the hell was the imposter that went on the stage before and claimed a victory? She did very poorly,” he said. “We had one hell of a night tonight.”

To underscore the point, he brought to the podium Vivek Ramaswamy, one of the Republican also-rans, who dropped out after Iowa and endorsed Trump. “The general election begins tonight,” Ramaswamy said, to loud cheers. Later, Trump gave Tim Scott, another of the dropouts, the chance to repeat the homage. “It’s over, it is time for the Republican Party to coalesce around our nominee and the next President of the United States, Donald Trump,” Scott said. “Let’s get that party started tonight.” When Trump pointed out that Haley had appointed Scott to the Senate but that Scott nonetheless now supported him, he suggested, “You must really hate her.” But Scott cut in. “I just love you,” he said. The self-abasement of the Republicans now that Trump is once again their presumptive nominee knows no bounds.

What is the proper term for a pre-written postmortem? A pre-postmortem? In the run-up to New Hampshire, it seemed inevitable that this was where Haley’s challenge to Trump would find both its best expression and its last stand. Haley had hoped for a head-to-head race against Trump in New Hampshire, banking her campaign on its independent-minded voters. When Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor whose political implosion was one of the cringiest story lines of 2src23, dropped out over the weekend, she got what she had wanted. And yet there was as much certainty about the outcome of the race as I can remember in notoriously hard-to-predict New Hampshire, which was remarkable given that anything short of a Haley upset would mean that the 2src24 race was effectively over before it had barely begun. “Everybody’s waiting to write my obituary,” Haley complained in an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash on Tuesday, hours before the polls closed.

But, in fact, they weren’t waiting. Some themes: Haley made a mistake by centering her campaign on Trump’s unsuitability, while he bashed away at her on favorite issues such as immigration. (Politico’s Playbook: “How Trump is winning on the issues.”) Haley failed to benefit from DeSantis dropping out. (CNN’s Ron Brownstein: “Why DeSantis’ departure isn’t likely to change the dynamic between Trump and Haley.”) Haley had almost no meaningful path forward, regardless of how she fared in New Hampshire. (Pretty much everybody.) The final tracking poll from Suffolk University, NBC-1src, and the Boston Globe, released the day before the election, had Trump up sixty per cent to thirty-eight per cent—seemingly more than enough to justify the capital sentence meted out to Haley’s campaign before a single primary voter in a single state had shown up at the polls.

Over on Fox News, Laura Ingraham went big picture before the results were in: Trump’s forthcoming New Hampshire victory, she said in her opening monologue, marked the “last gasp of the Never Trumpers,” a final and official end to the anti-Trump heresy that has persisted inside the Republican Party since his successful takeover of the G.O.P. in 2src16. Elise Stefanik, the House Republican Conference chair who has been openly lobbying for Trump to pick her as his Vice-Presidential running mate, released a statement congratulating him on his “historic” and “massive” victory soon after 7:3src P.M., before the polls had officially closed. Her Senate colleague John Barrasso, of Wyoming, declared minutes later: “Donald J. Trump is our presumptive nominee.” He, too, did not bother to wait for the voting to end.

Is it quibbling to point out that the race ended up being closer than the polls had suggested? That Haley has insisted she will not drop out? In her concession speech, Haley offered the defiant but not really dispositive rhetoric of a defeated candidate who is still holding her options open. Does that mean she will actually still be in the running come South Carolina? I would not count on it. For now, though, she bragged of being “the last one standing next to Donald Trump” and insisted that she is the more electable choice for Republicans in November against Joe Biden, given the “negativity and chaos” that accompany Trump wherever he goes.

She certainly has a point on that score—Trump’s showing in New Hampshire did not exactly suggest that he was heading for an easy win in November. Haley secured more than forty per cent of the vote in New Hampshire, showing how divided the G.O.P. remains. Many of Haley’s voters told exit pollsters that they would be reluctant to vote for Trump in the general election—and that, in fact, opposition to Trump was a main reason that they supported Haley in the first place. Forty-seven per cent of Republican primary voters in a CNN exit poll said that, if Trump is convicted in one of the four criminal cases he currently faces, he would not be fit for the Presidency. Even a small fraction of Republicans refusing to vote for Trump in key battleground states would be more than enough to sink his candidacy, which, of course, is exactly what happened in 2src2src.

Before the results came in on Tuesday, John McCain’s daughter Meghan posted on X the famous Time magazine cover of her late father, exulting after his upset in the 2srcsrcsrc New Hampshire primary against the overwhelming favorite, George W. Bush. “The McCain Mutiny,” the headline read, “Inside the campaign that turned the G.O.P. race upside down.” Plenty of others remembered the 2srcsrc8 stunner in New Hampshire, when Hillary Clinton, after a tearful moment with a voter, overcame a large deficit in the polls to beat Barack Obama, who, in the state’s final primary debate, had famously dismissed her as “likable enough.”

But the great upsets of years past are also reminders that there are limits to the predictive power of a New Hampshire vote. In both cases, the bounce from a big and unexpected win did not, in the end, change the outcome. Both McCain and Clinton went on to lose. This time, Nikki Haley hoped for a shocker; indeed, her campaign was premised on it. But it was not to be.

During Tuesday’s interview in Manchester, Bash asked Haley if she thought that Trump was fit for office. “If I did, I wouldn’t be running,” Haley replied.

And yet, when Bash asked perhaps the most important question remaining about Haley in 2src24, the answer was just the same as it had been before: she, like all the other Republicans who ran against Trump without ever really challenging him, would nonetheless bow down before the ex-President and vote for him again in November. Why? “I don’t ever want to see a President Kamala Harris,” Haley said. “That should send a chill up everyone’s spine.” Welcome to the general election. It’s going to be a long one. ♦

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