How Haley Lost New Hampshire: Ignoring Lessons from Past Underdogs

Senator John McCain’s first town hall in May 1999 was terrible. Thirteen people gathered in a nearly empty American Legion Hall in Manchester, and only nine of them were still deciding who to vote for in the state’s first primary.

But the Arizona Republican, faced with a goliath named George W. Bush with the entire Republican establishment behind him, stood his ground. He asked questions in church basements, restaurants and community centers until the assembled voters ran out of questions. He spoke to reporters on his Straight Talk Express bus and made no secret of reaching out to independents.

In February 2000, Mr. McCain shocked the Texas governor with a landslide victory in New Hampshire, 49 percent to 30 percent.

Accessibility, honesty, vulnerability and near-constant presence — Nikki Haley did none of these things in New Hampshire against her goliath, Donald J. Trump, a candidate who is far different from Mr. Bush but who also has an aura of inevitability. She lost the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday.

Maybe it didn’t have to happen that way.

“Seven, 10, 14 days ago I thought she could have won,” Mike Dennehy, Mr. Trump’s campaign manager. McCain in New Hampshire and the architect of his incredible victory. “I really am.”

New Hampshire has a way of giving politicians a second chance and the occasional upset. McCain’s stunt in New Hampshire didn’t win him the Republican nomination, but it did extend his incredible run. Hillary Clinton entered the state in 2008 after a tough Iowa loss to Barack Obama. Like Mr. McCain, she did not ultimately win, but she left New Hampshire with a victory over Mr. Obama and jumped into a shootout that would last for months.

Her husband, Bill Clinton, was left for dead in 1992, scorched by scandal, and finished in the Iowa caucuses with 2.8 percent, behind “non-committal.” His second-place finish in New Hampshire was enough for him to declare himself a “comeback kid” and he returned for two terms in the White House.

But for New Hampshire voters to give their blessing to presidential outsiders, they need to see the candidates for what they are. Mrs. Clinton’s voice trembled and her eyes watered on the eve when Marianne Pernold Young, in a coffee shop in Portsmouth, asked the exhausted candidate, “How do you do it?” It showed an emotional side that voters missed all those years when she gritted her teeth and stood by her husband.

Ms. Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, did the opposite, running a tightly controlled campaign that limited her exposure, played it safe and never gave voters a reason to throw her a life jacket.

“So many, many mistakes,” Mr Dennehy said. “It was a 100 percent defensive campaign when it had to be a 100 percent offensive campaign.”

Not that Ms. Haley lacked a template. McCain’s magic may have been race-specific: the senator was a charismatic war hero; his opponent was a Texan with a sound that was mistaken for a New Englander. But there were also strategies that could be replicated by a campaign willing to embrace its underdog status and take risks, New Hampshire strategists said.

For the McCain campaign, “straight talk” was more than just a slogan. The conversation was a strategy. In the summer of 1999, the campaign gave out food to lure people to events where a candidate was given a microphone and placed on stage until every person had run out of questions.

“At first it would be six people and a lady who was walking her dog and wanted to see what the fuss was about,” said Mike Murphy, who was the senator’s chief strategist. “We liked them going long because we didn’t have to work as much. We couldn’t afford it.”

Courting Mr. McCain with the media, so alien to contemporary Republican politics, benefited reporters who were grateful for unrestricted access. If the occasional slip led to a few bad stories, Mr. McCain wiped himself off and went right back to the reporters in the back of the bus.

“I mean, if there was a guy from the Weekly Reader with a microphone, I’d sit with him for an hour,” recalled Dave Carney, a longtime Republican consultant.

The contrast with Ms. Haley was stark. Before she even arrived in New Hampshire, she canceled a scheduled debate with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, declaring that her only opponent was Mr. Trump.

The argument might have made intellectual sense for a contact-protecting candidate, but New Hampshire consultants said that rejecting a major televised event — New Hampshire’s moment in the national television spotlight — was a huge, unforced error.

She also buttoned up her events, usually taking five questions from voters and often none, just a short speech and a series of photos. Ms. Haley’s interactions with the press have been few and far between. In recent days, access to some events was limited to a handful of invited journalists.

Where Mr. McCain’s campaign openly targeted independent voters, Ms. Haley’s courting of New Hampshire’s 40 percent of unaffiliated voters seemed almost transgressive, as if she feared an attack from the Trump campaign.

“Show me where I’m moderate,” she demanded at events. Her campaign lacked the “Independent for Haley” signs like the “Independent for McCain” signs that littered yards in the southern part of the state, and only late in the campaign did she shift to the argument that Republicans need to broaden their appeal.

Colin Carberry, 52, an independent from Dover, thought he would vote for Ms Haley last week but said on Tuesday he never felt she was asking for his vote.

“She’s very scripted,” he said. “She’s not really — I don’t want to say a natural politician, but a natural person.”

Instead, Mr. Carberry wrote in on behalf of President Biden on the Democratic ballot.

Ms. Haley had her reasons for being cautious with her complaints. After all, McCain’s embrace of independents and his overt early push to persuade Democrats to re-register as unaffiliated so they could cast their ballots could only take him so far. Three weeks later, Mr. Bush crushed him in South Carolina with the Republican vote before securing the nomination.

“I understand it’s not a long-term strategy,” Mr Dennehy admitted. “But you have to take these things one competition at a time. If you’re going to have a chance to achieve something, you have to win.”

Of course, there were no guarantees that any of this would carry Ms. Haley to victory in New Hampshire — not against Mr. Trump, whose hold on the Republican base is remarkable, even in a state where Republicans have tended toward moderation. Even as he wooed independents, Mr. McCain held his own against the Republicans. Pre-election polls suggested Mr. Haley was trailing Mr. Trump badly among party voters.

Perhaps Ms. Haley’s lack of a steady message, rather than a lack of timing, doomed her New Hampshire bid. Ms. Haley tried the option – she, not Mr. Trump, would beat Mr. Biden. She tried to praise Mr. Trump, saying it was time for a new generation of leadership. Finally, she tried to convince voters that he was an aging agent of chaos, mentally unfit for another term.

None of that worked, said Mr. Carney, because Republican primary voters wanted Mr. Trump.

“We always think the other candidates are to blame,” he said. “What if people liked the president and wanted to come back to him?”

Leave a Comment