Live From New Hampshire
Bring extra wool socks
Bedford, NH -- The scene at Bedford High School is orderly but very crowded, requiring repeated requests from town moderator Brian Shaughnessy to curve the line of waiting voters round the corners and down hallways, creating a centipede-like chain of puffy coats and Timberlands chattering politely about how they've never seen so many people this time of day. The concerns about apathy after the low turnout in Iowa seems utterly absent here, formerly a Republican stronghold that has trended more Democrat in recent years, and the crowd of sign waving Nikki Haley supporters outside is chanting happily at the handful of Trump supporters, who are quieter and more grim.
Residents who are voting for Nikki seem ready and happy to talk about her -- but those voting for Trump are less so, speaking in quieter tones and sometimes refusing to give their names. "I wish he would just shut up sometimes," Dennis tells me, echoing most of the supporters here. "Sometimes I wish they'd just take his phone away." But Tyler, a divorced father of three and a fan of Jordan Peterson, thinks that's part of Trump's appeal. "Even if I want him to stop with the name calling, maybe that ego is why he succeeds where the other ones get chewed up by the media."
"I hope New Hampshire sends a message," says Grace, a sign-waver and longtime resident who encourages me to check out Nikki's stump speech. "It's good for our democracy to have a real, honest competition." She at least wants her to stay in until Super Tuesday, "just to give people a choice."
Others are less enthused. As Governor Chris Sununu arrives in his smart q-zip, his ever-pleasant demeanors survives despite the loud, pink clad woman who seizes his arm to declare she's voting for Haley despite one concern: "She said she would pardon Trump! I don't want him pardoned, I want him in jail! Or in an asylum where he belongs!" "Well, we'll cross that bridge when we get to it," Sununu says, before an aide swiftly guides him away.
When Haley arrives, her fashionable camel coat standing out amidst the puffy jackets, the press corp descends like a throng of obnoxious uncaring microphone waving drones, silently elbowing their way around voters to shove cameras in as the candidate takes selfies with eager fans and staffers demand they leave a lane for voters. Haley is a practiced expert at this by now: always smiling, deftly kneeling for younger fans, applauding the resistance to cold to make democracy happen.
If you saw this scene play out, you might think this is a competitive election. But even among her supporters, many admit that they don't expect her to win tonight. "She'll keep it close," Jennifer Nassour tells me -- the former GOP chairwoman of Massachusetts when Scott Brown pulled off his upset Senate win, she's familiar with long odds. "The really important thing is that we don't let voices in the Trump camp and the media figures who are in the tank for him call this election before more voices are heard. That's not fair and balanced."
Haley’s campaign manager, Betsy Ankney, sounds a similar tone, hugging a Dunkin Donuts cup close to warm her hands. "We're staying in this thing," she says emphatically, referencing her memo released this morning in clear expectation of calls to get out after a Trump victory.
And the truth is, why would Haley get out? Her situation is notably different than Ron DeSantis', who seemed headed toward an embarrassing collapse in his home state and on Super Tuesday. Haley has better math and a better map, and the vibes are far better than the dragged across concrete feel of the waning days of DeSantis. But one of her campaign volunteers tells me that as far as he's concerned, keeping it to single digits would be a huge win: "We're up against an incumbent, and we're the last ones standing, and we think the fight is important." Even if it's one they won't ultimately win? "Even then."
The big question that every New Hampshire personality is ready to answer, expecting it before each conversation with an out-of-state journalist, is some form of “will your state still matter after this?” The absence of a truly competitive primary nags at them, and local officials bristle at the notion that in this new era of celebrity politics, where approaches are measured in virality and meme potential, the old skills of glad-handing at small-town gatherings is declining into a memory.
“They’ll be back,” Chris Ager, the New Hampshire Republican Party chairman, tells me. “This is a special place, and it’s not going anywhere.” But there will definitely be a push for a more representative primary schedule in the coming years, and he seems well aware of it — one reason the party needs Republicans to have more success in the coming years, given how Democratic their cohort has become. Kelly Ayotte, the one-time senator now campaigning for governor, is the kind of national voice they need to keep their relevance, lest they drift into the long list of purple states turned bright blue.
The problem for New Hampshire is that it is out of step with the overall trajectory of the GOP electorate. It is one of the top ten states in per capita income, and by many measures one of the least churched and most secular. The strain of individualist libertarianism that spawned the Free State Project seemed well at home in the GOP a decade ago now comes across as anachronistic in the post-Tea Party era. For a Republican Party that is increasingly diverse, working-class and more of the “beer and church” than “wine and country club” set, different states might have more appeal.
Yet for Nikki Haley, this place’s unique potential provides probably her best shot at an outright win. If she stumbles and falls short despite her natural advantages in a place with so many unaffiliated voters, it will say something, too — that the country, for better or worse, truly recognizes the GOP for the entity it is: a vehicle for Donald Trump and his acolytes, both real and pretend. And even if she can pull it out tonight, in the long term, there are no doubts about that.