WASHINGTON − Donald Trump’s double-digit victory Tuesday in the New Hampshire Republican primary secured his grip on the party’s nomination yet exposed his greatest weakness as a general election candidate, reinforcing President Joe Biden’s road map to beat him in the fall.
Trump’s poor showing with New Hampshire’s independent voters − combined with some Republicans who said they won’t back the former president if he is the Republican nominee − underscored the risk Trump poses for the GOP as their nominee.
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley won 58% of New Hampshire’s independent voters, who made up about 44% of the primary electorate, compared with Trump’s 39%, according to exit polls. Haley topped Trump 56%-42% among voters with college degrees.
Perhaps most alarming for the former president, about 90% of Haley’s voters in New Hampshire − a battleground in the general election − said they would be dissatisfied if Trump were the nominee. And 83% of Haley voters said Trump, who is facing multiple criminal indictments, would be unfit for office if convicted.
“The warning signs are there,” said Simon Rosenberg, a longtime Democratic strategist. “This idea that somehow Trump is strong and is doing better than he did in 2016 and 2020 − it’s a joke. What we are seeing is the non-MAGA wing of the Republican Party is very reticent about joining forces with MAGA in 2024.”
Abortion rights, democracy pitches have independents in mind
Independent and college-educated voters, particularly in fast-growing suburbs, have become the key swing vote in recent presidential elections. Biden’s strong showing with this group in Georgia, Michigan and other battleground states powered his victory against Trump in 2020.
“The question is: Where does that critical middle swing? Where does it go?” said Democratic strategist and author Melissa DeRosa. “And I think the Republican Party should be very fearful coming out of New Hampshire that Biden is going to have the edge with independents.”
Even as Haley vowed to fight on, Biden pivoted fully to a rematch against Trump after the outcome in New Hampshire, declaring in a statement that “it is now clear that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee.” It’s a contest the campaign already has started bracing for.
Biden, who has long railed on “extreme MAGA” Republicans, has worked to make restoring abortion rights a top theme of his candidacy and has cast Trump as a threat to democracy − leaning into messages that energize not only Democrats but independent voters.
Abortion “is a case where a clear majority of voters side with Democrats and where you can point to Donald Trump and what he did as president in taking rights away or undermining rights on abortion access,” DeRosa said.
This week the Biden campaign launched a full-scale attack on Trump on abortion rights, reminding voters that it was Trump’s three Supreme Court appointments that produced the conservative majority that overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which provided a constitutional right to an abortion.
“Donald Trump is betting we won’t vote on this issue,” Biden said Tuesday at a rally in Manassas, Virginia, a suburb of Washington. “He’s betting that we won’t hold him responsible, either.”
Biden kicked off the new year with a dramatic speech in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, arguing democracy is on the ballot in 2024 and accusing “MAGA voices” of abandoning the truth about the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Biden called on “Democrats, independents, mainstream Republicans” to make a choice: “We all know who Donald Trump is. The question is: Who are we?”
Biden has his own weaknesses versus Trump
Despite the warning signs for Trump in New Hampshire, Biden trails Trump in most head-to-head polls, losing among independents and underperforming with key factions of the Democratic coalition: Black, Hispanic and young voters.
Biden, who turned 81 in November, faces his own shortcomings in a Trump rematch: concerns from voters about his age, lagging enthusiasm among the Democratic base, surging migration at the southern border, and an enduring struggle to get credit for his greatest legislative accomplishments.
The Biden campaign has downplayed the polling struggles, arguing that as the election gets closer, a contrast between Trump’s campaign of “revenge and retribution” versus Biden “running to move the country forward” will crystallize for voters.
Hardened concerns about the economy amid stubborn inflation remain another problem for Biden. Polling has regularly found a majority of voters trust Trump more than Biden to handle the economy. But improving consumer coincidence suggests Biden could finally begin to capitalize politically on positive economic metrics such as low unemployment, a booming stock market and a growing gross domestic product.
“Things are finally beginning to sink in. We passed a lot of really good legislation,” Biden said Thursday in in Superior, Wisconsin, touting his historic infrastructure law. “We knew it was going to take time for it to begin to take hold. But it’s taken hold now and turning the economy around.”
DeRosa argued the economy could become a weakness for Trump.
“The thing that you really want for the economy to thrive and grow is stability and predictability – two things Donald Trump is not,” she said. “Donald Trump is a flamethrower.”
Why Biden already anointed Trump the nominee
William Howell, a political scientist from the University of Chicago, said Biden’s early anointment of Trump as the Republican nominee provides an opportunity for him to create a “coherent, forceful” story that has been missing amid the constant drama surrounding Trump and the Republican primary.
“What Biden needs to do is begin to shape the narrative about his first term in office and the stakes involved in his upcoming election, and he has struggled to do that,” Howell said. “He’s been at the fringes of political coverage, and he can’t be. He’s the president, and he’s running for reelection, and that that needs to change.”
Democratic strategist Josh Schwerin said the election will be decided not only by who can do a better job of turning out their base but also who can win over swing voters who aren’t in love with either candidate.
“These are voters who already dislike Trump and have likely voted against him in the past, so it’s Biden’s job to show them that he’s the better alternative,” Schwerin said. “These are voters that like what Biden has done on health care, clean-energy jobs and protecting democracy. They just need to hear about it more often and in a way that contrasts with how Trump will take these good things away.”
Trump has extreme vulnerabilities outside his hard-core MAGA base, and that presents a real opportunity for Democrats this fall, Schwerin said.
But “it’s going to take a lot of work to earn those votes,” he said.
Rosenberg, who has argued Democrats have more reason for optimism than Biden’s polling suggests, said “something broke within the Republican Party” as a result of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that overturned Roe v. Wade.
Since the court’s decision in 2022, Democrats exceeded expectations in the midterm elections that same year, racked up several wins in state referendums on abortion and outperformed Republicans in last year’s off-year elections.
“The burden to prove they have a strategy to win is on the Republicans; it’s not on us,” Rosenberg said, arguing the goal for the Biden campaign should be to “fully engage Trump every day.”
Meanwhile, Trump has spent much of 2024 campaigning from the courthouse, Rosenberg noted. Trump appeared in a New York courtroom Friday in his own defense in the defamation lawsuit brought by E. Jean Carroll, who accused Trump of raping her in a department store dressing room in the 1990s.
The truth is, for all of us working in this business, we know that Donald Trump has more negatives than any candidate has ever had in the history of the country,” Rosenberg said.
Reach Joey Garrison on X, formerly known as Twitter, @joeygarrison and Michael Collins @mcollinsNEWS.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Biden hopes to win independents turned off by Trump