If the results of the New Hampshire primary tell us anything, it is that the Republican Party is facing a divide between the two key voter groups it needs to win in November — its partisan base and the voters most likely to tip the general election, independents.
There are two ways of looking at the final results of the primary — one that gives us some insight on the remaining primaries and Trump’s advantage and one that sheds light on the general election and Haley’s advantage.
First, the rest of the primary season. Tuesday’s primary election was a clear victory for the former president, one that has put him on the trajectory to winning the Republican nomination. Overall, he won the state by 11 percentage points, 54 percent to 43 percent (with 95 percent of votes in), and performed well, based on the Edison Research preliminary exit poll results (updated at 10:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Wednesday), with key groups that will make up the critical component of future primaries.
Trump won voters who identified as Republicans — 50 percent of the primary electorate — by a large margin, 74 percent to 25 percent. Conservative voters made up 67 percent of the electorate; Trump won them, 71 percent to 27 percent. In terms of education, Trump won voters without a college degree — a group that comprised 52 percent of the overall vote — by a margin of 67 percent to 31 percent.
Finally, white evangelical or white born-again Christians went for Trump 70 percent to 26 percent. His level of performance with these groups certainly bodes well for Trump in the upcoming primaries.
Take South Carolina, for example, the next big primary state after Nevada. In the 2016 primary, the electorate was 81 percent conservative and 67 percent were white evangelical or born-again Christians. Haley has her work cut out for her in her home state.
Still, Trump’s New Hampshire victory was closer than expected. The RealClearPolitics average on Tuesday showed him leading Haley by 19 percentage points. The last three polls in the RCP average going into the primary, however, showed the average lead at 24 points. The final results fell short of that.
Now looking at the general. For Haley, her performance overall in New Hampshire outpaced expectations and she was the clear winner with key voter groups critical in going beyond the Republican base to win the general election. Haley handily won independents, who made up 44 percent of the electorate, by 58 percent to 39 percent. Similarly, moderates, 28 percent of the electorate, voted for Haley by 72 percent to 25 percent.
She also won voters with college Bachelor’s degrees or higher by 56-42 percent, a group that plays an important role in the general election.
Haley’s strength with independents would bode well for the general election and the party. In the last couple of elections, Republicans have struggled to win these voters. In 2018, Republicans lost them by 12 points, 42 percent to 54 percent, which cost Republicans the House. In 2020, Trump lost Independents by 13 points, 41 percent to 54 percent, and the White House.
In 2022, Republicans lost Independents by two points, 47 percent to 49 percent, the reason the expected red wave didn’t happen, despite a historic party identification advantage of plus-3 percentage points over Democrats. To win this November, Republicans also need to do better with moderate voters who Trump lost in 2020 by 30 points, 34 percent to 64 percent, and who Republicans lost by 15 points in 2022.
Analyzing the primary voters’ top four issues, we see a similar dichotomy between the candidates, with Trump stronger in the primaries, while Haley showed a potential advantage in the general. The top issue for Republicans was the economy (40 percent) followed by immigration (37 percent). Among those who said immigration, Trump won them 86 percent to 14 percent, and among the economy voters, he won them 67 percent to 33 percent.
For independents, the top issue was the economy, at 36 percent, with immigration at 23 percent. Like Republicans, independents who chose immigration went with Trump by 67 percent to 31 percent. However, Haley won independents who chose the economy, by 54 percent to 40 percent.
The exit poll also asked whether voters would be satisfied or dissatisfied if Trump won the nomination and asked the same question for Haley. Overall for Trump, 61 percent said satisfied and 38 percent said dissatisfied. For Haley, it was 51 percent satisfied and 47 percent dissatisfied.
Among Republicans, the result for Trump was 80 percent satisfied and 19 dissatisfied, while for Haley it was 41 percent satisfied and 57 dissatisfied. This is clearly an advantage for Trump in the upcoming primaries but perhaps not for the general.
Asked about Trump, 45 percent of independents said they would be satisfied, but 54 percent said they would be dissatisfied. On the other hand, 61 percent said they would be satisfied with Haley and 37 percent dissatisfied. Once again, we see a divide that gives Trump an advantage in the primaries but Haley with a potential stronger standing in the general election.
Going forward, both candidates have challenges. The exit poll asked voters if they would still find Trump fit to be president if convicted. Overall, 54 percent said yes and 42 percent said no.
There was a clear difference, however, between Republicans and independents on this question.
Among Republicans, 72 percent said yes and 26 percent said no. Of those who said yes, Trump won them, 91 percent to 9 percent. In contrast, only 38 percent of independents said yes, while 58 percent said no. This result strongly suggests that for the primary environment, this issue is less challenging for Trump, but clearly could be quite problematic in the fall.
While outperforming expectations, for Haley, losing New Hampshire by double digits still was a loss. At some point, she has to put a win on the board. The fact that voters who decided their vote in January — representing 41 percent of the vote, including the majority of independents — went for Haley, 64 percent to 33 percent, is a positive for her. Haley’s clear challenge is to turn her recent momentum into more than just closing the gap.
The bottom line is that both candidates have positives and negatives coming out of the New Hampshire primary. Trump, having now won both Iowa and New Hampshire, is in a strong position; however Haley did close the gap.
For the party, holding the base while reaching out to independents must be job one.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.