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Can Trump be stopped?

Winning the New Hampshire primary attests to the former president’s enduring grip on the Republican base.

By Sohrab Ahmari

Donald Trump has clinched the New Hampshire primary in the race to be the Republican presidential nominee, as the polls predicted. The New York Times currently projects an 11-point margin to Nikki Haley in second place – tighter than what he achieved in Iowa, to be sure, but still formidable. The result attests to Trump’s enduring grip on the GOP voter base, as well as the disconnect between the desires of rank-and-file Republicans and the party establishment as embodied by Haley.

Haley, a former UN ambassador, went into New Hampshire with solid advantages. For one thing, the Granite State allows undeclared voters, who make up 40 per cent of the state’s electorate, to take part in either party’s primaries. Trump warned his supporters that Democrats were using this opening to “infiltrate” the primary to Haley’s benefit. Yet only 3,542 New Hampshire Democrats, or 0.4 per cent of all registered voters in the state, changed their affiliation to undeclared ahead of the 6 October deadline; even fewer Democrats, about 400, changed their affiliation to Republican.

Still, New Hampshire also allows same-day voter registration, and Trump had good reason to worry about independents, especially Democratic-leaning ones, participating in the process. In the 2016 primary, he won the largest share of New Hampshire independents. But in Iowa this year, Trump won independents by only eight points, even as he thumped Haley among Republicans by a whopping 39 points. His fears were no doubt heightened by Chris Sununu, New Hampshire’s popular governor, stumping relentlessly for Haley.

Then there was Haley’s money advantage. Her campaign and its allied political action committees (PACs) spent some $30m on broadcast and digital advertising in New Hampshire, nearly double Trump’s ad spend, according to Politico. Haley is also the figure around whom anti-Trump mega-donors have coalesced, including notably Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn and a committed Democrat, who chipped in $250,000 to a Haley PAC.

Early exit polls, moreover, showed a more secular and less intensely “Make American great again” electorate compared with Iowa, with a smaller share of New Hampshire voters likely to believe that President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory was illegitimate – all bad initial indicators for Trump.

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Yet for all that, Haley couldn’t overcome the loyalty of the base to the former president. The conventional take is that Trump has “radicalised” the party, transfiguring the low-tax, just-leave-me-alone Republicans of a state like New Hampshire in his own frothing populist image. It’s certainly true that Trump has conditioned GOP voters to a great deal of crazy rhetoric.

But as Matthew Schmitz has recently argued in the New York Times, when it comes to many questions of policy, Trump is by far the more moderate candidate. Meanwhile, figures such as Haley represent the neoliberal extremism that the GOP establishment has long sought to pass off as the “responsible” position.

Trump, for example, is squarely with the national majority that wants to protect earned benefits. Haley, by contrast, has called for raising the retirement age and expanding privatised Medicare plans to boost “competition” in the system – measures that are unpopular with everyone except think tank libertarians, Wall Street fee-skimmers, and the ghoulish private insurance industry.

On foreign policy, Haley’s platform is a well-preserved time capsule from circa 2003. If anything, her agenda is more extreme than that of George W Bush & Co in their heyday. While Bush limited his hawkish ambitions to Arab states and goat herdsmen in the Hindu Kush – and look how that turned out – Haley wants to take on Russia, China and Iran simultaneously. She has described those three powers, two of which are nuclear-armed, as a new “axis of evil”. Here again, Trump is much closer to voters increasingly fed up with endless proxy interventions and wary of regime-change wars.

This is the Republican establishment’s death gap: the chasm separating its donor class and the sentiments of the base. If Haley couldn’t close it in New Hampshire, it’s hard to imagine her doing so in her deep-red home state of South Carolina or a place like Ohio.

Trump, meanwhile, appears to be recovering something of his lost mojo from 2016. The RealClearPolitics “poll of polls” shows him beating Biden nationally by almost three points. Then again, polling projections like that should be taken with more than a grain of salt this far out from the election, and his struggles with independents in Iowa and New Hampshire might portend trouble – and that’s not to mention the 91 criminal charges he faces across multiple jurisdictions.

Even as she conceded her loss in New Hampshire, Haley vowed to keep trying, and what’s a few hundred million more wasted to her billionaire donors? One wonders if part of her motivation in sticking around has to do with the possibility of Trump getting convicted, allowing her to somehow swoop in as the unindicted substitute nominee. Lawfare: It’s how we increasingly do politics these days in the land of Jefferson and Lincoln.

[See also: The lawfare state]

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