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'There's a split in the GOP': As NH primary winds to a close, Republican voters face down deep party divides

A photographer at a campaign rally for Nikki Haley at Exeter High School, Jan. 21, 2024.
Todd Bookman
A photographer at a campaign rally for Nikki Haley at Exeter High School, Jan. 21, 2024.

When Donald Trump took the stage Saturday night at the SNHU Arena in Manchester, he stressed early and often that he wants voters in New Hampshire — the first state he won in the 2016 primary — to end the 2024 nomination fight on primary day next Tuesday.

“We need big margins because we have to send real unity as a message,” he said.

The final weekend of campaigning in the New Hampshire primary ended with just two Republicans left standing: Trump and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. The choice now before primary voters presents two very different visions for the direction of the Republican Party.

It remains to be seen whether Trump’s promise of “unity” comes to pass should he secure the nomination. But his supporters who lined up to hear him despite frigid weather throughout the weekend mostly tended to stress a corollary: that committing to Trump often comes with an “us vs. them” mindset.

“If you are not team Trump, you are on the enemies list,” said Greg Salts, a former Republican state representative from Manchester who was waiting outside the SNHU Arena Saturday afternoon.

Salts said at this point his fealty to Trump — and the peer pressure he felt from fellow Trump fans — makes it impossible for him to even check out other candidates.

“I mean, I’d like to go hear Nikki Haley, and I love listening to Christie and DeSantis, but I would not want to be seen there, because I’ve got my reputation,” he said. “I’m Team Trump. It’s not like before where I could just do whatever I want.”

A few yards away stood Edward Young. Saturday marked his 68th Trump rally. He plans to hit 100 by November.

“I’m pretending at work that I’ve got COVID, so they tell me not to come in,” he said.

Young said the notion that any other Republican could possibly threaten Trump’s path to the party’s nomination was laughable from the beginning of the race.

“It was written in stone: Donald Trump was, is and will be the Republican nominee for 2024,” he said. “There was no way anybody was going to take that away from him.”

In campaign stops and TV interviews in recent days, Trump has made several false or inflammatory claims. He suggested — without basis — that this election could be marred by fraud. He’s repeatedly mocked Haley as “Nimbra,” a distortion of her given first name, Nimrata.

And he’s also zeroed in on Haley’s efforts to court independent voters, saying it was tantamount to getting the support of “radical left Democrats.”

At a rally Sunday night at Exeter High School, Haley largely ignored Trump’s taunts. Instead, she urged the crowd to focus on a different kind of noise.

“Can you hear that sound?” Haley asked to cheers. “That’s the sound of a two-person race.”

After weeks of working to paint this primary as a choice between herself and Trump, Haley got that wish Sunday, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis dropping out of the race and swiftly endorsing Trump.

It’s not clear what that will mean for her come Tuesday. It’s also not a balm for the Republican Party which, for many Haley supporters, still feels like it’s torn in two.

“I think it reveals that there is a split in the GOP, from people who just stick to one ideology versus those that can maybe get some of the same things accomplished but are also open to other ideas in the party,” said Eileen Kirk, a physician who drove from Sunapee to see Haley in Exeter Sunday.

Kirk voted for Trump four years ago, but now says she’s looking for a different type of leader. For voters like Nick Carter of Nashua, it’s less about Trump’s personality that puts them off, and more about whether he backs traditional Republican positions, including on free trade.

“It is a turning point,” Carter said of this year’s primary race. “And Trumpism is not a true free market approach. Being a libertarian, you want to have minimal rules, that’s not what Trump is putting up.”

Carter said he believes there’s still room to push Trump aside. That’s a feeling shared by Jed Sanpietro, a Republican from Bedford. He doesn’t believe Trump can win on the national stage at this point, and wants to see Haley get her shot.

“I think the party is so divided now, and it kinda mirrors the country, and where everybody is,” Sanpietro said.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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