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Spot the Nikki Haley Insurgents in a Sea of Red MAGA Hats

Not everyone at a Trump rally in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, this week was a dyed-in-the-wool supporter.

Trump supporters wait for his arrival
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Trump supporters wait for his arrival at the Sheraton Portsmouth Harborside Hotel on January 17.

On Wednesday, Portsmouth’s deepening dusk made it increasingly difficult to see the faces of the endless queue of muttering Donald Trump supporters who were worried his campaign would leave them—literally—out in the cold.

Ever conscious of New Hampshire’s importance to the national primary process, and of the potential threat of a primary upset by Republican rival Nikki Haley, several hundred people had come to hear Trump speak at the Sheraton Portsmouth Harborside Hotel. But the ballroom held a maximum of 300 people, and an hour before the scheduled start time, a line of far more than 300 people stretched across the hotel courtyard and down the snow-banked streets.

This is Rockingham County. During a town hall event here in August 2015—the first of Trump’s campaign—voters got an early taste of his plans to build a wall at the southern border (at Mexico’s expense) and undertake mass deportation of illegal immigrants. “Day one of my presidency,” Trump promised, “they’re getting out and getting out fast.” At the time, this was seen as shocking and politically unwise, but anti-immigration rhetoric propelled him to outperform Hillary Clinton in the county in 2016—and is central to his 2024 campaign. In conversations with dozens of Trump supporters, no issue is mentioned to me more frequently than border security.

“It is frustrating to see someone get across the border and get a court date for 20 years from now,” said Charles Keith, 53, who left a career in computer sales to open a recreation center with his family in Manchester.

MAGA world is used to circling the wagons against imagined threats of all stripes: Democrats, the deep state, the fake-news media, and of course migrants. But in New Hampshire this week, the threat is Haley—especially now that anti-Trumper Chris Christie and pro-Trumper Vivek Ramaswamy have exited the race and DeSantis all but ceded New Hampshire by traveling to South Carolina after his second-place finish in Iowa.

Outside the Sheraton, the chilled Trump voters couldn’t ignore Haley if they tried. Trucks circled the venue, towing prominent electronic billboards lighting up the night with silent ads attacking Trump and promoting Haley. A man holding a Haley sign sat on the side of the line, hoping to engage in conversation. “She has a chance to bring in the people in the middle, right?” he said. But few of those shuffling past would meet his eyes, their commitment to Trump apparent.

One recent New Hampshire poll of likely primary voters showed Trump and Haley with 40 percent each, but that’s likely an outlier. Other polls show a much wider gap, including one released Friday that put Trump’s lead at 17 points.

To become the Republican nominee, Haley has to thread a needle with a wet noodle tossed from the 50-yard line. Her bid hinges on a two-part plan: Win New Hampshire, and then, on February 24, win her home state of South Carolina, where she served as governor for six years but lags Trump by more than 30 points. And accomplishing this double miracle would merely keep her in contention in the bloodying lead-up to Super Tuesday in early March.

At the Sheraton, a member of Trump’s team exited the lobby. “Folks,” he shouted, “we are at capacity. We cannot let any more people in.” A groan went up. Some of them had been waiting in the cold for an hour and a half. Most of them headed off into the night. “Rochester is going to be epic,” someone called, referring to an upcoming Trump rally at a bigger venue.

Instead of giving up, a significant number drifted into the hotel lobby hoping that circumstances would change. There, two men cycled through the crowd of MAGA hats, seeking one-on-one conversations. They started with veiled innuendo, seeking out those independent voters who might be convinced to abandon Trump in favor of Haley.

They were Ken Scheffler and Robert Schwartz, progressives who want nothing more than a Haley victory. In 2023, Scheffler and Schwartz co-founded an anti-Trump group called Primary Pivot, employing an uncommon strategy in pursuit of a common partisan mission. “The goal is to weaken and defeat Donald Trump in the primaries and to do so by encouraging folks of all partisan backgrounds to defeat him in the Republican primary,” said Scheffler.

A few months ago, they were encouraging Democrats to register as Republicans with the express purpose of voting against Trump. Once the deadline to switch affiliation passed, they sought to take advantage of New Hampshire’s unusual “open primary” system, which allows independents to vote in the Republican primary, and encouraged non-Republicans to vote for Haley.

“At this point we think there are only three people in the country who can be president. Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and Nikki Haley,” said Scheffler. “Nikki Haley, for all we may fault her, is someone who respects the Constitution and respects democracy. We feel comfortable with the two of them in the general election.”

At first, Primary Pivot ran on a shoestring budget of $20,000 raised from friends and relatives. They’ve since received $670,000 from a couple of anonymous donors and are plugging everything they can into New Hampshire: text messages, mailers, podcasts, Facebook and Instagram campaigns. They’ve organized 2,400 people from other states to write postcards to New Hampshire voters, asking them to oppose Trump in the primary.

Linda McGrath, a Trump voter from Hampton, acknowledged the legality of the Primary Pivot playbook. “New Hampshire does that every election,” she said. But she doesn’t like the tradition. “I think it should be, you need to be a Republican to vote in the Republican primary.”

“We don’t like Nikki,” her friend Marie Tontodonato, also of Hampton, said.

Schwartz defended the move. “Our democracy is on the line,” he said. “From a moral perspective, it’s the moral thing to do.”

In Iowa, a bout of historically bad weather helped keep the caucus turnout to a historically low 110,000 Republicans. That means that, for every person who voted in Iowa for free, 10 people paid $11 to see butter sculptures and a cow-chip-throwing contest at the 2023 Iowa State Fair in Des Moines.

The New Hampshire forecast suggests temperatures will, more comfortably, reach the upper 30s on primary day. But no one knows what the balance of turnout will be between MAGA loyalists and the coalition of college-educated Republicans, independents, and Democrats that favor Haley.

Inside the hotel ballroom, after brief introductory remarks, New Hampshire state Representatives Kim Abare and Lilli Walsh each spoke for about five minutes and then left the podium. Because Trump had been delayed by his courtroom appearance in a defamation trial against E. Jean Carroll in New York City, the podium sat empty for more than an hour. Trump finally emerged from the wings at 8:30 p.m., two hours late.

He spoke off the cuff, per usual, inserting parenthetical digressions on familiar topics—Biden as the worst president ever, DeSantis as a turncoat, and Haley as a Trojan horse for liberals who were trying to help Biden by eliminating Trump. “She can’t negotiate. I’m telling you, she can’t negotiate,” he said, to laughter. “I actually think she might go to the Democrat Party.… Her biggest donors are backers of Crooked Joe Biden.”

“He definitely has a way about him,” said Christine Ciampa, who had traveled from her home in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Before Trump hit the scene in 2015, she was tuned out to politics. But he penetrated her indifference. “He definitely has charisma, whether you like it or not.… He can cut through the bullshit, if I can say that. He seems very real and unscripted.”

In the hotel lobby, when the security staff started to dismantle the metal detectors and scanners, even the remaining die-hards realized that they had no chance to get inside. It was a knock, but they were used to getting knocked about. Trump had, after all, lost the Senate, lost the House, and lost the White House.

None of this dulled the sense of bonhomie that they felt for one another, and for their candidate. Perhaps they would gain entrance into the next event. Perhaps Trump would retake the White House. But for now, they had no choice but to go out, once again, into the cold night.