Whether they voted for Biden, Haley or the man himself, New Hampshire voters had Trump on the brain

“I hope they don’t throw him in jail,” said Touma. “If they do, he’ll lead from in jail and I’ll follow him.”

New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary kicked off a crucial phase of the presidential election, handed Trump a key early victory, and offered the nation its first glimpse of the politics of a swing state in 2024.

And, over more than 125 interviews conducted with Globe reporters fanned out across the state, the voters who cast ballots in record numbers made one thing starkly clear. Whether or not they support him, Trump is still living rent-free in many of their heads, drawing them to the polls to make a choice that many described in binary terms — for or against him — as opposed to the multi-variable decision-making more typical in a primary election.

The interviews show how Trump, despite not being the incumbent or the nominee, has already come to dominate how people think about the election — a development that could be welcome news to President Biden, who has been dogged with unpopularity throughout his first term, but whose advisers are eager for a reelection fight that could become a referendum on Trump.

They will pay especially close attention to independents like Cormier, hoping those who decided to vote against Trump on Tuesday will do so one more time in the fall.

“He’s crazy, he’s dangerous, he lies, he cheats,” Cormier fumed, adding that she knows exactly what she will do if there is a rematch between Trump and Biden.

“I would chop off my right hand,” Cormier said, “before I voted for Trump again.”

Nevertheless, devotion to Trump was evident and enduring among his base, even here in moderate New Hampshire — a sign of the fervent support that could pave his way to the nomination and, he and his advisers hope, the presidency.

“I’ve always been a supporter of Trump,” said Jessica Bailey, 38, a mechanical engineer who voted in Goffstown. “I’m just looking forward to having things go back to the way they were.”

“He has the ability, the guts, and the motivation to protect Americans,” said Sue Allen, 61, of Hollis, who is concerned about an “invasion” of immigrants.

Voters described a host of reasons for going to the polls Tuesday: Their concerns about the economy, abortion rights, their worries about the southern border, or their fears for the future of democracy. Yet Trump often loomed above it all.

Take Ali and Kara Hafez, a married couple of tech workers living in Exeter who voted for two different candidates: Haley for him, and a write-in vote for Biden for her.

Supporters for a campaign to write-in President Joe Biden on the New Hampshire primary ballot arrived for a Get Out The Vote stand-out in Dover, N.H. on Jan 21.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

But both had someone else top of their mind as they made their decisions.

“I wanted to cast a vote against Donald Trump,” said Ali, 37, who is an unaffiliated voter.

“Anything against Donald Trump,” said Kara, 34, a Democrat.

Biden has been beset with low approval ratings — an ABC poll in January found that just 33 percent of Americans approve of the job he is doing, the lowest figure of his presidency — and paltry enthusiasm for his reelection bid. That survey found that just 57 percent of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic are satisfied with the idea of Biden being their nominee, as opposed to the 72 percent of Republican-leaning adults who would be satisfied with Trump.

But the campaign is eager to take on Trump, regardless.

”The results out of New Hampshire confirm that Donald Trump has all but locked up the GOP nomination,” said Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Biden’s campaign manager. She accused Trump of running a campaign of “revenge and retribution” that has divided Republicans and turned off independents.

“It’s with that clear contrast on full display that we enter the general election phase of the campaign,” she said.

Some 120,000 people voted in the Democratic primary. The lower-than-normal turnout reflects the fact that the incumbent president, who does not face serious opposition, was not officially on the ballot. Still, the fear of Trump seemed to motivate some disillusioned Democrats who did show up to vote for Biden, despite their reservations about his presidency so far.

“It’s really black and white almost at this point between fascism and the future of America,” said Joseph Myrdek, 38. ”I’m not the biggest fan of what’s going on in Israel right now, but I’m willing to put that aside for the greater election, where we go forth from here. Trump literally said he would be a dictator.”

Teresa Capodilupo, 61, a Democrat, switched herself to Republican so she could vote for Haley, ”just so I could vote against Trump,” she said. She would like an alternative to Biden in the fall, she said, but if it comes to a Biden-Trump rematch, she knows what she will do.

“I would vote for a dead Biden,” Capodilupo joked.

Overall, more than 320,000 people cast ballots in the Republican primary. Trump’s 176,000 votes represent the highest number won by any candidate in a primary — a figure that underscores how motivating he is to voters.

That includes Don Dickson, 53, who supported Trump in 2016 and 2020 and might have liked to move on. A dog trainer, Dickson considered other candidates, including Haley, but decided she was too much of an establishment Republican for his taste.

Instead, he said, he backed Trump out of spite over the criminal prosecutions against him.

“When you’re prosecuting your political opponents, that’s, no,” he said.

Intriguingly, Haley’s 140,000 votes is more than Trump won in 2016 — and many of the voters who cast them said they were seeking to deploy their ballots strategically to stop Trump.

Among them were independent voters like Emily Dickson, 40, who cast her ballot for Haley, even though she was not particularly excited to do so. Haley, she said, “is our only chance to not get Donald Trump in office.”

In the fall, she said, she will vote for Biden if she must, although she said she would prefer a different Democrat.

Karen Moore, 70, an independent voter, showed up to vote in her first primary since 1980, hoping to stave off Trump’s reelection.

“It scares me to death,” Moore said of the prospect. “There’s no telling what he might do.”

Trump supporters checked out merchandise displayed on the side of an RV while waiting in line ahead of Trump’s arrival to the Grappone Center in Concord, N.H. on Jan. 19.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Trump has sought to downplay the tide of independent voters who supported Haley as somehow delegitimizing her candidacy, but they are actually a warning sign for his own — particularly those who say they will not support him in a general election if he becomes the nominee.

Rob Fleischman, 54, a retired computer scientist, is an unaffiliated voter who supported Haley solely to stop Trump, who he believes is a “criminal.”

“He tried to overthrow our government. He promoted lies,” said Fleischman, who views the threat he believes Trump poses to democracy as the most important issue of the election. He said he would vote for Biden in the fall.

In Exeter, Paula and Bill Parker, 69 and 70, said they planned to do the same.

“We’re voting for the lesser of the evils today,” Bill said, after they both backed Haley. “Trump is dangerous.”

Some of Trump’s own former supporters said they had soured on him. In Londonderry, Michael Lucci, a semi-retired sales consultant who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, said he could not do so again.

“I just think he’s a bit too rogue,” he said, after casting a vote for Haley.

A Nikki Haley supporter placed campaign signs in the snow outside of the VFW Post in Franklin, N.H.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

But not everyone who voted for Haley vowed to eschew Trump if he claims the nomination.

“I need a change in our party,” said Sue Ciccarello, a 60-year-old teacher who supported Trump in 2016 and 2020 but changed her mind about him after Jan. 6.

If the election comes down to Trump and Biden, though, Ciccarello, a Republican, said she will “sadly” vote for Trump.

“It wouldn’t be with enthusiasm,” she said. “It would be because I don’t agree with the Democratic point of view.”

Niki Griswold and Amanda Gokee of the Globe staff contributed reporting from Goffstown, Franklin, and Concord. Reporting was also contributed by correspondents Max Morse-deBrier and Albert Arron in Londonderry, Genesis Magpayo and Edozie Umunna in Hollis, Matthew Gillett and Weslan Hansen in Exeter, and Natasha LaChac in Hampton.

Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her @jessbidgood.

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