The first two Republican presidential nominating contests have validated what has been apparent for nearly eight years: Donald Trump remains a singular, dominant force within his party.
But Iowa caucusgoers and New Hampshire primary voters also exposed noticeable chinks in Trump’s electoral armor and worrying general election headwinds that he and his campaign will face in the coming months.
The former president’s campaign is keenly aware of how polarizing its candidate remains. Advisers say that as Trump’s team quickly pivots toward a general election strategy, its focus will shift to broader concerns about immigration, the economy and crime.
His campaign has also used the early primary contests to test new strategies, including efforts to expand the electorate. In Iowa, his campaign pulled from eight years of data to identify people who had supported Trump but not caucused for him and then used volunteers to reach out to them. Senior advisers to the former president told CNN they expect to implement the approach nationwide to combat some of the inevitable hurdles that Trump will face in the general election.
Those efforts will also expand to engaging with traditionally Democratic-leaning groups where enthusiasm for President Joe Biden is lacking, a source close to Trump said.
“The focus for him is bringing over new coalitions,” the source said. “Can you keep the focus on Black voters, can you chip away at Hispanic voters, young voters?”
The signs of trouble for Trump are sometimes hard to see in his otherwise decisive victories that have forced all but former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to exit the race.
Sure, Trump captured a majority of the delegates in Iowa. But nearly half of the Republicans who weighed in were so motivated to see a new face represent the party that they braved subzero temperatures and icy roads to caucus for someone other than the former president.
Yes, Trump handily won a head-to-head matchup in a New Hampshire primary contest that wasn’t limited to just Republicans. But nearly six in 10 independents voted for Haley, according to CNN’s exit poll, and she bested him by 70 points among the sizable share of voters who prioritized temperament in their candidate.
New Hampshire also demonstrated the continued difficulties Trump faces in the suburbs and with college-educated White women, a point Haley allies have sought to amplify since the primary there.
And while Trump has managed to turn his legal challenges into a political rallying cry, there was still a decent slice of the GOP electorate in both Iowa (31%) and New Hampshire (42%) that said Trump would not be fit for the presidency if convicted of a crime.
Against this reality, Trump is calling on Republicans to quickly coalesce behind him for the better of the party and put an end to a protracted primary battle that would likely continue to expose fissures in the GOP. Many Republican leaders – from Congress to governors and Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel – have already fallen in line behind him.
McDaniel said Tuesday during an appearance on Fox News that the party needs “to unite around our eventual nominee which is going to be Donald Trump.”
“This isn’t the RNC speaking. This isn’t the establishment speaking. This is the voters speaking,” McDaniel said.
But New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a top backer of Haley, called McDaniel’s comments “nonsense.” Sununu said Trump has done little to assuage Republicans worried about his electability.
“He only lost to Biden in the last major election and then lost to Biden’s candidates in 2022,” Sununu said Wednesday on Fox News. “Remember, when Biden’s the president, you’re supposed to have a big comeback in the midterms, and we got crushed.”
The concerns are not just coming from Haley supporters. On Capitol Hill, Republicans are already fretting about what Trump’s likely nomination will mean for their chances of holding onto the House and winning back the Senate.
One House Republican in a swing district said yes, Trump as the nominee would cost the GOP control of their chamber.
“Twenty percent of GOP voters will not vote for him,” the Republican member told CNN. “Independent voters think Biden is weak, but they hate Trump. And Dems — he motivates them to vote.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also said the turnout in Iowa – the lowest in a contested GOP race since 2000 – was a “warning sign” for the party going forward.
Even as he endorsed the former president after ending his own White House bid, DeSantis said that the party had work to do engaging voters that have “checked out” because of Trump’s continuing involvement.
“When I have people come up to me who voted for Reagan in ‘76 and have been conservative their whole life say that they don’t want to vote for Trump again, that’s a problem,” DeSantis told conservative radio host Steve Deace on Tuesday. “He’s got to figure out a way to solve that.”
Trump on Tuesday may have offered some of those voters a reminder of why they were ready to move on. Visibly miffed by Haley’s conviction to continue on after New Hampshire, Trump spent the evening lashing out at her online and trashing her appearance in his victory speech. At one point, he appeared to encourage Sen. Tim Scott, who backed Trump over his fellow South Carolinian and was standing behind him, to attack Haley, saying into the microphone, “You must really hate her.”
“Winners don’t do that,” former South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy said on Fox.
Many advisers have tried to rein in Trump at similar crossroads, with little effect. But Trump has recently begun to tailor his remarks based on data given to him by his team. Senior advisers expect that he will continue to adapt his comments toward advancing goals of broadening his appeal beyond those already enamored by the core, populist messages long associated with his political brand. The former president is expected to focus more on touting his record on the economy, immigration and crime, a senior adviser told CNN – areas they argue Trump does better with the general public than Biden.
Of the 30% of New Hampshire GOP primary voters who named immigration as their top concern, nearly 8 in 10 voted for Trump, according to CNN’s exit poll. Trump also won nearly 9 in 10 voters who think the economy is in poor shape
“The border was an issue in 2016 but it wasn’t in 2020,” Jim McLaughlin, one of Trump’s pollsters, said. “And Donald Trump has significant advantages over Joe Biden on those issues and Joe Biden has got some of his highest negatives on those issues.”
But on the economy, Democrats have seen recent reasons to be optimistic. Consumer confidence on the economy has jumped 13% since December, according to the most recent consumer survey index from the University of Michigan. Meanwhile, inflation has fallen from its four-decade highs.
GOP pollster Brett Loyd said Republicans may need to adjust their strategy in the face of these changing winds.
“I think they’ve got to go back to the drawing board,” Loyd said. “They’ve got to look at the voters in Arizona and Pennsylvania. They have to have a serious conversation about ‘If the economy is doing well, what else do we got? How else do we activate this middle?’ ”
CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this story.