Sure, Haley could win New Hampshire. But then what?
The Granite State's demographics make it unique from other early-voting states.
Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation primary could very well turn out to be this cycle’s only-competitive-in-the-nation primary.
In most of this year’s Republican primary contests, former President Donald Trump is skating to first place. In New Hampshire, however, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has momentum on her side. Her support in New Hampshire has nearly doubled since December, a trend that puts her in position to win a significant chunk of the state’s 22 delegates, if not overtake Trump entirely. In years past, such an early success would signal that Haley is a serious contender for the Republican nomination for president. But that’s not the case this year, with the rest of the primary calendar almost certain to eclipse Haley’s brief moment in the sun.
Haley is polling at 37 percent in New Hampshire, roughly 14 percentage points behind Trump, according to 538’s polling average.* Now, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s withdrawal makes the race tougher for Haley, with so many DeSantis voters indicating in polling that Trump would be their second choice. However, the voters on whom Haley is most relying to boost her chances — those with a college degree — are plentiful in New Hampshire, making the Granite State one of her best chances to get a respectable showing.
If Haley manages to pull off a victory, that would normally be a good sign for her chances of winning the Republican nomination. Historically, New Hampshire Republicans have a strong record of choosing the eventual party nominee. Four of the last five elected Republican presidents won the New Hampshire primary before taking the oath of office. The exception is George W. Bush, who lost the New Hampshire primary to the late Sen. John McCain in 2000. (We’re not counting former President Gerald Ford, who ascended to the presidency.)
But the 2024 primary is unlike anything we’ve seen in recent history, with a one-term, former president running far ahead of the competition. In Iowa, Trump led the second-place candidate by 30 points, a record for the first-in-the-nation caucus, and Trump has already consolidated two-thirds of the Republican electorate in national polling. Trump’s toughest state in the primary could end up being New Hampshire, but that’s only because the state’s GOP electorate is no longer representative of the Republican electorate at large.
New Hampshire has a high population of college-educated residents, a demographic that’s been fleeing the Republican Party for decades. Those who remain in the party still tend to favor Trump — after all, being a Trump supporter is becoming a necessity in the Republican Party these days. However, most of Trump’s support comes from white, working-class voters who don’t have a college degree.
College-educated voters who remain in the Republican Party — as well as those who have left and now are registered as independents — are key to Haley’s chances of pulling off a victory in New Hampshire. While college-educated voters nationally remain more likely to support Trump than Haley, Haley recently matched Trump among college-educated voters in New Hampshire, according to a 538 analysis of polling.
New Hampshire ranks eighth in the country in its share of adults over age 25 with a college degree, according to the latest Census data. Most of the other states that rank toward the top of that list lean heavily toward Democrats, but New Hampshire falls in the middle of the ideological spectrum, according to Inside Elections’s Baseline — a measure of how much of the vote a conventional Republican or Democrat could expect to win in specific states and congressional districts. In New Hampshire, Democrats’ Baseline advantage is just 2 points, meaning a generic Democrat would likely win the state by 2 points. Virginia is the only other state in the top 10 by educational attainment that is arguably a swing state.
So if Haley’s best chance of bolstering her support is to bring in as many college-educated voters as possible, New Hampshire is fertile ground. New Hampshire is home to more independent voters with a college degree than most states in the country. According to a 538 analysis of data from the Cooperative Election Study, 21 percent of voters in New Hampshire’s 2020 general election identified with neither political party and also had a college degree, more than all but four other states.
But after New Hampshire’s primary, Haley’s task becomes significantly more difficult. Nationally, college-educated voters are becoming a slimmer and slimmer part of the Republican Party. And of the 10 states and territories that vote before Super Tuesday on March 5, New Hampshire has the highest share of college-educated voters, besides the District of Columbia — although there are a few states with higher shares that vote on Super Tuesday itself.
All that’s to say that, if Haley is relying on college-educated Republicans, New Hampshire is likely one of her strongest states. But it’s a pretty low bar, with Trump’s grasp on the Republican Party as strong as ever. And remember that college-educated voters outside of New Hampshire are still more likely to support Trump than Haley. So even if Haley wins the New Hampshire primary — or places a strong second — we’re unlikely to see Trump’s chances of actually winning the nomination shrink.
Mary Radcliffe and Holly Fuong contributed research.
CORRECTION (Jan. 22, 2024, 6:00 p.m.): A previous version of this article stated that nine states and territories vote before Super Tuesday on March 5. The article has been updated to include the District of Columbia, which votes March 1-3.
*All numbers are as of Jan. 22 at 5 p.m. Eastern.
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