How Haley Lost New Hampshire: Ignoring Lessons from Underdogs of the Past

Senator John McCain’s first town hall in May 1999 was awful. Thirteen people milled around at a nearly empty American Legion Hall in Manchester, and only nine of them were still deciding whom to vote for in the first-in-the-nation primary.

But the Arizona Republican, facing a goliath named George W. Bush with the entire Republican establishment behind him, stuck with it. He took questions in church basements, diners and community centers until the assembled voters ran out of questions to ask. He talked 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 convincing New Hampshire victory, 49 percent to 30 percent.

Accessibility, honesty, vulnerability and a near-constant presence — Nikki Haley did none of that in New Hampshire against her own goliath, Donald J. Trump, a far different candidate from Mr. Bush but one who also has the aura of inevitability. On Tuesday, she lost New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.

Maybe it didn’t have to happen that way.

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

New Hampshire has a way of offering politicians second chances and the occasional upset. Mr. McCain’s stunner in New Hampshire didn’t propel him to the Republican nomination, but it extended his improbable insurgency. Hillary Clinton hobbled into the state in 2008 after a bruising loss in Iowa to Barack Obama. Like Mr. McCain, she did not ultimately win, but she left New Hampshire victorious over Mr. Obama and jumped into a slugfest that would stretch on for months.

Her husband, Bill Clinton, had been left for dead in 1996, scarred by scandal and finishing the Iowa caucuses with 2.8 percent, behind “uncommitted.” His second-place finish in New Hampshire was enough for him to proclaim himself “the comeback kid,” and come back he did, to two terms in the White House.

But for New Hampshire’s voters to grant presidential underdogs their blessing, they need to see the candidates for who they are. Mrs. Clinton’s voice quavered and her eyes teared up on primary eve when Marianne Pernold Young, in a Portsmouth cafe, asked an exhausted candidate, “How do you do it?” It showed an emotional side that voters had missed in all those years she had gritted her teeth and stood by her husband.

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

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

It was not that Ms. Haley lacked a template. The McCain magic was perhaps specific to that race: The senator was a charismatic war hero; his opponent was a Texan with a twang that rubbed New Englanders the wrong way. But there were also strategies that were replicable by a campaign willing to embrace its underdog status and take risks, New Hampshire strategists said.

For the McCain campaign, “straight talk” wasn’t just a slogan. Talking was a strategy. In the summer of 1999, the campaign was giving away food to lure people to events where the candidate was given a microphone and planted onstage until every person had run out of questions to ask.

“At first it’d be six people and some lady walking her dog who 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 do as many. We couldn’t afford to.”

Mr. McCain’s courtship with the news media, so alien to contemporary Republican politics, yielded the benefit of the doubt from reporters who were grateful for unlimited access. If the occasional slip of the tongue yielded a few bad stories, Mr. McCain dusted himself off and went right back to the reporters in the rear of the bus.

“I mean, if there was a guy from Weekly Reader with a microphone, he would have sat down with him for an hour,” recalled Dave Carney, a longtime Republican consultant.

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

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

She also buttoned up her events, usually taking five questions from voters and often none at all, just a short stump speech and a round of photos. Ms. Haley’s interactions with reporters were few and far between. In the final 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 courtship of the 40 percent of New Hampshire voters who are unaffiliated with a political party felt almost transgressive, as if she feared the attacks from the Trump campaign.

“Show me where I’m moderate,” she demanded at events. Her campaign fielded no “Independents for Haley” signs like the “Independents for McCain” signs that cluttered yards in the southern part of the state, and only late in her campaign did she shift to an argument that Republicans needed to broaden their appeal.

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

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

Instead, Mr. Carberry wrote in President Biden’s name on the Democratic ballot.

Ms. Haley had her reasons to be careful with her appeals. After all, Mr. McCain’s embrace of independents and his open early push to persuade Democrats to re-register as unaffiliated so they could cast their votes could only get him so far. Three weeks later, Mr. Bush crushed him in South Carolina with Republican votes before cruising to the nomination.

“I understand it’s not a long-term strategy,” Mr. Dennehy conceded. “But you have to take these things one contest at a time. If you’re going to have any opportunity to make something happen, you have to take the wins.”

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

It may have been Ms. Haley’s lack of a steady message, rather than her lack of moments, that doomed her bid in New Hampshire. Ms. Haley tried out electability — she, not Mr. Trump, would beat Mr. Biden. She tried to praise Mr. Trump while saying it was time for a new generation of leadership. Finally, she tried to convince voters that he was an aged agent of chaos, mentally unfit for another term.

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

“We always think it’s the fault of the other candidates,” he said. “What if people just liked the president and wanted to go back to him?”

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