Politics

‘You don’t see the frenzy’: The New Hampshire primary is a bust

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — The storied New Hampshire primary is a dud.

Debates are off. The frontrunner, Donald Trump, chose to spend a day in court. His main rival, Nikki Haley, is keeping a light (by New Hampshire standards) schedule. And Ron DeSantis, already an afterthought here, is effectively ceding the state and moving on to other contests.

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before in my 32 years of New Hampshire presidential primary experience,” said New Hampshire GOP strategist Mike Dennehy, a veteran of John McCain’s presidential campaigns here.

The collapse of the GOP primary campaign in New Hampshire came on relatively suddenly this week, spurred by DeSantis’ decision to focus more on South Carolina — where the primary is a month away — and Haley’s refusal to debate unless Trump appeared alongside her. What remained was a string of nighttime rallies by the former president and a handful of retail events featuring Haley. No one is barnstorming.

And that’s just the Republican primary. On the Democratic side — where the incumbent president, Joe Biden, is not even competing and the main events are Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) discussing artificial intelligence — it’s even worse. The dramatic elements that have traditionally defined this week of politics — from John McCain catching fire to Hillary Clinton choking up with tears — are nowhere to be found.

“You don’t see the frenzy, the frenetic activity,” said Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist. “You don’t see the movements that are usually going on where you have folks crisscrossing the state, trying to get every last vote.”

Instead, Carney said, it’s mostly “a lot of TV ads and a lot of mail.”

Getting up-close-and-personal with presidential hopefuls is a rite of passage for Granite Staters who pride themselves on putting the nation’s top politicians through the retail-politics ringer. Trump changed that in 2016, winning the state not by camping out in diners and living rooms but by holding rallies where he could speak to hundreds of people at a time.

But when the 2024 campaign began last year, New Hampshire appeared to be returning to its traditional form. Trump had ditched his arena rallies for high-school auditoriums and performing-arts centers. He took a few questions from voters. He even popped into Manchester’s famed Red Arrow Diner.

Haley began to barnstorm the state with a pledge to “touch every hand” and “answer every question.” Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy held court for hours in restaurants and VFW halls, answering questions and engaging in extensive conversations with voters.

Those who broke with custom faced backlash. DeSantis was pilloried for not taking questions from New Hampshire voters when he launched his campaign. He was absent from the state for weeks at a time. Sure enough, his poll numbers began to plummet.

And Biden faced intense criticism from the state’s top Democrats — as well as most everyone else here — for moving to strip the state of its prized first primary in favor of South Carolina, a more diverse state that propelled him to the Democratic nomination in 2020.

But as the primary heads into the home stretch in New Hampshire, it feels more like a corpse than a campaign. Trump is spending just as much time in the courtroom as he is on the campaign trail. ABC and CNN were forced to cancel their New Hampshire primary debates after only DeSantis would agree to step on stage.

“It’s probably the first time since 1980 that I’ve known an election to happen without there being a Channel 9 debate,” Carney said, referring to the local ABC affiliate that traditionally co-hosts the debate.

DeSantis, the Florida governor, went back to his home state on Thursday. He’s set to return to New Hampshire on Friday, but will then shuttle off to South Carolina — where he polls in the low teens, on average, compared to the single-digits here — for the weekend.

And Haley, after a string of gaffes, has largely traded her staple “town hall” events for “rallies” and “meet-and-greets” where she can interact with voters with less chance of being picked up on a hot microphone.

She tacked on time for three voter questions and a 10-minute media availability to the end of her meet-and-greet in Hollis on Thursday morning. That came a day after DeSantis, as part of a recent about-face for his own media aversion, hammered her for doing neither and for not debating him in New Hampshire. On Friday, she has a full day of campaigning that starts just after 7 a.m. and ends after 7 p.m.

“You have the underdog in Nikki Haley who’s down by about 15 points, who’s decided to run a defensive campaign … and then you have the overwhelming frontrunner who is also not spending a great deal of time in New Hampshire because he is surrounded by his court chaos,” Dennehy said. “It’s strange.”

The Democratic primary is even less relevant, with the Democratic National Committee saying it won’t count toward convention delegates. Biden’s long-shot challengers — Phillips and self-help author Marianne Williamson — are making several stops a day. But their opponent is a write-in campaign for the president, not someone they can spar with on the debate stage.

It’s a wholesale toppling of New Hampshire’s time-honored traditions, and voters are taking note.

Bob Meyer, a Dover Republican who attended Haley’s rally on Wednesday night at the American Legion in Rochester, recalled primaries past when he could go to a friend’s house and meet candidates close up. His youngest daughter became interested in the political process the year he took her to the home of Fergus Cullen, the former state GOP chair who lives nearby, to meet Jeb Bush. Meyer also has fond memories of his conversation with John Kasich at Cullen’s house.

Nothing like that happened this year.

“Part of running for president is can you handle it? Can you handle the heat of being president?” Meyer said of candidates’ willingness to take candid audience questions. “And can you handle this kind of crowd?”

John Watson, too, recalled having one-on-one time with Bush in 2016 after watching Haley, in his words, take “like three questions” in Hollis on Thursday morning and leave.

Watson, an independent from Hollis, said he still plans to vote for Haley on Tuesday.

But of this new, less-engaged primary normal, he said, “I don’t like it.”