CONCORD, N.H. — Though Donald Trump won the Republican primary handily, his showing in New Hampshire Tuesday exposed a weakness that could dog his candidacy in the general election.
The former president lagged among independents, the largest bloc of voters in the state, underscoring how difficult it could be to win New Hampshire in November, a challenge that could extend to other battleground states.
Trump defeated his former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley by double digits, solidifying his path to the Republican nomination and weakening her case for staying in the race. Now, even as Haley has made clear she will forge ahead, both Trump and President Biden are beginning to pivot toward a general-election contest.
A lot will change between now and November. But this week’s results, as well as exit polls, broader surveys, and interviews with more than 50 New Hampshire voters, show that this purple state — and its four electoral votes — could be challenging for Trump to carry, as could other swing states.
Trump remains dominant among Republican voters in New Hampshire, but “his performance among independents is a warning sign,” said Jon McHenry, a national GOP pollster who grew up in the state.
“Based on what you saw last night, it seems like he would not be well positioned to win New Hampshire” in the general election, McHenry added.
One independent voter, David Westen, put a rather fine point on it: “I would vote for a chimpanzee before I would vote for Trump,” he said near his polling place in Nashua.
Westen, 73, said he voted for Haley but would likely back Biden should this fall bring a rematch of the 2020 presidential race.
A Boston Globe/Suffolk University/USA Today poll from early January found that Biden leads Trump in a general election contest in New Hampshire by about 7 points. In both 2016 and 2020, Trump won New Hampshire’s GOP primary but lost the state in the general election. Losing New Hampshire in those contests seems to be something of a sore point for the former president, who for years spun false conspiracy theories about how busloads of Massachusetts voters stole the state from his column in 2016. On Tuesday night, he falsely claimed he won the state in 2020, when in reality Biden won it by more than 7 percentage points.
The Biden campaign is bullish on extending Democrats’ New Hampshire winning streak. Campaign officials emphasized to reporters in a conference call Wednesday that Trump’s victory in New Hampshire put them in general election mode and that they are treating him as the presumptive Republican nominee.
Quentin Fulks, the principal deputy campaign manager, said the Biden team saw weaknesses for Trump as they dug into exit polls.
“In New Hampshire, a general election battleground state, signals from undeclared voters show that Trump does not have the support from independents that he has had in the past,” Fulks said. He noted that Trump won undeclared voters in the 2016 primary, but on Tuesday he lost about two-thirds of them to Haley.
“While Donald Trump has the united support of his MAGA base, he is struggling to make himself palatable to these key constituencies that will ultimately decide the election this November,” Fulks said.
A number of independent and registered Republican voters said that while they were backing Haley in the primary, they would not vote for Trump if he got the nomination. And while exit polls can be unreliable, the broad trends found by AP VoteCast — a survey of 1,989 New Hampshire voters who took part in the Republican primary and 915 Democratic primary voters — backs up what the Globe found interviewing more than six dozen voters at the polls Tuesday: About half of GOP voters in New Hampshire are very or somewhat concerned that Trump is too extreme to win the general election, the AP exit poll found. Only about one-third said the same about Haley.
Regarding Trump’s criminal indictments, about 4 in 10 GOP participants in the AP exit poll in New Hampshire said they believe he has done something illegal related to either his alleged attempt to interfere in the vote count in the 2020 presidential election, his role in what happened at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, or the classified documents found at his Florida home after he left the White House.
Of course, Biden has his own challenges to worry about, including a lack of enthusiasm among key members of the coalition that lifted him to victory four years ago, such as young people and Black voters. And some voters who backed Haley told the Globe they won’t support Biden even if Trump is the other option.
As the state — and the front-runners’ campaigns — turn to the general election, the key question is “what happens to the Haley independents,” said Dante Scala, a politics professor at the University of New Hampshire. “What do they do in the general election? Are they politically homeless now?”
Some polls have shown that Haley fares better than Trump in a hypothetical general election matchup against Biden. But those surveys — which the candidate touts as part of her daily stump speech — may prove irrelevant if she cannot earn the GOP nod.
At Haley’s election night party, Karen O’Connell, of Stratham, said she wasn’t sure how she would vote if Haley fades before November and she has to choose between Trump and Biden.
“I can’t in good conscience vote for either of them,” said O’Connell, 53. ”They’re both horrible people. I would like a clean slate.”
George Long, 67, who attended a Haley campaign event in Exeter over the weekend, said he was backing her because “she’s not Trump, she’s not Biden.”
Long said that if Haley did not make it to the general election, he would likely vote for a third party candidate.
“I think the solution is for the Republicans to kick Trump out of the party,” Long said.
A third-party candidate could be a major factor in New Hampshire, a proudly independent state that has historically been open to such outside bids, Scala said, citing the candidacy of Ross Perot in the 1990s.
Still, at least some Haley voters told the Globe they would back Trump in the general election, even if he’s not their first choice.
“Probably the most unifying thing among Republicans is a view that Joe Biden is ruining the country,” said McHenry, the strategist, “so those Republicans certainly vote for Trump.”
Chris Nevins, a Republican former New Hampshire state legislator who voted for Haley, said he would support Trump over Biden, calling it “an easy question.”
“I can’t tell you the disappointment of feeling what’s happened to this country” under Biden, he said. As far as whether the former president could pull out a victory in New Hampshire, Nevins added, “I would never say that he’s got it, but he’s gonna work as hard as he can.”
Jim Puzzanghera and Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was used.