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What to expect in New Hampshire as the first primary approaches


Our next voice is in New Hampshire. Neil Levesque is the executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, which hosts a Republican debate on ABC Thursday night. Welcome to the program.

NEIL LEVESQUE: Well, good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Do you see any prospect of different results in New Hampshire than we saw last night in Iowa?

LEVESQUE: Absolutely. I think that the election really starts today. I think that these candidates are here now. And someone like Nikki Haley has a lot of momentum. She's been closing the gap. Now, Trump has got some very good numbers. He's had numbers almost the same, almost like a goalpost, since the beginning of the year. But when you know where a goalpost is, it's sometimes easy to catch up to.

INSKEEP: Well, I would note that the governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, has been traveling with Nikki Haley. Does he have coattails? Can he influence voters?

LEVESQUE: He's - he has coattails, and he's already been influencing voters, if you look at the data. The thing about Sununu is a lot of endorsements don't necessarily matter with Sununu. He is a very popular governor who's a very good communicator, and he's been going around the state basically making the sale for Nikki Haley. And I think it's been effective to date. So we'll see if she can really close that gap. And certainly, the momentum is on her side.

INSKEEP: What is Sununu able to say that would persuade Republican voters who generally like Donald Trump's policies that he's not the right person?

LEVESQUE: Well, I think the argument right now in New Hampshire is this - that Republicans are unified against Joe Biden, and they want to beat him, and that she, in the polling, shows that she beats him by a much greater margin than Trump. So if you're voting for her, the argument goes, you're placing a vote on somebody who can compete against Joe Biden and defeat him. And I think that that's where a lot of Republicans are unified.

INSKEEP: Although I have to note, Biden has been so weak in polling, there are some recent polls that show Donald Trump ahead of Joe Biden in a general election matchup. I wonder if that undermines that argument by Haley.

LEVESQUE: It has, to some degree, been undermining. That's why she points out that it's a 17-point margin that she beats Biden, so she's upped the game there. But you do point out a very good point that five of the six real key battleground states show that Trump is actually beating Biden. And so that's a difficult situation because the argument through the year has been, well, these - this candidate can't beat Joe Biden. He lost to him last time. He can't beat him again. And that seems to have dissipated.

INSKEEP: What does a Trump candidacy mean for the rest of the Republican Party? And let's just talk about New Hampshire, your state, which can be a swing state, which has some congressional seats that can go either way, Senate seats that can go either way. We heard earlier this morning from a Trump spokesperson who had been a congressional candidate pushing election denialism in 2022 and lost a seat. What would Trump at the top of the ballot mean for the rest of the party?

LEVESQUE: Well, I think here in New Hampshire, our data shows that Biden would beat him over and over again. And so that's problematic for Republicans in New Hampshire. That being said, there's a lot of time between now and the general election, and we'll see whether or not the Biden campaign, once they really take the reins here about March, whether or not they can change that narrative using issues such as abortion, which really has not come out yet to the degree that I think that the Democrats will utilize.

INSKEEP: You just named one big issue - abortion. What's another issue that, so far as you can tell, is on voters' minds?

LEVESQUE: Well, it's interesting. Here in New Hampshire - snowy New Hampshire along the Canadian border - immigration is a top issue. And whether or not that's - why that is we really can't explain, but it seems to be a big issue, and Donald Trump wins on that issue over and over again. And Biden has to change the narrative on that.

INSKEEP: That's a really interesting insight. We'll leave it there, but thank you very much for the time. Really appreciate it.

LEVESQUE: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Neil Levesque is executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, and he speaks with us on this morning after the Iowa caucuses, won big by Donald Trump. And now the action moves to the state of New Hampshire.

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Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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