Donald Trump overcame the biggest early obstacle on his path to a White House comeback on Tuesday night — and delivered what could be the knockout blow to his last competitor on the Republican side.
He beat Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, by a margin wide enough to leave little uncertainty about the outcome in the state as results started to roll in.
The victory in New Hampshire was the biggest prize after a 10-day blitz by the former president to lock up Republican support, as he jetted back and forth between campaign rallies and court appearances in New York.
It started with an emphatic win in the Iowa caucuses last week, continued with the endorsement of several former rivals including Florida governor Ron DeSantis, and was capped by an outburst at Haley from a hotel ballroom as he taunted her in an attempt to force her out of the race.
“Just a little note to Nikki: she’s not going to win,” he said, during a short rant on a stage in Nashua. With a large entourage standing behind him, he called her an “imposter” and issued what seemed some kind of warning to the woman he had once appointed as his ambassador to the UN: “I don’t get too angry, I get even.”
Haley, speaking 35 miles north in Concord, New Hampshire’s capital, vowed to keep fighting through the South Carolina primary next month and at least until the “Super Tuesday” contests in early March, when a host of states hold their primaries.
“They’re falling all over themselves saying this race is over. Well, I have news for all of them,” Haley said. “New Hampshire is first in the nation, it is not the last in the nation.”
Yet her bid could be hard to sustain. Haley has enough cash on hand to keep ploughing ahead, for now — but may struggle to raise more if she cannot gain more traction against Trump in the next big contest, in her home state of South Carolina. She will also likely face an onslaught of calls to end her push for the Republican nomination and endorse Trump in the likely rematch against President Joe Biden for the general election in November.
“The walls are closing in on her,” said Brendan Buck, a Republican strategist.
“She may have put a good spin on her loss, but Haley is about to face incredible pressure to drop out. There is no cavalry coming to boost her, and the longer she stays in, the more unpopular she’s going to get within the party.”
Yet while Trump has dominated the two early ballots in the Republican primary race, New Hampshire offered some big warnings for how he might perform in the general election. Haley trounced Trump with independents — exactly the group that often decides presidential races in swing states, according to exit polls. It is an opening against Trump that Haley will try to exploit — and which Biden’s re-election campaign will note.
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said: “Haley’s general election argument is a very real one: Trump’s nomination is risky for holding on to the White House, as well as for Trump acolytes down ballot.”
One of those voters who supported Haley over Trump was Mary McCormick, 70, an independent who cast her ballot in Windham, New Hampshire. “I think we need a change, and I will vote for anybody but Trump . . . if I vote for her, it is one less for him,” she told the Financial Times.
“He keeps calling Biden crooked [but] Crooked Joe’s not in front of the judge every week,” she said, adding: “I don’t believe that [Trump] brings dignity to the office.”
In Henniker, a town west of Concord, Danielle Martin, who voted for Trump in 2016 but not in 2020, said she was also favouring Haley.
“His behaviour, his indictments, his criminal activity,” Martin said, referring to the former president and his litany of criminal charges. “I just can’t believe that he could lead our country.”
Even so, the dynamic of the Republican race shows few signs of changing in Haley’s favour. She may have won over some voters in New Hampshire, but a long list of Republican stalwarts are now firmly in Trump’s camp.
John Cornyn, a Republican senator from Texas, backed the former president after the New Hampshire race was called. Tim Scott, the Republican senator from South Carolina, endorsed Trump a few days ago and will now campaign against Haley in their home state. “It’s time for the Republican party to coalesce around our nominee,” Scott said at Trump’s rally on Tuesday night.
Byron Donalds, a Florida Republican congressman, was more blunt. “I think she should drop out,” he told the FT in Nashua. “Staying in is just a bad idea.”
Trump’s electoral momentum has drawn in some deep-pocketed donors too, including those who backed his rivals. Dan Eberhart, chief executive of Denver-based drilling company Canary, was supporting DeSantis until last week. On Tuesday, he said he would support Trump.
“Trump has united the Republican party and is better than Biden on nearly every issue. Game on,” Eberhart said. “South Carolina will be Haley’s Waterloo.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s hold on his conservative base remains ironclad.
“I like what he did the first time he was in office. He did everything he promised,” said Diane Arsenault, just after she voted for the former president in Windham on Tuesday.
“He just stands as, like, a real father for the nation, fighting for us. We need people to fight for us, you know?”
Additional reporting by Sonja Hutson in Windham, New Hampshire