New Hampshire primary takeaways: Trump demands the GOP unify, papering over his vulnerabilities

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump scored decisive victories Tuesday in New Hampshire’s primaries, with both aiming to move confidently into general election mode.

Even so, questions remain, though there are fewer for Democrats. A Biden write-in campaign — he skipped New Hampshire in a conflict over the 2024 primary order — easily defeated an energetic and well-funded challenge from Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota.

On the Republican side, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley vowed to continue, much to the chagrin of Trump and his allies. She’s going forward with a sharp focus on South Carolina, where she used to be governor — but where Trump is seen as the front-runner.

Here are the biggest takeaways from New Hampshire primary night — from Trump and the future of the Republican Party to the declining influence of local endorsements and more.

Trump increases the pressure to end the primary campaign

Trump became the first nonincumbent Republican presidential candidate to win both Iowa and New Hampshire, and he won both races by double digits.

Trump and his allies are wielding the historical first as a clear sign that the 2024 primary campaign should be coming to an end. Yes, a significant proportion of the GOP electorate has been looking for a Trump alternative. But it so far hasn’t been able to come close to toppling him.

“We have to do what’s right for our party,” Trump said at his election night party in Nashua.

Of course, it’s to be expected that Trump would urge his opponents to stop opposing him. More notably, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel essentially told NBC News in a statement before New Hampshire polls closed Tuesday that, should Trump earn a substantial victory, it would be time for the party to coalesce formally around him. Several GOP lawmakers have suggested the same.

“If President Trump comes out strong tonight, that’s a clear message being sent by our primary voters,” McDaniel said in her statement earlier Tuesday, adding that former rivals had endorsed Trump and that “Republicans know that if we’re not united as a party behind our nominee we won’t be able to beat Biden.”

But Haley, in her post-election speech Tuesday, pledged to fight on and carry her campaign into South Carolina, which hosts its primary late next month.

A warning sign for Trump

Even though he pulled out a victory over Haley on Tuesday night, there are some general election warning signs in the result for Trump.

First and foremost: his performance with self-identified “moderates,” who tend to be the swing voters in critical swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and, yes, even New Hampshire come November.

NBC News exit polling found that while Trump won self-identified Republicans by 49 points, he lost independents by 24 points — and the makeup of the primary was fairly evenly split between the two groups. Self-identified moderates, 29% of the electorate, backed Haley by a whopping 51 points over Trump, while he won conservatives by 42 points.

Meanwhile, just 13% of Haley voters said they would be “satisfied” with Trump’s winning the GOP nomination, while 86% of her voters said he wouldn’t be fit to serve as president should he be convicted of a crime.

Not all of Haley’s supporters now were Trump supporters in 2020. And Greg Moore, the regional director for Americans for Prosperity Action, a conservative group that endorsed Haley, told reporters Friday that he thinks the “raw reality” of a two-candidate matchup will see many unhappy Republicans come home to Trump.

But NBC News spoke with several voters at Haley events who said they couldn’t get themselves to vote for Trump in the fall should he win the nomination — including some who previously voted for him.

Donna Dostie, a Haley supporter from Hooksett, said she liked Trump’s policies but voted for Biden in 2020 after having backed Trump in 2016 because of the “chaos” he “brought to our country.”

She said she would write in Haley this fall should the election be a rematch between Biden and Trump.

“Trump makes me nervous,” she said. “He really does. I think he’s a dangerous man.”

These voters don’t make Trump nervous, though. Addressing a question from NBC News earlier Tuesday about winning back some of them, he wasn’t too worried.

“They’re going to all vote for me again,” he said. “I’m not sure we need too many. I’m not sure. I think that Biden is the worst president in the history of this country. But we’re going to all come back. They’re all coming back. And I think you see that.”

Governors don’t guarantee a win

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu felt so strongly that Trump shouldn’t be the Republican nominee that both put their political capital on the line to step out against the most powerful figure in their party, endorse other candidates and aggressively campaign for them.

Reynolds’ backing of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was hardly a difference-maker. DeSantis finished a distant second to Trump in the Iowa caucuses, which he once vowed he would win. (Trump spent the hours before the vote stewing over Reynolds’ snub and foreshadowing potential retribution.)

Sununu’s endorsement had a far more tangible effect on the race in New Hampshire. Haley pulled away from former New Jersey Gov. Christie in the polls and established herself as the clear alternative to Trump. Christie, who had a New Hampshire-or-bust strategy, dropped out two weeks ago, giving Haley a chance to close the gap with Trump.

Sununu, a four-term governor who won re-election bids despite keeping a wide political distance from Trump, threw himself into Haley’s campaign. The two were practically inseparable in the final days. But Sununu, who a month ago predicted a Haley “landslide,” began lowering expectations, asserting that losing to Trump wouldn’t be fatal to her White House bid.

Haley’s loss isn’t on Sununu. His endorsement gave her a boost when she needed one, just not a boost to a majority of New Hampshire Republican voters. In a binary of Trump vs. Not Trump — and Sununu, though he is popular in his state, is very much Not Trump — Trump still wins.

Democrats are still with Biden

Despite all the Democratic hand-wringing about Biden’s prospects against Trump, despite all the polls showing Americans unhappy with a Biden-Trump rematch and despite Biden’s age and vulnerabilities, Biden just won a comfortable margin as a write-in candidate in New Hampshire’s unsanctioned Democratic primary.

Biden didn’t even make it to New Hampshire in his first two presidential runs, in 1988 and 2008, before he finished fifth in the state in 2020, but this time he’s on track to win around two-thirds of Democratic votes in the state, almost 50 points ahead of the competition, even though his name wasn’t actually on the ballot.

That’s not too far off the 81% President Barack Obama got in New Hampshire in 2012, when he ran for re-election without notable Democratic opposition (and with his name on the ballot). And Biden appears on track to get more raw votes than Obama did that year, thanks to higher turnout this time.

Phillips is a credible and well-funded candidate, smooth on the stump and a quarter-century Biden’s junior. He went all in on New Hampshire and doggedly argued that Biden is “unelectable” and experiencing “decline.” And he easily outspent the Biden write-in campaign, which didn’t run a single TV ad.

But New Hampshire Democrats opted to go with Biden anyway, while Phillips is running close to the unambitious goal he set for himself, of finishing with more than 20% of the vote.

Phillips is worth somewhere north of $100 million, so he can most likely continue his campaign as long as he likes, and he has already signed up for an event in South Carolina this weekend. And Biden still has work to do to bring unhappy elements of his base back into the fold. But barring some kind of major, surprising outside event, the rest of the world besides Phillips is likely to move on to general election mode.

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