On the Trail: Did NH primary show retail politics is dead?

Republican presidential candidate and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, center, chats with guests during a campaign stop at Mary Ann's Diner on Jan. 19 in Amherst, N.H.

Republican presidential candidate and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, center, chats with guests during a campaign stop at Mary Ann's Diner on Jan. 19 in Amherst, N.H. Charles Krupa / AP file


For the Monitor

Published: 02-02-2024 7:32 AM

Modified: 02-03-2024 4:25 PM

Another New Hampshire presidential primary is in the books, and some political prognosticators are quick to proclaim that the Granite State’s storied first-in-the-nation primary and cherished candidate-to-voter retail-style campaigning are both on life support.

While a multi-year fight will soon commence in both major political parties over the fate of New Hampshire in the 2028 Democratic and Republican presidential nominating calendars, arguments are already underway over whether retail politicking still packs a punch in the age of social media and cable news.

Neither of the runaway winners in last month’s primary campaigned the New Hampshire way.

Former President Donald Trump avoided town hall meetings, house parties and diner stops. Instead, he relied on occasional larger-scale rallies to energize his loyal supporters.

And President Joe Biden, facing an unsanctioned Democratic primary (for reasons this column has repeatedly explored over the past two years), never filed to place his name on the New Hampshire ballot and avoided campaigning in the Granite State.

“I think presidential races are becoming much more nationalized and driven by cable news and other coverage rather than retail,” seasoned Republican strategist Matthew Bartlett told the Monitor.

But Bartlett, a New Hampshire native who splits his time between the Granite State and the nation’s capital, noted that “we still continue to pick winners. People may not like it, but Trump and Biden look to be the presumptive nominees, and kudos to New Hampshire for once again pointing that out.”

Longtime New Hampshire-based Republican consultant Jim Merrill, a veteran of numerous GOP presidential campaigns, was also quick to push back on those ready to write an obituary for retail-style politics.

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Pointing to the president and the former president, Merrill emphasized: “I think in many ways, 2024 was an aberration because we had two virtual incumbents.”

Both Merrill and Bartlett pointed to Nikki Haley’s performance in the primary. The former two-term South Carolina governor who later served as U.N. ambassador in the Trump administration, was once a longshot for the 2024 nomination. But Haley crisscrossed New Hampshire over the past year, holding town hall after town hall and in the final stretch leading up to primary was making scores of retail stops.

“It’s touching every hand. It’s making sure we get out there,” Haley told this reporter during a retail stop at the Newfields Country Store four days ahead of the primary. “We’re going to hit every single place we can. This is about making sure people know they have a choice.”

Much of Haley’s final campaigning was orchestrated by Gov. Chris Sununu, who endorsed her in December and immediately became her top surrogate and a key adviser.

“This is it. Stop to stop. Person to person. Town to town. Small business to small business,” Sununu told the Monitor as he spoke in his hometown of Newfields. “This is it. This is how we’re successful in New Hampshire year after year.”

Plenty of pundits argue that the strategy paid off, helping Haley to survive as the field of more than a dozen Republican White House contenders last summer shrunk to two on the eve of the primary – Trump and Haley.

“I think Haley proved that the New Hampshire experience still works for candidates. She started at 2%. She ran the right way. She ran a traditional grassroots campaign and that left her as the last person standing against Trump,” Merrill said.

“I think as we look ahead to 2028, when we’re likely to have an open race on both sides, we’re apt to return to a more traditional New Hampshire primary with robust grassroots campaigning, certainly on the Republican side and hopefully in the Democratic one as well,” he predicted.

And Bartlett highlighted the “quarterbacking of the retail politics from Gov. Chris Sununu, who helped create and even lead her schedule. That was a true authentic New Hampshire effort that crisscrossed the state, and 43% in any other year would have been a blowout win in a primary.

“How she got to her 43% I think is absolutely worth noting, and I think a lot of people will emulate that authentic New Hampshire campaigning in years to come,” he emphasized.

No DNC penalties yet for New Hampshire

The Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws panel met virtually on Thursday.

But the panel, which oversees the party’s presidential nominating calendar, didn’t discuss potential penalties against New Hampshire for violating the DNC’s 2024 schedule and holding an unsanctioned primary.

Sources on the panel told the Monitor that discussions regarding New Hampshire would occur closer to this summer’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

The potential DNC sanctions could result in the loss of half of New Hampshire’s delegates to the convention.