In a sign that the Granite State is open to a 2020 GOP presidential challenge, more than a quarter of New Hampshire Republicans already say they would consider supporting former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, even before he formally launches his campaign. In addition, 61 percent of Granite State Republicans support the release of the Mueller Report, another indication of the independent streak among the state’s GOP.
According to a new poll conducted by NHJournal/Praecones Analytica, 27 percent of New Hampshire Republicans said they are open to supporting Weld, 55 percent said no and 18 percent were unsure. Weld is expected to officially enter the GOP presidential primary in the coming days.
“We’ve seen polling in the past showing that Republicans were open to a primary challenge in theory, but to see 27 percent willing to vote for Weld before we’ve even gotten started is very encouraging,” Weld advisor and former NHGOP chair Jennifer Horn told NHJournal. “All we have to do is pick up 10 points and its 1992 all over again.”
In the 1992 New Hampshire GOP primary, political pundit Pat Buchanan won 37 percent of the vote against President George H. W. Bush, a surprise showing that shook the incumbent’s campaign and, many believe, revealed the political weaknesses that would hand the White House to Bill Clinton that November.
Can a challenger like Weld break through the “Buchanan Benchmark” in a 2020 GOP primary? And if they do, what does that mean for Trump when he faces a Democrat in the general election?
Part of President Trump’s problem is that, while he’s very popular with the GOP base as a whole, there is a solid percentage of his own party that is extremely reluctant to support him. One shocking number: Almost 20 percent of New Hampshire Republicans say they would vote for a “Democrat who embraces socialism” over President Trump.
And because New Hampshire has an open primary, unaffiliated voters can take a Republican ballot, too. And polls consistently show Trump’s approval among these independent Granite State voters at 40 percent or less.
“If Donald Trump stays underwater with independents and loses 20 percent of the GOP, he’s not going to be re-elected—period,” one longtime NHGOP consultant told NHJournal.
“Both the Weld number and the other questions indicate what we already know,” Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, tells NHJournal. “Trump’s style has been to fire up the base Republicans while pushing Democrats, independents and some Republicans further and further away. Choosing to vote for a socialist over Trump probably is not an endorsement of socialism so much as it is an indicator of how much some voters do not want to re-elect this president.”
By every measure, Weld is a longshot to defeat President Trump in a GOP primary. However, he has chosen to campaign on topics that, based on the polling data, resonate with Republican voters. For example, Weld has made fiscal conservatism and cutting the national debt key elements of his campaign and 71 percent of New Hampshire Republicans say these issues are important or very important.
And a majority of Granite State Republicans say that Weld’s role as a member of the Reagan administration—another topic he frequently touts – is “good experience for a presidential candidate.”
Still, some Trump supporters aren’t worried.
“When it comes right down to it, President Trump is going to do phenomenally in a primary, no matter who runs against him,” NHGOP state party chair and longtime Trump supporter Steve Stepanek told NHJournal. “He’ll be up in the 90s, whoever it is.”
And others dismiss the conversation entirely. David Carney, a veteran New Hampshire GOP consultant who worked on the Bush ’92 campaign, dismisses the Buchanan narrative as “folklore.” He tells NHJournal that the real story of Bush 41’s defeat is that “our campaign was dysfunctional for the first half of 1992 and then in a horrible position to deal with the economic messaging Clinton hit us with later on.”
As for a serious GOP challenge to Trump in 2020? “At this point, it’s just mental gymnastics for political insiders,” Carney says.