For weeks, Donald J. Trump has raced through Iowa and New Hampshire without breaking a sweat, outpacing his rivals for the Republican nomination and absorbing the adoration of crowds convinced he will be the next president of the United States.
But as Trump moves steadily toward his party’s nomination, a harsher reality awaits.
Outside the soft bubble of the Republican primary, Trump’s campaign faces enduring vulnerabilities that make his nomination a considerable risk to his party. Those weaknesses were laid bare in New Hampshire on Tuesday, where independents, college-educated voters and Republicans unwilling to dismiss her legal jeopardy voted in large numbers for her challenger, Nikki Haley.
Still, Trump won easily. Voters opposed to his candidacy did not outnumber the many Republicans clamoring to see him returned to power. But the results, returned by more than 310,000 voters in a politically divided state, signaled the problems that await Trump as the presidential race leaves the MAGA world and enters a broader electorate, one that rejected him less than four years ago. years.
“When people who voted for Reagan in 1976 and who have been conservative their whole lives come up to me and tell me they don’t want to vote for Trump again, that’s a problem,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday in an interview with Blaze TV, a conservative media company, just a couple of days after he ended his own campaign and endorsed Trump. “So you have to find a way to solve that.”
President Biden would face his own challenges in a rematch of the 2020 race. Unlike four years ago, Biden, 81, is not highly regarded and most Americans disapprove of his job performance. Four years older than Trump, Biden faces deep skepticism about his age and is fighting to retain the coalition of voters that underpinned his first victory. He has turned to issues like abortion rights and democracy, issues that resonate with his base, independents and even some moderate Republicans.
But like Trump, he faces some doubts within his own party. Immigration, inflation and his support for Israel in its war in Gaza have eroded his support among young voters, black and Latino voters and liberals.
“The general election really starts now, and we have the two most unpopular political leaders going up against each other,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster. “It is an election in which evil is the lesser.”
Trump’s problems, however, go back much further. His takeover of the Republican Party in 2016 repelled suburban moderates and independents, and there is little evidence that he found a way to turn them back.
In New Hampshire, 44 percent of Republican primary voters were independents: Haley won most of them, 58 percent to 39 percent.
Polls suggest that many of those voters were not only enamored with a new face, but were voting specifically to register their opposition to Trump. Four out of 10 voters Those who backed Ms. Haley said their dislike of Mr. Trump was a bigger factor in their vote than their approval of Ms. Haley, according to exit polls. More than 90 percent They said they would not be satisfied if Trump won the nomination for a third time.
Trump had some of the same struggles with independent-minded voters in the Iowa caucuses, a race that typically attracts more conservative and Republican grassroots voters. Exit polls show that 55 percent of people who identified as independents backed one of Trump’s opponents.
Trump will undoubtedly win over many of these voters in November. But the number of Haley supporters telling pollsters they will back Biden — about 40 percent according to state and national polls — is surprising. Even if some of those voters had never been Trump voters to begin with, the figure suggests that a large number of Republicans, or former Republicans, might not come home.
Newhouse warned against reading too much into New Hampshire’s results, noting that the state and its independents lean to the left. New Hampshire has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 2004. Still, she warned that her party had to make sure the election was not a referendum on Trump.
“When voters are simply criticizing Trump, they have their thumbs down,” he said.
That’s how Ruth Axtell, an interior designer and freelancer from New Hampshire who voted for Haley, sees the race. She endorsed Trump in 2016, but voted for Biden in 2020.
“I would love to take out Trump and have a woman beat him up too,” Axtell said. But she’s not sure how he’ll vote in the general election: “Is this what we’re in for?” she said.
The New Hampshire results highlighted other Trump weaknesses. He lost to Haley among college-educated voters and the party’s top earners, underscoring the problems he has had retaining voters who once formed the base of his party.
Trump’s biggest losses in New Hampshire appeared to occur in Hanover, Lyme and Lebanon, prosperous, highly educated towns around Dartmouth College and Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center.
Even in Iowa, where caucusgoers were more connected to the MAGA movement, Trump was weaker in high-income suburbs. In Dallas County, the swing suburban area around Des Moines, which Trump narrowly won in 2020, garnered just 39 percent support from Republican caucusgoers.
Trump has downplayed concerns about winning back Republicans who have rejected him. “I’m not sure we need too many,” he told reporters Tuesday in New Hampshire. “Everyone is coming back.”
In his victory speech Tuesday, a chance to address a general election audience, Trump used the attention to attack Haley, rather than calling for unity across the party as he did after the Iowa caucuses. More She later insulted her dress on her Truth Social platform. “I don’t get too angry, I’ll get even,” he said.
Both Trump advisers and Super PAC officials see the Biden campaign as a more formidable opponent than any of Trump’s main rivals.
While DeSantis and Haley were largely unwilling or unable to respond to Trump, the Biden campaign will not give ground.
The Biden campaign, for example, has quickly responded to Trump’s claims that Biden is too old to serve another term, producing its own clips of Trump’s verbal slips and other moments of confusion.
In recent days, super PAC MAGA Inc., which has spent $36 million on an ad campaign to support Trump’s primary bid, has made urgent appeals to donors, pointing to internal projections that Biden’s campaign will have spent $100 million in television by the end of the first quarter and up to $300 million by the Republican National Convention in July.
In an email sent this week to a donor, super PAC CEO Taylor Budowich said Biden’s spending spree was an attempt to refocus voters on issues that resonated with independents and favored Democrats, like the right to abortion.
Trump would be positioned to defeat Biden, Budowich said in the fundraising appeal, as long as Trump’s team could keep voters focused on issues such as the economy, national security and crime.
However, focusing on issues is not Trump’s strong suit. In his victory speech Tuesday, he repeated lies about his 2020 loss and added a new one, claiming that he won New Hampshire that year. (Mr. Biden did.) The comment raised another warning sign for Mr. Trump once he leaves the safety of the MAGA universe.
His obsession with the last election, his role in the Capitol riot on January 6, and the 91 felony charges he faces, most of which are tied to his attempts to stay in power, threaten his prospects, and not just with already cautious independents and undecided voters.
Even in conservative Iowa, about 10 percent of his own supporters said they would not consider voting for him in November if he were convicted of a crime.