The First-in-the-Nation Primary Is Feeling Unloved

Donald Trump shares an essential trait with the voters of New Hampshire: a craving for flattery and affirmation.

Residents here are accustomed to parades of candidates trekking up every four years to tell them how sacred their first-in-the-nation primary is, how discerning their famously “independent” and “contrarian” voters are. Politicians strain endlessly to convey how vital New Hampshire is to the process.

But things feel precarious and a bit upside down here these days—more final whimper than first salvo.

I landed in Manchester on Friday afternoon and found the place almost numb with abandonment. Elm Street, the “main drag” of New Hampshire’s biggest city, which is usually good for a few candidate sightings and media scrums, was quiet. Once the marquee stopover on the presidential tour, this original colony felt neglected in the final weekend before today’s primary, and well past its glory.

“Where is everyone?” I asked the woman next to me at the counter of the downtown Red Arrow Diner on Friday. The century-old greasy spoon on Lowell Street has served as a landmark for visiting political hacks and as a reliable backdrop for candidate photo ops.

“Ryan Binkley was just here,” my stool-neighbor informed me. I Googled Ryan Binkley. He is a pastor from Texas who says he is running for president because God called him to. Who is Ryan Binkley? the yard signs say (good enough to finish fifth in Iowa, apparently).

You can see why the once-pandered-to populace of the Granite State might feel unloved. Last year, the Democrats—led by the current president of the United States—dumped New Hampshire in favor of South Carolina as the party’s official first primary. The scorned New England mainstay scheduled its primary anyway, even though the Democratic National Committee said it would not recognize the results or award any delegates derived from this unholy action. President Joe Biden has not campaigned in the state, and his name is not on the ballot.

Now Republicans keep dropping out, leaving the GOP race down to Trump, who routed the field in Iowa last week, and the former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley (plus Binkley and a few others). Campaign events were still occurring in New Hampshire in this final week, but far fewer than usual; Trump, and to a lesser extent Haley, drew most of the attention and the biggest crowds.

The former president seemed both rambling and serene. “When I fly over a blue state, two days later, I get a subpoena,” Trump said at the start of a rally in Concord on Friday night. Technically, New Hampshire is itself a blue state, or at least it has been in the past several presidential elections; Trump lost it in both 2016 and 2020. But things were feeling quite safe here for Trump in the primary. Recent polls showed him with double-digit leads over Haley and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who was still in the race heading into the weekend but barely bothered with New Hampshire.

“DeSantis, God bless him. He’s a remainder at this point,” New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, a Republican, told me at a Haley event in a Milford restaurant on Friday afternoon. “What happened to this guy?” Trump asked of DeSantis a few hours later in Concord. “One of the great self-destructions I think I’ve ever witnessed.”

At the very least, DeSantis understood that the prevailing dynamic of the Republican Party over the past eight years has stayed intact. “You can be the most worthless Republican in America,” he said in one of his final campaign stops in Iowa, discharging a few nuggets of clarity as he approached the end. “If you kiss the ring, he’ll say you are wonderful.” The governor quit the race on Sunday and, yes, kissed the ring on the way out, endorsing Trump.

This followed a week’s procession of white flags. Former Trump “opponents” kept endorsing the former president—Vivek Ramaswamy last Monday; the governor of North Dakota, whoever that was, the day before; Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina on Friday, joining Trump in Concord. By Sunday, New Hampshire felt like the last stand of a battle that had never started.

Throughout the weekend, Trump tried to assure his supporters that he knows how important the state is, even though he would almost certainly rather spend his time elsewhere; he described New Hampshire as “a drug-infested den” in a 2017 phone call with the then-president of Mexico. He has been holding nightly rallies across the state since Friday, telling everyone how special they are, and the admiration is of course mutual.

“I’m thrilled to be back in the home of first-in-the-nation,” Trump said at his Concord rally. Any candidate who comes to New Hampshire cannot utter those four words—first in the nation—enough. And Trump did, four times in the space of a few sentences.

“You know who kept you first in the nation?” Trump asked the crowd.

“Trump!” he said, uttering his own name along with some in the audience.

“But I just want to tell you, you’re first in the nation,” he said. “You’re always going be first in the nation!”

For her part, Haley has been intent on convincing everyone that New Hampshire is still a race at all. A two-person race, to be precise. “Between Nikki and Trump,” Sununu repeated, like a fleece-wearing parrot, as he accompanied Haley across the state, four or five stops a day. He and Haley kept contrasting this particular two-person race with the one most Americans are dreading, between Trump and Biden.

“People don’t want two 80-year-olds running for president,” Haley said in a brief press conference Friday at a diner in Amherst (Trump is 77; Biden is 81). She devoted much of the session to scolding the media for not properly correcting the false things Trump says about her. “Y’all need to call him out,” she urged. She also theorized that although 70 percent of Americans don’t want to be subjected to a Trump-Biden rematch, “70 percent of the media does want a rematch.”

This is dubious, for what it’s worth. If anything, “the media” wanted a competitive primary campaign—some genuine uncertainty and drama, and a reason beyond obligation to keep tuning in.

Like Trump, Dean Phillips is happy to fill the vacuum of love for New Hampshire. “We’ve got to practice democracy,” the Democratic representative from Minnesota said at a Nashua senior center on Saturday afternoon. Phillips, a wealthy former gelato baron, is waging a long-shot campaign against Biden—actually, a write-in version of Biden, who, because he’s not on the ballot, can be voted for only that way by New Hampshirites willing to overlook the president’s ghosting of their state.

“Why write in Biden?” Phillips asked at the event, if Biden is “writing off New Hampshire?” Polite chuckles, maybe a moan or two. Phillips also suggested that Biden was “taking the Granite State for granted.” (Dean Phillips: The Dad Joke candidate!)

Back in Concord, Trump had gone even further in conveying his admiration for his host and its traditions—reaching all the way back to the Civil War. Uh-oh. Haley did this last month, and it didn’t go well. But Trump—student of history that he is—had an important lesson to share. “They said the people from New Hampshire were very tough fighters,” Trump said. “Did you know that?” (No one seemed to.) He said he had read that somewhere. “History,” he continued. “Very tough fighters.”

“You won a lot of battles. That was a nasty war.”

He later proceeded with a strange flurry of comments about Haley, ridiculing her failure to protect the U.S. Capitol on January 6—wait, did he mean Nancy Pelosi, then the speaker of the House? Maybe, but Trump kept saying Haley’s name, over and over.

“They,” he said, don’t want to talk about how Haley was in charge of security on January 6.

He also said that Haley—this time he apparently did mean Nikki Haley, the one he’s running against—was not “capable,” “tough,” “smart,” or “respected” enough to be president and handle Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, or Kim Jong Un. “Very fine people,” Trump called them.

In a different time, this would be the kind of weird front-runner face-plant that could turn a New Hampshire primary on its head. Haley did her best to keep Trump’s bizarre comments aloft over the weekend. But mostly they were met with the usual resignation of a party with little will to fight, drifting toward the inevitable.

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