Let’s be blunt about the stakes of the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday.
If Donald J. Trump wins decisively, as the polls suggest, he will be on track to win the Republican nomination without a serious contest. The race will be all but over.
The backdrop is simple: Mr. Trump holds a dominant, 50-plus-point lead in the polls with just seven weeks to go until the heart of the primary season, when the preponderance of delegates will be awarded. His position has only improved since Iowa, with national polls now routinely showing him with over 70 percent of the vote.
Even skeptical Republican officials are consolidating behind the party’s front-runner. Ron DeSantis’s decision to suspend his campaign and endorse Mr. Trump is only the latest example.
The polling by state isn’t much better for Nikki Haley, the only remaining opponent for Mr. Trump. He leads Ms. Haley by at least 30 points in all of the states after New Hampshire until Super Tuesday. So without a monumental shift in the race, he will secure the nomination in short order.
New Hampshire is the only state where we can entertain — however unlikely — the possibility that the race could be shaken up by enough to put additional states into play.
Why is New Hampshire the only real opportunity?
It’s the only state where the polls are even close. On average, Ms. Haley trails Mr. Trump by about 15 points in New Hampshire polls, 49 percent to 34 percent. That’s a comfortable lead for Mr. Trump, but there have occasionally been polls showing a single-digit race. It’s close enough to contemplate a Trump loss.
There is no other state where Mr. Trump leads the latest (often outdated) polls by less than 30 points. Not even Ms. Haley’s home state, South Carolina, appears competitive.
New Hampshire is about as good as it gets for Haley. Her appeal is almost exclusively confined to moderate and college-educated voters, and New Hampshire is an excellent state for a moderate Republican. The state ranks eighth in four-year college attainment, and independent voters are allowed to participate in the primary. It has a moderate Republican governor who has endorsed Ms. Haley, not Mr. Trump. And in presidential primaries the state usually backs moderate candidates — think John McCain and Mitt Romney. While Mr. Trump won with 35 percent in 2016, the moderate-establishment candidates combined to amass 49 percent of the vote — more than in any other primary state in 2016 except for Vermont and Ohio, which was John Kasich’s home state.
If she can’t win in New Hampshire, there is no reason to think she can win elsewhere.
It’s the only state that can create the perception of a newly competitive race. I’m not 100 percent sure whether New Hampshire is actually the No. 1 opportunity for a Haley victory. Maybe Vermont is a better one — though a recent poll says no — or the District of Columbia. What I’m sure about, however, is that none of those other chances could be treated as a “game changer” that could rekindle a tiny glimmer of hope for the potential opposition to Mr. Trump.
The first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary receives tremendous media coverage, and it would only be amplified if Ms. Haley posted an upset victory. It’s early enough in the primary season that the state scoreboard would read “Trump 1, Haley 1” at the end of the night. In March, a win in a state like Vermont will not receive anywhere near as much media coverage. By then, a Haley win would also be drowned out by other Trump victories, perhaps even on the same night — or, if not, just a few days later with another primary result. New Hampshire, in contrast, will set the conversation for a month. There isn’t another election with both Ms. Haley and Mr. Trump on the ballot until South Carolina, on Feb. 24.
Beyond New Hampshire
It’s important to emphasize that Mr. Trump would be an overwhelming favorite to win the nomination even if he lost New Hampshire. Ms. Haley is a classic factional candidate with narrow appeal to moderate and highly educated voters. It’s technically possible that New Hampshire will offer her an opportunity to broaden her appeal. But it’s not remotely likely that a conservative, populist, working-class party will swerve 50 points against a well-known former president toward the moderate, establishment candidate of highly educated voters over the next 45 days. Even if Ms. Haley won New Hampshire, she might still be the underdog in every other state.
And conversely, the race might remain contested in some sense, even if Mr. Trump wins New Hampshire decisively. Ms. Haley would presumably go on to South Carolina, where Mr. Trump leads by 30 points. But without New Hampshire to put the political wind at her back, there’s no reason to think she would be able to overcome this kind of staggering deficit. Instead, New Hampshire could put Mr. Trump on track for a 50-state sweep.
With a Trump win on Tuesday, the race would begin to have some of the characteristics of the Democratic primary. Yes, the front-runner faces a challenger. But no, it would not be realistic to believe the front-runner could be defeated by the usual means of campaigning on the trail and winning primary elections — with the obligatory caveat that Mr. Trump’s legal challenges might eventually offer a separate and novel way for him to lose down the line.