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Trump’s poor showing among independent voters gives Biden renewed hope

The former president swept the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary among his own party base, but he is still scaring away more moderate voters

Donald Trump greets his supporters outside Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York on January 26.
Donald Trump greets his supporters outside Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York on January 26.EDUARDO MUNOZ (REUTERS)
Miguel Jiménez

Donald Trump has defeated Ron DeSantis in Iowa and Nikki Haley in New Hampshire. He has beaten his two rivals in the Republican Party primaries in what appeared to be their most promising turf. Everything indicates that he will easily clinch his party’s nomination for the presidential race. But just as the Iowa caucus victory was a landslide and left no doubt about his strength, the New Hampshire primary victory raises some concerns for the former president. The way independent voters have turned their backs on him and favored Haley makes the latter right when she questions Trump’s chances of beating incumbent Joe Biden in the November 5 election. Biden’s popularity is low and at the moment Trump is ahead in the polls.

In Haley’s speech on Tuesday night, when barely 20% of the votes had been counted, the former ambassador to the U.N. and former governor of South Carolina attacked Trump on that flank. She recalled that, with him as leader, the Republicans have lost almost every competitive election. “We lost the Senate. We lost the House. We lost the White House. We lost in 2018. We lost in 2020 and we lost in 2022. The worst-kept secret in politics is how eager Democrats are to run against Donald Trump. They know Trump is the only Republican in the country Joe Biden can beat. You can’t fix the mess if you don’t win an election. A Trump nomination is a Biden victory and a Kamala Harris presidency,” said Haley, who has vowed to keep fighting for the nomination despite GOP maneuvers to proclaim Trump the virtual winner.

The former president did especially well in the more conservative areas of New Hampshire, while Haley won in the more progressive sections. The candidate only edged Trump in Democratic-leaning cities and towns such as Concord, Keene and Portsmouth. The New Hampshire primary is semi-open. Undeclared voters, i.e., those who are not registered as either Republicans or Democrats, can choose to vote in either party’s primary. This attracts voters to participate who are not necessarily loyal to either party.

Primary exit polls conducted on Election Day showed a stark contrast between the support Trump received from voters registered as Republicans and those who do not subscribe to either party, and who turned out for Haley. According to AP VoteCast, an exit poll of the state’s electorate, Trump won 65% of the Republican vote to Haley’s 29%. Haley, on the other hand, won 60% of independents, compared to Trump’s 33%. The candidate also beat Trump among those with a college degree. Among the electorate as a whole, the victory was 54.3%-43.2% in favor of the former president.

That brings Trump both good news and bad news. The good news is that he is almost assured of the nomination. There are a few other states with open or semi-open primaries like New Hampshire, but in most, independents cannot participate in Republican ballots and among party voters, Trump’s dominance is overwhelming. Moreover, his initial double victory seems to pave his way. “When you win Iowa and you win New Hampshire, there’s never been a loss, so we’re not going to be the first, I can tell you that,” Trump said in his speech assessing the results, in which he was angry that Haley did not drop out of the race.

The bad news for Trump from that low support among independents is that he will have a hard time getting elected against Biden in November. The thesis of eligibility has been one of the keys of Haley’s campaign, especially with the four indictments for 91 alleged crimes that weigh on the former president. Added to that are the civil lawsuits, such as the one that led him to be sentenced this Friday to pay $83.3 million for defaming columnist E. Jean Carroll.

Half of Republicans are worried

“Don’t complain about what happens in November if you’re not going to vote tomorrow,” Haley told attendees at her closing campaign rally. About half of GOP primary voters say they are very or somewhat worried that Trump is too extreme to win the presidential election, according to AP VoteCast.

Interestingly, Trump dropped one of his hoaxes (or had one of his lapses) when referring precisely to his election results in New Hampshire: “You know we’ve won New Hampshire three times, now three times. We won it every time. We won the primaries. We won the presidential. We won it and it’s a very, very special place for me,” he said in his appearance Tuesday night. Indeed, while his victory in the 2016 primary was vital for him, he then lost in the presidential race in that state to both Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020. New Hampshire has a Republican governor, showing that someone more moderate can prevail against the Democrats. That governor, Chris Sununu, has campaigned tirelessly for Haley.

Biden, meanwhile, interprets the New Hampshire primary results as a clear sign that he will face Trump again in November, as he did in 2020. The president won the Democratic primary in that state, despite not appearing on the ballot as a result of a party dispute over the electoral calendar.

In a statement, the president thanked those who voted for him by writing in his name on the ballots and called on independent and Republican voters who reject Trump to support his campaign. “My message to the country is that the stakes could not be higher. Our democracy. Our personal freedoms, from the right to choose to the right to vote. Our economy, which has experienced the strongest recovery in the world since Covid. Everything is at stake,” he said.

The bad news for him is that the 81-year-old Biden himself scares off many voters. A Gallup poll released Thursday noted that in the third year of his term, his approval rating has been only 39.8%, the lowest since Jimmy Carter’s 37.4% for a first-term president. Another poll, released Thursday, showed that 66% of Americans say they would not vote for a candidate over 80 years old. Again, according to the same poll, the best hope for Biden — with all the risks that implies — is called Trump. Sixty-six percent of citizens say they would not vote for an impeached candidate, and 70% would not vote for one convicted of a crime by a jury.

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