Donald Trump's 2016 primary win in New Hampshire was driven by his support among independents.
But on Tuesday, this critical bloc is poised to back former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
The state's voting laws allow independents to vote in the GOP primary — which could give Haley a huge lift.
When Donald Trump first ran for the presidency in 2016, he heavily played up his status as a political outsider, arguing that a businessman was best suited to steer the nation's economy and deal with foreign counterparts on the world stage.
And in the 2016 New Hampshire GOP primary, undeclared voters — or independents — largely ate it up. These voters made up 42% of the primary electorate, and Trump earned a 36% plurality of their votes in the splintered primary. It helped fuel his victory in the state's primary that year.
But the 2024 primary is playing out on much different terrain, as former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is on track to win the support of the state's influential independents. And if Haley wins this group decisively on Tuesday and makes inroads with more conservatives, it could put a wrench in Trump's push to wrap up the nomination quickly.
Here's how New Hampshire's unique primary system could come through for Haley at her campaign's most critical juncture:
The Independent Sway
Independents make up more than 343,000 of all registered voters in New Hampshire, and these voters are the largest voting bloc in the state. By contrast, there are nearly 268,000 registered Republicans in the state.
It's a Republican primary, so naturally both Haley and Trump are aggressively courting members of their own party.
But unlike many states, New Hampshire permits undeclared voters to vote in the Republican primary. With the sheer number of independents who will cast ballots, it's very much a wildcard of how many of them will show up.
For Haley to win the primary, independents will have to come out in droves and vote for her overwhelmingly, building on polling advantages that she's held with this group in recent weeks.
In the most recent primary survey conducted by CNN and the University of New Hampshire, Trump led Haley 50%-39%, a clear advantage for the former president. But while Trump led Haley among GOP voters 67%-23%, Haley bested him among undeclared voters 58%-30%.
If independents power the GOP primary by larger numbers than they did in 2016, and if those primary voters are slightly more pro-Haley, then she can claim momentum from a narrow loss or — in what would be preferable to her — a narrow victory.
Flipping the script
The significance of New Hampshire's independents is a marked contrast to the Iowa caucuses, where evangelical voters reign supreme.
Last week, evangelicals made up 55% of the caucus electorate and Trump won 53% of their votes, while Haley only won 13% from this group, according to The Washington Post. Conservatives overwhelmingly hold the cards in the nominating process in Iowa.
But the distinct composition of the New Hampshire electorate has essentially allowed Haley to flip the script on Trump's 2016 playbook.
Once seen by many independents as an anti-politician who would shake up Washington, Trump's most fervent support in New Hampshire now lies among the GOP base — with many independents leery of his controversies from his time in the White House.
Meanwhile, independents poised to vote on Tuesday have gravitated to Haley, who is campaigning as a newcomer who'd reshape the political dynamic in Washington and bring forward a new generation of GOP leadership.
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