Can Haley beat Trump? A New Hampshire VFW hall spotlights her stark enthusiasm gap



    Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley takes the stage at a Get Out the Vote campaign rally ahead of the New Hampshire primary election in Exeter, New Hampshire, U.S., January 21, 2024.

    Brian Snyder | Reuters

    FRANKLIN, N.H. — Nikki Haley is throwing harder punches, hosting more events and appearing alongside the popular Republican governor, John Sununu. But with just hours left before 2024’s first Republican presidential primary, Haley is falling behind on a crucial metric: enthusiasm.

    “Every single thing that Donald Trump has said, or put on TV, has been a lie,” Haley said at a get out the vote event here Monday morning at a small VFW hall.

    The close-packed crowd of between 100-200 people listened intently and nodded at the right moments. But they offered few of the boisterous cheers and extended applause that have come to define Trump’s carnival-like live events.

    On the contrary, several of Haley’s applause lines were met with silence.

    This may have been be due to the fact that it was early in the morning on a freezing cold Monday, in a state that is saturated every four years with politicians making promises. But it could also have been because not everyone in the crowd was planning to vote for Haley.

    As the former South Carolina governor races to make up for Trump’s lead in the polls, experts said higher-than-expected turnout on Tuesday will be crucial. The problem for Haley is that enthusiasm drives turnout, and as Haley’s morning in Franklin illustrated, attendance is not the same as enthusiasm.

    Bonnie, a retired teacher from Laconia, New Hampshire, said she supported Haley “as far as she can go.” But that did not extend as far as voting for Haley in the Republican primary, said Bonnie, who declined to give her last name.

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    A registered Democrat, Bonnie said she missed the deadline to switch her registration over to the independent column. Registered Democrats are barred from voting in the GOP primary, but undeclared or independent voters are not.

    As for why she came out that morning, Bonnie replied, “I want to see a candidate,” before adding that Haley is “the only chance we have of taking votes away” from Trump.

    “I taught middle school. That’s why I recognize a middle school bully,” Bonnie said of Trump.

    Another attendee, a self-described “political tourist from New Jersey” who declined to give his name, said he found Haley qualified, but noted, “She’s fighting the grip that Trump has, having taken over the party.”

    The capacity crowd included a few vocal Haley supporters. But the former U.N. ambassador is running out of time to keep pace with Trump, who just hours before, had packed a 700-seat opera house in Rochester.

    “I’m confident she’ll do well enough to continue” with her campaign, said Thornton resident Pete Johnson, 69, after the VFW event. He added that he was not voting against Trump, but “100% for Haley.”

    At the Sunday night Trump event, hundreds of people who had waited in line for hours, in 19-degree weather, could not get inside because the event was over capacity. Dozens of these people stuck around by the entrance, in the cold, even after being denied entry.

    Outside the venue, the long line of Trump supporters were distracted from the bitter cold by a pop-up marketplace that typically accompanies his rallies.

    An array of tables were stationed near the line, and vendors wheeled carts up and down the line. The sellers hawked scarves, winter hats, sweatshirts, baseball caps, stickers and posters — all emblazoned with Trump’s name or a MAGA slogan. Below is a sample of the stickers for sale in Rochester.

    Stickers on display at a Trump GOP Primary rally in Rochester, N.H.

    Kevin Breuninger | CNBC

    Meanwhile, trucks carrying large screens and speakers periodically drove by, blaring a video made by the anti-Trump nonprofit Lincoln Project, that described the former president as a dictator. The trucks drew profane jeers and hand gestures from those in line.

    Polls show Trump holding a wide lead, especially among registered Republicans. Still, Haley is running a far more competitive race in the Granite State than she did in Iowa, thanks in large part to New Hampshire’s high proportion of undeclared voters.

    After winning last week’s Iowa caucuses in a landslide, Trump is looking to torpedo Haley and effectively wrap up the rest of the primary race by Tuesday night.

    Haley came third in Iowa, stunting her momentum and muddying her message, that the primary was a two-person race between her and Trump. On Sunday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the second-place finisher in the caucuses, abruptly dropped out and endorsed Trump.

    In recent days, Trump has also won endorsements from several of Haley’s home state lawmakers: South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Nancy Mace, who represents Haley in Congress.

    Despite the setbacks and the long odds, Haley’s formidable force of will was on full display Monday morning, as she vowed to stay in the race regardless of Tuesday’s outcome.

    “If you join with me,” she told the VFW crowd, “I promise you: Our best days are yet to come.”

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