For weeks, Donald J. Trump traveled through Iowa and New Hampshire without breaking a sweat, outmuscled his rivals for the Republican nomination and absorbing the adoration of crowds convinced he will be the next president of the United States.
But as Mr. Trump steadily advances toward his party’s nomination, a harsher reality awaits.
Outside the soft bubble of the Republican primaries, Mr. Trump’s campaign faces lingering vulnerabilities that make his nomination a considerable risk for his party. Those weaknesses were laid bare Tuesday in New Hampshire, where independents, college-educated voters and Republicans unwilling to ignore her legal risks voted in large numbers for her rival, Nikki Haley.
Mr. Trump still won easily. The voters opposed to his candidacy were not more numerous than the many Republicans who loudly demanded his return to power. But the results, delivered by more than 310,000 voters in a politically divided state, underscored the difficulties facing Mr. Trump as the presidential race leaves the MAGA world and enters a broader electorate, one that has rejected less than four years ago.
“When people who voted for Reagan in 1976 and have been conservatives their whole lives tell me they don’t want to vote for Trump anymore, that’s a problem,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday. an interview with Blaze TV, a conservative media company, just days after he ended his own campaign and endorsed Mr. Trump. “So he has to find a way to solve this problem.”
President Biden would face his own challenges in a rematch of the 2020 contest. Unlike four years ago, Mr. Biden, 81, is widely disliked and most Americans disapprove of his job performance. Four years Mr. Trump’s senior, Mr. Biden faces deep skepticism about his age and is struggling to retain the coalition of voters that supported his first victory. He has turned to issues such as abortion rights and democracy, themes that resonate with his base, independents and even some moderate Republicans.
But like Mr. Trump, he faces doubts within his own party. Immigration, inflation and his support for Israel in its war in Gaza have eroded his support among young voters, black and Latino voters and liberals.
“The general election really starts now, and you have the two most unpopular political leaders going to face each other,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster. “It’s an election of the lesser evil.”
Mr. Trump’s problems, however, go back further. His takeover of the Republican Party in 2016 pushed moderates and independents out of the suburbs, and there is little evidence that he found a way to bring them back.
In New Hampshire, 44 percent of Republican primary voters were independents: Ms. Haley won most of them, 58 percent to 39 percent.
Polls suggest that many of these voters were not just enticed by a new face, but were voting specifically to express their opposition to Mr. Trump. Four out of 10 voters who supported Ms. Haley said their dislike of Mr. Trump was a bigger factor in their vote than their approval of Ms. Haley, according to exit polls. More than 90 percent said they would be unhappy if Mr. Trump won the nomination for a third time.
Mr. Trump had similar difficulties with independent-minded voters in the Iowa caucuses, a competition that generally attracts more conservative Republican base voters. Exit polls show that 55 percent people who identified as independent supported one of Mr. Trump’s opponents.
Mr. Trump will undoubtedly win over many of these voters in November. But the number of Haley supporters telling pollsters that they would support Mr. Biden — about 40% according to state and national polls — is striking. Even though some of these voters were never Trump voters, this figure suggests that a large number of Republicans, or former Republicans, may not return home.
Mr. Newhouse cautioned against reading too much into the New Hampshire results, pointing out that the state and its independents lean left. New Hampshire has voted for Democrats in every presidential re-election since 2004. He nevertheless warned that his party must ensure the election is not a referendum on Mr. Trump.
“When voters turn out to favor Trump, they reject their opinion,” he said.
That’s how Ruth Axtell, an interior designer and freelancer from New Hampshire who voted for Ms. Haley, views the race. She supported Mr Trump in 2016 but voted for Mr Biden in 2020.
“I would love to take Trump out and have him beaten by a woman too,” Ms. Axtell said. But she’s not sure how she’ll vote in the general election: “Is this what we’re stuck with?” she says.
The New Hampshire results highlighted other weaknesses of Mr. Trump. He lost to Ms. Haley among the party’s college-educated and highest-earning voters, underscoring the problems he has had retaining voters who once formed the bedrock of his party.
Mr. Trump’s biggest defeats in New Hampshire appear to come in Hanover, Lyme and Lebanon — wealthy, highly educated towns around Dartmouth College and Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center.
Even in Iowa, where caucus attendees were more tied to the MAGA movement, Mr. Trump was weakest in affluent suburbs. In Dallas County, the rotating suburb around Des Moines, which Mr. Trump narrowly won in 2020, he received only 39% of support from members of the Republican caucus.
Mr. Trump shrugged off concerns about winning back Republicans who rejected him. “I’m not sure we need too many,” he told reporters Tuesday in New Hampshire. “They all come back.”
In his victory speech on Tuesday, an opportunity to turn to a general voting audience, Mr. Trump used the attention to attack Ms. Haley, rather than calling for unity within the party as he has made after the Iowa caucuses. He then insulted her dress on his Truth Social platform. “I don’t get too angry, I get revenge,” he said.
Trump aides and super PAC officials both view Mr. Biden’s campaign as a more formidable opponent than any of Mr. Trump’s primary rivals.
Even if Mr. DeSantis and Ms. Haley were largely unwilling or unable to return to Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden’s campaign will not give ground.
The Biden campaign, for example, was quick to respond to Mr. Trump’s claims that Mr. Biden is too old to serve another term, by producing its own excerpts of the verbal slips of Mr. Trump and others moments of confusion.
In recent days, the super PAC MAGA Inc., which has spent $36 million on campaign advertising to support Mr. Trump’s primary bid, has made urgent appeals to donors, highlighting internal projections that the Biden campaign will have spent $100 million on television by the end of the first quarter and up to $300 million by the Republican National Convention in July.
In an email to a donor this week, the super PAC’s chief executive, Taylor Budowich, said Mr. Biden’s spending onslaught was an attempt to refocus voters on issues that resonated with independents and favored Democrats, such as the right to abortion.
Mr. Trump would be able to defeat Mr. Biden, Mr. Budowich said in the fundraising call, as long as Team Trump could keep voters focused on issues such as the economy, national security and crime.
However, focusing on issues is not Mr. Trump’s strong suit. In his victory speech Tuesday, he repeated lies about his 2020 loss and added a new one, saying he won New Hampshire that year. (Mr. Biden did.) That remark raised another red flag for Mr. Trump once he leaves the safety of the MAGA universe.
His fixation on the last election, his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and the 91 criminal charges he faces, most of which relate to his attempts to retain power, threaten his prospects, and not just with independents and already wary swing voters.
Even in conservative Iowa, about 10 percent of his own supporters said they would not consider voting for him in November if he were convicted of a crime.