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Opinion | The Wrong Party May Be Worrying About Its Nominee

Technically speaking, Donald Trump is still far from winning the Republican presidential nomination, but his victory on Tuesday in the New Hampshire primary was enough to push the Republican National Committee off the sidelines and into his corner.

“I do think there is a message that is coming out from the voters which is very clear. We need to unite around our eventual nominee, which is going to be Donald Trump, and we need to beat Joe Biden,” Ronna McDaniel, the R.N.C. chairwoman, said in a recent interview on Fox News.

Other high-profile Republicans, like Senator John Cornyn of Texas, have followed suit, endorsing the former president even as he still has an opponent, Nikki Haley, in the nomination contest. “To beat Biden, Republicans need to unite around a single candidate, and it’s clear that President Trump is Republican voters’ choice,” Cornyn said on the X website.

But at least one Republican has, unsurprisingly, sounded a sour note about the prospect of another candidacy for Trump. “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,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who recently left the race for president (and who also endorsed Trump). “So he’s got to figure out a way to solve that. I think there’s an enthusiasm problem overall, and then I also just think there are some voters that have checked out at this point that you got to find a way to get them back.”

DeSantis is right. He also understates the problem for the former president, whose victory in the New Hampshire primary rests on shakier ground than might appear at first glance.

Trump, predictably, dominated among Republicans, the bulk of the electorate on Tuesday. But among the 44 percent of primary voters who identified as independents, Trump lost, by 58 percent to 39 percent. Among the 28 percent of primary voters who identified as moderate, Trump lost, by 72 percent to 25 percent. And among the 48 percent of voters who had a college education or higher, Trump lost, by about 56 percent to 42 percent.

There are other signs of trouble. Thirty-eight percent of voters in the New Hampshire Republican primary said they would be dissatisfied if Trump won the nomination. Forty-two percent of voters said that if Trump were convicted of a crime, he would not be fit for the presidency.

It’s easy to dismiss all this as the inevitable result of a primary in which Democratic and independent voters can cast ballots. But most of the people who went to the polls this week were registered Republicans. Many voted in previous Republican primaries. For the most part, these voters were not doctrinaire liberals or resistance Democrats; they were swing voters who would determine the November election in New Hampshire and elsewhere.

Trump is running, essentially, as an incumbent. And the results in New Hampshire are evidence that, compared with a typical incumbent president running for re-election, he is weak. It does not work as a direct comparison, but it is still instructive to look at the 1992 Republican presidential primary, in which George H.W. Bush, the incumbent, fended off a populist challenge from Pat Buchanan, a longtime Republican operative, conservative commentator and harbinger, in many ways, of the rise of Trump and Trumpism in Republican Party politics. Bush won the New Hampshire primary, 53 percent to 38 percent. But most commentators framed Bush’s victory as a nearly catastrophic failure. Why? Because Buchanan’s strong showing underscored the president’s weakness with the most conservative Republicans, to say nothing of the country at large.

You can see the limits of the comparison in the fact that Trump excels with the most conservative Republicans. But this might mean, in the context of a general election, that he is on the wrong side of the divide within his party, especially if Haley stays in the race through South Carolina and continues to pull independents and more moderate Republicans into her corner.

Burdened by a divided party and the lingering pain of a sharp recession in 1992 — unemployment peaked at 7.8 percent that June — Bush lost his re-election bid to a young upstart from Arkansas, Bill Clinton. With a tight labor market and rising wages, especially for those at the lowest part of the scale, President Biden has the advantage of a much stronger economy than Bush did. He is also, however, presiding over a divided party, whose youngest voters in particular are deeply dissatisfied with the state of the country.

As he shifts gears to his campaign, Biden has serious problems. But lost in all of the focus on the current president is the fact that the former president is in an even worse position. Beset by legal trouble, facing several criminal counts and consumed with resentment, rage and dreams of retribution, Trump has done nothing to expand beyond the coalition he assembled to try to win the previous election.

Of course, no one in an election campaign has to be truly popular. He (or she) just has to be more popular than the other person on the ballot. And at this stage, it is difficult to say who will clear that hurdle.

Either way, there is a case to make that Democrats are taking a risk by nominating Joe Biden for a second term. But there is an even stronger case to make that Republicans are taking a catastrophic risk by nominating Donald Trump for a third time.

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