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Why New Hampshire looks pivotal in the 2024 GOP race

Two new polls out of New Hampshire confirm that Nikki Haley is the momentum candidate in the 2024 Republican primary — if anyone not named Donald Trump can be characterized as such.

What the polls also reinforce: New Hampshire’s role as Haley’s — and the GOP’s — best chance to make the 2024 GOP primary a real race, even as that possibility still appears remote.

This is looking like the big one.

The Washington Post-Monmouth University poll shows Haley trailing Trump by 28 points, 46 percent to 18 percent. The CNN poll shows a slightly smaller, 22-point Trump margin, 42 percent to 20 percent.

The latter is Trump’s smallest margin in a high-quality New Hampshire poll since the summer, when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was his biggest obstacle. New Hampshire also now features the closest race of all the early states, according to the FiveThirtyEight averages.

And given that Haley’s home state of South Carolina is fourth on the calendar and more than a month after New Hampshire, the Granite State looms larger.

It also actually appears potentially more amenable to her, even than her home state. As The Post’s Scott Clement, Dan Balz and Emily Guskin note in their write-up, a big reason is that the state’s GOP primary electorate is more moderate and less Trumpian than GOP primary electorates in other early states.

For example, Trump’s image rating is a strong-but-not-sterling 59 percent positive and 36 percent negative. A majority of potential primary voters there say abortion should be legal in at least “most cases.” A slight majority also say Trump did something wrong, at the very least, in trying to overturn the 2020 election results. And 51 percent say they are not supporters of the MAGA movement.

The Post’s poll also echoes others in suggesting that Haley has relatively broad appeal across the party:

Her base of support is almost completely non-MAGA voters, but she’s either the first or second choice for 1 in 5 MAGA voters, too.Trump supporters and MAGA voters lean toward liking her, unlike more Trump-critical candidates such as Chris Christie (whom Trump voters dislike, 83-8).Just 24 percent of voters say they wouldn’t vote for her under any circumstances. That’s fewer than say the same of Trump (32 percent) or any other candidate who is qualifying for debates.

The most compelling theoretical case for Haley’s truly challenging Trump requires her to consolidate the support of the more Trump-skeptical voters without completely sacrificing MAGA support.

Christie is pulling double-digits in both polls — as much as 14 percent in the CNN poll. That means he’s sucking up valuable support, but he’s also sucking up support that seemingly could be available to Haley.

For example, 1 in 5 potential primary voters in the CNN poll say they voted for Joe Biden in 2020, and Christie is taking more of them (56 percent) than Haley is (34 percent). That’s around 13 percent of potential voters who are seemingly the most Trump-skeptical — enough to vote Democratic in 2020 — but aren’t yet onboard with Haley.

This is basically the “lanes” theory, which categorizes various candidates and the types of voters they attract. Things often don’t break down so neatly, but if Haley starts picking off even a good chunk of those Trump-skeptical Biden voters, she seemingly could be approaching 25 or 30 percent.

(There is also some thought that such voters could play an outsize role this year, given that there isn’t a competitive Democratic primary and that Biden won’t even be on the New Hampshire ballot.)

Now for the “buts.”

Even approaching 30 percent would very likely be insufficient. Both polls, like virtually all surveys about 2024, show that Trump’s base is much more dug-in. The Post’s poll shows 37 percent of voters say they’re “definitely” voting for Trump, while the CNN poll pegs it at 34 percent.

Those numbers are actually higher than in the big recent poll in Iowa, where about one-quarter of voters were ride-or-die for Trump. So, while Trump’s ceiling might be lower in New Hampshire, his floor might actually be higher. And if Trump truly holds those numbers of voters, it will be very difficult for anyone to beat him.

In a related way, one of the more interesting aspects of The Post’s poll is how voters feel about issues. Pretty much across the board, Trump voters feel much more passionately. While 80 percent of his backers call illegal immigration “extremely important,” just 41 percent of those who back other candidates say the same. On inflation, it’s 71-46. On crime, it’s 63-27. On gun rights, it’s 59-32.

This gets at how much more motivated Trump’s base appears to be.

And there’s one final apparent problem for Haley and everyone else. Perhaps the best, most pragmatic argument for moving on from Trump is electability. Recent polls suggest that Haley has a good claim to that quality. A Fox News poll this week showed Trump leading Biden in the general election by four points, while Haley led Biden by 11.

But if there’s a need to find a more electable candidate, that’s apparently news even to New Hampshire’s more Trump-skeptical GOP electorate. Fully 57 percent say he’s the most electable, while just 15 percent say the same of Haley. That’s bigger than Trump’s overall margin.

All of which suggests that, at least right now, the appetite for looking elsewhere isn’t strong enough.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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