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OPINION

Searching for the N.H. primary and coming up empty

Where were the candidates? Scarcer than an empty chairlift at Loon Mountain on a sunshine morning during Presidents’ Day weekend. It’s enough to make someone actually miss Vivek Ramaswamy.

A Donald Trump supporter waved a Trump flag while waiting to be let into the SNHU Arena for a Trump rally on Jan. 19.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

CONCORD, N.H.

I went looking for the New Hampshire primary and could barely find it.

Sure, there was the standard New Hampshire primary fare of rallies, meet-and-greets, Main Street walks, breakfast meetings, and set-piece speeches over the weekend. But candidates? Scarcer than an empty chairlift at Loon Mountain on a sunny morning during Presidents’ Day weekend. It’s enough to make someone actually miss Vivek Ramaswamy.

Four years ago I brought my McGill University students here and they saw seven Democratic candidates. This year’s group of students saw two Republicans. And therein lies some lessons about politics in 2024.

Entrepreneur Ramaswamy — charmless and giving off the air of someone who would take a right turn on every red light — dropped out of the race the night of the Iowa caucuses, his hundreds of small-town and street-side campaign events wasted.

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Former governor Chris Christie of New Jersey spent an enormous amount of time here, haranguing former president Donald Trump and beseeching former governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina to actually say something stinging about Trump — but he was nowhere to be seen this weekend either.

The bravest of the candidates, and maybe the most qualified, former governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, toiled for months in the small towns and mountain fastnesses of this state even though he barely measured a single percentage point in the polls. Surely he would stick around — but he also departed. Gone, too, were Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Governor Doug Burgum of North Dakota. So long, fellas.

And Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, who withdrew Sunday afternoon? He was the campaign’s red-tailed hawk, a migratory bird sometimes here in winter but sometimes not.

Of course Trump was here, ducking in and out of New Hampshire between holding campaign events in courtrooms. Haley was a constant presence.

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But the empty feeling here provides a passel full of insights about this year’s presidential race.

For all the criticism of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary that follows eight wintry days later — they’re in peculiar states; the voting groups are wildly unrepresentative of the rest of the country; their demographic profiles are of an America that hasn’t existed for decades; their contests promote disproportionate emphasis on local issues like Iowa’s ethanol; the number of voters is too small and their impact is too big — the two states nonetheless traditionally perform a useful purpose: They give small-funded candidates an opportunity to air their messages and assess their chances, and they winnow the field.

That is why then-senator Joe Biden, who gave the 2008 campaign a spirited try, dropped out after Iowa. That is why then-governor Bruce Babbitt of Arizona plowed against the odds for months the same year but left the campaign right after New Hampshire.

But this year the winnowing came before Iowa and New Hampshire, not after.

That’s partially because campaigning in 2024 is far more expensive than it ever has been, and for many of the candidates it’s unsustainable.

Scott, for example, spent 72 percent more than he raised between July 1 and Sept. 30, according to a study by Open Secrets, which monitors campaign spending. So much for any argument of fiscal probity. The group found that the organizations that aren’t regulated by federal spending rules, such as super PACs, already have spent $318 million on presidential and congressional races as of last week, more than six times as much as they spent in the last political cycle. As former Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois would say, a million here and million there, and pretty soon we’re talking about real money.

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But the real reason is, like so much in American politics: Donald John Trump.

He’s a money machine, cashing in on adversity (91 counts in four separate indictments, an unorthodox but spectacularly successful marketing tool) and opportunity (he’s cultivated, and then earned, the profile as the likely if not inevitable GOP nominee). In two election cycles he has crowded out all competitors, cursing and crushing their campaigns, partly by tending to a loyal base of supporters and partially by letting loose a dispiriting and damaging fusillade of abuse against his rivals.

From the start, Republicans such as Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire have believed that clearing the GOP field of competitors was the only way to avoid a repeat of the 2016 campaign, when the opposition to Trump was so fractured that he managed to win the nomination with a series of victories with small margins. Sununu succeeded. It hasn’t mattered much.

Because now that the winnow brigade has prevailed — now that it is down to Trump and Haley — the Republicans are in the same position as they were eight years ago.

Some of the traditional New Hampshire campaign venues will be empty for the final hours of the 2024 primary. It wasn’t the size of the field that mattered after all. It was the unavoidable factor that establishment politicians still haven’t reckoned with: Trump’s enduring if confounding appeal to Republicans.

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David Shribman, previously the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.