© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute

Republicans Did Try to Attack Trump. Here’s Why They Failed.

Before Trump won the New Hampshire primary, his opponents tried to convince Republicans to abandon him. Here’s what didn’t work.

Election 2024 Trump
Former President Donald Trump arrives at a campaign stop in Londonderry, N.H., on Jan. 23. Matt Rourke/AP

CONCORD, N.H. —The morning before the first ballot was counted in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, Juliana Bergeron was already disappointed by the result.

“I don’t think you can make any of those people that are planning on voting for him not vote for him,” Bergeron said of the man who would cruise to victory, former President Donald Trump. ”It’s just also, I don’t think you can make any of us who aren’t going to vote for him vote for him either.”

After 12 years as a Republican National Committee member, Bergeron said last year she would not seek another term in the job. Her state has an outsized role in choosing the Republican presidential nominee, so like any voter here, she spent months watching Trump’s opponents fall flat as they tried to take him down. Bergeron did not want the attacks to fall flat. She doesn’t like the way Trump talks about women or immigrants, or his legal drama, attitude and age.

But she knew she was among the few Republicans who felt that way.

“I’m old enough not to be delusional,” Bergeron said.

There simply weren’t enough Republican voters like Bergeron for a non-Trump candidate — Nikki Haley was the only one left by Tuesday — to prevail. The state and its system are designed to give any Republican, regardless of resources, the greatest possible chance to be heard. But New Hampshire’s GOP voters once again went with the loudest voice in the room.

Bergeron has some theories as to why Trump’s message is still working. She hates the slogan “Make America Great Again;” she thinks America is great now and has not stopped being great. But perhaps Trump won because others don’t feel like that.

“I began to realize that — and this might be the other difference between those people that are sticking with him — I have a great life,” she said. “My life is not everybody’s life.”

Bergeron said no other Republican candidate has managed to speak to that other group of Republican voters the way Trump has.

Not that they didn’t try to tear those people away from Trump.

Plenty of analysts have pointed to the kid gloves Trump’s Republican opponents used on him for much of the past year as the reason he barely had to worry about his primary poll numbers since he announced another run for the White House. The conventional wisdom goes like this: Trump attacked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis early and DeSantis didn’t do anything. He got indicted over and over again and his opponents’ comments about it almost always condemned the people indicting him, rather than his alleged crimes. Trump has stumbled, gaffed, said racist stuff and refused to concede a 2020 election he clearly lost. And his fellow Republicans, even those spending millions to stop him, said basically nothing.

But that’s not exactly true. In recent months especially, Trump has faced a concerted negative attack from well-funded campaigns run by well-respected consultants. In ads, speeches and interviews — the attacks were out there for everyone to see.

But in Iowa last week and in New Hampshire on Tuesday, most Republican voters who turned out simply did not care. Trump has not only walked all over his party and his rivals, he’s walked through a gauntlet of negativity without a scratch.

What does this mean? Only time will tell. That may sound flippant, but it’s the only political analysis worth heeding. A general election like none before is now underway, pitting the two most likely presidential nominees — Trump and President Joe Biden — against each other amid a calendar full of potentially consequential court appearances for the Republican. Some Democrats feel good about their chances; other Democrats really do not. Republicans also don’t feel good. But some of those same Republicans really do.

Before that general election speculation wheel can spool up after New Hampshire and then spin endlessly on and on until Nov. 5, take a minute to contemplate what Republican voters here heard about Trump from other Republicans and were unmoved by. It’s a clear message: The most motivated Republicans want Trump, and don’t want to hear about anyone or anything else.

Here is some of what they heard.

Trump is old, confused and mentally unfit for office.

The biggest thing that happened in the closing days of the New Hampshire primary took place on the evening of Jan. 19, while Trump was on his post-Iowa victory lap. Speaking in Concord, Trump started on a riff about Jan. 6 and then immediately confused primary rival Nikki Haley with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And then he did it again. And again. Then he paused, and did it once more. The jarring clip went big on the internet and big in the press. Haley pounced the following morning.

“I’m not saying anything derogatory, but when you’re dealing with the pressures of a presidency, we can’t have someone else that we question whether they’re mentally fit to do it,” Haley, Trump’s former U.N. Ambassador, told a crowd at a campaign stop.

Haley’s most prominent supporter in the state, Gov. Chris Sununu, also took up the cause.

“This guy has lost his fastball,” the New Hampshire governor said on “Meet The Press.”

Republican and Republican-leaning voters in the state heard these attacks — and dismissed them.

“Obviously, Trump was joking around,” said Max Abramson, a Republican and former New Hampshire state representative who had not yet decided who to support Monday night even as he wore a Trump scarf to a Trump event featuring Donald Trump Jr., in Hollis. “He was pretending to be senile to get some news coverage,” said Abramson

Patrick Ruffini, a Republican pollster, has tested different Trump attacks with Republican voters over the past year. This line about his competence, he said, just doesn’t work. “People don’t really see Trump and Biden the same,” he said. “These harsh personal terms mimic the way the Biden campaign would go after Trump and anything that sounds like what a Democrat would say is immediately DOA.”

Trump doesn’t respect democracy and is only out for himself.

Before he dropped out of the race a few days before the Iowa caucuses, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie blanketed New Hampshire with an unorthodox straight-to-camera 60-second ad that was part of a reportedly seven-figure media buy.

Its message was not subtle. “Donald Trump will sell the soul of this country,” Christie said.

Christie thought he could shake Republican voters from their fixation on Trump by telling them that he was one of them, a voter who had given Trump a chance and instead found a man with bottomless selfishness who should never again be given a chance to lead.

Some New Hampshire Republicans said attacks on Trump’s lack of respect for democracy sounded too much like the criticism he receives from the left, the kind of attacks many Republicans have learned to automatically dismiss.

“When you’re trying to unseat someone on your own team, you can’t use the language of your opponents,” said state House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, in a phone interview. “You have to speak the language of your own tribe.”

Trump spent too much money while he was president.

How about a classic conservative negative attack? In the final weeks of the primary, Trump detractors constantly repeated the (accurate) assertion that deficits and the national debt ballooned in the years Trump was in the White House.

Haley’s bio notes her time as an accountant — experience she used to hit on the kind of small-c conservative message that in the past has earned many votes in a Republican primary made up of small business owners, high-tax-bracket earners and the generally self-styled fiscally responsible.

Going back to August, Haley has repeated the message that the Trump administration spent money “like drunken sailors,” and was partially to blame for the inflation and general economic ennui among Americans. That’s a topic most top Republicans think will win big for them in November — provided, that is, Biden, and not Trump, gets the blame.

But Haley’s economic attacks didn’t make a perceptible dent in New Hampshire.

“They all spend a lot of money. Every one of them. What’s the difference?” said Bridget Leroux, who said she’s not “super political,” while standing in line for a Trump rally in Laconia on Monday. Leroux said she was considering voting for Trump.

Michelle Rush, a former DeSantis supporter who switched to Trump after the Florida governor dropped out, said she “was a little disappointed” about the national debt going up under Trump. “But I think a lot of that was because of COVID,” she added. “He had to spend money to save people.”

Trump mishandled the coronavirus pandemic and put the science cabal ahead of American freedom.

Few periods in recent memory were as politically polarizing and energizing to the right as the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. To this very day, COVID booster shots are far more likely to go in Democratic arms than Republican ones. Conservative skepticism over public health protocols and vaccination mandates of any kind is on the rise, a tide DeSantis tried to sink Trump with during the primary campaign.

Even in the long stretch early on when DeSantis mostly shied away from attacking Trump, he attacked him over COVID.

“Donald Trump, he’s basically saying he did everything right, and I think that means you should understand he would do the same thing all over again if put in that position,” DeSantis said in a version of a repeated line during a radio interview in September. “And that would be disastrous for our country.”

DeSantis is now gone, and his COVID criticisms toward Trump were seemingly forgotten among the New Hampshire voters who talked to NOTUS.

“I think he may have mishandled it,” said Susan Ward of Trump and the pandemic. Ward was standing outside a Trump rally in Laconia on Monday night. She said that she wanted to vote for Trump so much that she would have written him in this year if his name had not been on the primary ballot.

“I think he worked with the information he was given,” she said of Trump’s COVID response.

He cozied up to dictators, embarrassing the United States on the world stage.

Haley closed out her New Hampshire campaign by talking about foreign policy and her time as U.N. ambassador. Her campaign produced a three-minute ad casting her as a courageous fighter for American values. The ad didn’t mention Trump or any of his foreign policy choices, but Haley did often mention both after the ad aired.

“I remember at the United Nations, I had to sit him down and tell him to stop this bromance with Putin,” she told CBS News, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “I mean, you can’t have someone who’s trying to buddy up with dictators that want to kill us.”

Multiple New Hampshire primary voters rejected the attack out of hand in conversations with NOTUS.

“I think you have to forge a relationship with all these leaders. We don’t know what’s said behind closed doors. We can’t not communicate with the rest of the world,” said Joyce Collins, who stood with her spouse outside Trump’s Laconia rally.

“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” her husband, who declined to give his name, chimed in.

Trump is an alleged criminal, for goodness sake!

This is the textbook case used by observers who say Trump’s primary rivals didn’t truly go after him. It’s true that the slew of serious and unprecedented legal cases against Trump were addressed by the people running against him mostly — as Trump himself did — with attacks on the prosecutors pursuing him. And, in some instances, even with promises to pardon Trump if he were convicted and they were elected.

But Christie and the other former federal prosecutor running for president, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, worked hard to make sure Republican voters could not forget Trump’s legal jeopardy.

This attack was one of the very few NOTUS observed in the wild in New Hampshire. Outside a Trump rally in Rochester on Sunday, Deana Strand of Portsmouth actively tried to convince fellow Republican voters supporting Trump to switch their votes because of his legal problems.

“I feel like he just comes with so much, so much baggage, that it would be really hard for him to free himself from that, and really govern in any meaningful way,” Strand said.

She didn’t have many takers.

“He’s a typical businessman that this country needs: strong and very intelligent, and he knows how to negotiate, unlike many other politicians who are in there just for the money or the power,” said Elizabeth Copley, a Trump supporter who also attended the Rochester event.

He is not the best choice if you want Republicans to win in 2024. He might actually be the worst.

Trump’s rivals tried to hit him again and again on electability. The former president is someone everyone already has an opinion of, goes the thinking, and not enough people have a good opinion of him for him to win the general election. Just look at 2022, when so many MAGA candidates struggled.

Haley told this story often in New Hampshire. “All the evidence says that if it’s a Trump-Biden rematch, it’s going to be another toss-up election. It could go either way. We could have more disputes over election interference,” she said in her remarks on the night of the Iowa caucuses. “And then look at what happens when I go head-to-head against Biden. We win in a landslide.”

“Electability has never been a terribly persuasive argument for a Republican primary audience, and that predates Trump’s entry into politics,” said Colin Reed, a GOP strategist who worked for Christie’s super PAC. He said many of Trump’s supporters also don’t care if another candidate is more electable because, to them, only Trump can deliver the kind of fundamental change they want.

Qualms about electability were certainly hard to find among voters casting Republican ballots on Tuesday.

“I mean, I think a lot of it’s just hearsay and opinion. I mean, it’s just polls. Like we don’t really know,” said Christie Piper of Dover outside Trump’s rally in Rochester. Piper was a former Bernie Sanders supporter who backed Trump on Tuesday.

“And so people actually go out and vote — really, and it depends who goes out and votes,” Piper said. “And, you know, hopefully, the votes will be counted fairly this time, which, who knows?”

Evan McMorris-Santoro and Alex Roarty are reporters at NOTUS. Ryan Hernández, Casey Murray and Katherine Swartz are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows.

NOTUS reporter Maggie Severns contributed reporting.