Why DeSantis’ exit could hurt Nikki Haley in New Hampshire

New Hampshire had, until this week, been the early state where Trump looked the weakest. The former president’s rivals had held him under 50 percent in polls for months. Haley, meanwhile, had surged in surveys following a series of strong debate performances and the endorsement of the state’s popular Republican governor, Chris Sununu. At least one poll had shown her within striking distance of Trump.

But after winning the Iowa caucuses with more than 50 percent of the vote on Monday, Trump entered the weeklong sprint to the New Hampshire primary polling above that same marker in Granite State.

And then everything went his way — and against Haley.

First Vivek Ramaswamy dropped out and endorsed him. Then Haley’s fellow South Carolinian, Republican Sen. Tim Scott, who ended his own campaign in November, followed suit. On Sunday, Trump added DeSantis to the list of former foes turned friends again.

Ramaswamy’s supporters in New Hampshire had already begun gravitating toward Trump, with several of his former staffers publicly supporting Trump and encouraging others to do the same. Now the former president is likely to get another boost — even if a small one — from DeSantis’ base of conservative Republican and libertarian-leaning backers.

The problem for Haley shows up everywhere in polling. A
University of New Hampshire/CNN poll
released on Sunday morning showed 62 percent of DeSantis’ supporters here would back Trump as their second choice, while only 30 percent would break for Haley. In a Suffolk University/Boston Globe/NBC10 Boston
daily tracking poll
, 57 percent of DeSantis’ supporters said they would pick Trump as their second choice, while 33 percent said they would choose Haley. DeSantis was polling at about 6 percent or 7 percent depending on the survey. But even at those numbers, his voters would matter if they broke towards Trump.

“In all of our tracking polls, [Trump has] been at or above 50 [percent] and his lead has only grown since Monday,” Suffolk University polling director David Paleologos said. “In a two-person scenario, if he doesn’t get to 50 percent he doesn’t win. That doesn’t seem likely at this point.”

Haley and her team are still projecting optimism they’ll perform competitively in New Hampshire, where they have long tried to cast the primary here as a two-person race — even before everyone else got out.

Haley was informed of the news Sunday by aides in the kitchen of a lobster restaurant on the New Hampshire Seacoast, just as live lobsters were being taken out of the tank.

Emerging past the crustacean-filled container, she ignored reporters’ questions before briefly addressing her gathered supporters.

“Boy, are things changing fast,” Haley said.

“We’re not a country of coronations,” Haley said later that afternoon in a statement issued by her campaign, noting that only one state has voted so far. “Voters deserve a say in whether we go down the road of Trump and Biden again, or we go down a new conservative road.”

Haley in the statement maintained that DeSantis’s supporters were split between her and Trump. And in a CNN interview at the restaurant, Haley encouraged the Florida governor’s backers to pick her if they want a “new generational leader” saying she is “the conservative who can get it done.”

But it’s Trump with whom DeSantis supporters appear to have more overlap. And in his endorsement, DeSantis actively pushed them towards the former president. For days, the Florida governor’s goal had seemed to be to sap Haley of support in her home state, South Carolina — campaigning twice there this week while she was blitzing New Hampshire.

With his withdrawal, he may be wounding her more immediately.

“It seems as if the notion has changed to, ‘Let’s finish her off in New Hampshire, where she could be a threat to the former president,’ and get back in the good graces of MAGA land,” said Matthew Bartlett, a Republican strategist and New Hampshire native.

Trump campaign advisers Chris LaCivita and Susie Wiles seemed to celebrate Haley’s current dilemma, issuing a memo to reporters highlighting comments by Haley’s allies in recent weeks projecting that she would win New Hampshire — an outcome that now appears increasingly unlikely.

At Brown’s Lobster Pound in Seabrook, where Haley told her supporters about DeSantis’ withdrawal — a development many of them had not yet heard — Haley praised her former rival, calling him a “good governor” who had run a “great campaign.”

She said it was down to “one fella and one lady left.”

“I’ll leave you with this,” Haley concluded. “May the best woman win.”

Jonathan Martin contributed to this report.

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