The time for denial is over: Republicans are really nominating Donald Trump

Huge numbers of voters still don't believe Trump will be the nominee — will New Hampshire be the wake-up call?

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published January 24, 2024 6:00AM (EST)

Republican presidential hopeful and former US President Donald Trump gestures as he speaks during a rally in Laconia, New Hampshire, January 22, 2024. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)
Republican presidential hopeful and former US President Donald Trump gestures as he speaks during a rally in Laconia, New Hampshire, January 22, 2024. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

Tuesday night's primary results from New Hampshire are going to be a shock to a lot of people's systems. For weeks, the Beltway press heavily hyped the notion that former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley had a real chance of winning the first Republican primary of 2024. Instead, as in Iowa last week, Donald Trump won so handily that the Associated Press called the race a mere 10 minutes after polls closed.

For devoted political watchers — the kind of people who have opinions about FiveThirtyEight vs. Real Clear Politics — Trump's curb-stomping win did not come as a surprise. We read the polls and saw that Trump was consistently up over Haley by about 15-20 points in New Hampshire's primary. This was only "close" relative to where the two candidates stand in the rest of the states. National polls show Trump is up an average of 55 points over Haley in the GOP primary race, a gap she almost certainly can't make up even if she had managed to eke out a miracle win in New Hampshire. 

Focus group attendees "have not grokked yet" that this is going to be a Trump-v.-Biden rematch. 

Ordinary people who don't obsess over poll minutia can be forgiven, however, for thinking Haley had a real shot. Nearly every time I flipped on MSNBC in the days before the New Hampshire primary, I was subjected to segments about how the state often delivers a "surprise" win, with special focus on how Bill Clinton's underdog performance in 1992 led eventually to the Democratic nomination. The Washington Post leaned into this style of hopium, reaching all the way back to Dwight Eisenhower's 1952 New Hampshire GOP win to stoke the idea that Trump might be toast. Mainstream media outlets frequently paired the words "Haley" and "upset" in headlines in the Tuesday run-up. The hype machine went into overdrive after Dixville Notch, a tiny town whose schtick is closing the polls shortly after midnight, saw all 6 people who showed up voting for Haley

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Coverage like this goes a long way towards explaining why large numbers of voters simply do not believe Trump will be the candidate bellowing from the Milwaukee stage at the Republican National Convention this July. Earlier this month, an Economist/YouGov poll showed that a plurality of Americans — 43% — did not expect Trump to be the nominee this year. The number goes up when excluding Republicans, who obviously know they're voting for Trump. Over half of Democrats and 47% of independents answered "not sure" or named someone else when asked who would win the Republican nomination. 

This comports with reporting from CNN that Biden's internal campaign polling shows that a strong majority of undecided voters simply don't grasp yet that the GOP is lined up behind Trump. According to the Biden campaign officials, nearly three-quarters of undecided voters "simply do not seem to believe – at least not yet – that Donald Trump is likely to be the Republican presidential nominee." Polling expert Sarah Longwell has long been sounding this alarm as well, noting that focus group attendees "have not grokked yet" that this is going to be a Trump-v.-Biden rematch. 

Not all these people are the "low information voters" we hear so much about. A lot of these folks take in a fair amount of the news and could do fairly well on a "current events" quiz. I've spoken to such folks online and off. They are generally well-informed about the political landscape and the stakes of an election where one candidate, Trump, attempted to overthrow democracy last time he lost. But they still struggle to believe Trump will be the nominee. 

Haley herself is not making it easy for folks to grasp reality.

"This race is far from over," she declared, mere minutes after losing the primary most analysts saw as her final hope for any viability as a candidate. "And the next one is my sweet state of South Carolina," she hollered. But the polls are even worse for her there: Real Clear Politics has Trump up over Haley by 30 on average. FiveThirtyEight's aggregate puts Trump 37 points over Haley in her home state. 

No doubt, part of the reason voters are confused is the misleading news coverage. Part of it, however, is an understandable inability to accept, on a deep emotional level, that Republican voters can be this stupid and/or evil. They're not wrong, either, to feel like it doesn't make sense. Trump is under 91 felony indictments. He stole classified documents from the government. He sicced a mob on the Capitol on January 6 in an effort to steal the election from President Joe Biden. He has been found liable by a jury for what the judge keeps reminding us meets the federal definition of rape. He's insanely racist and is getting louder about it all the time. He's quite likely on the verge of losing his vastly overstated wealth due to his decades of fraud. 

In the past, any single one of those liabilities would have sunk a politician immediately and permanently. Of course, it's hard to believe Republicans would nominate this jackass again. Politically aware readers are pulling their hair out and screaming, "After all this time, who do you think Republican voters are?!"

But think about it from this point of view: Most of us know some Republican voters. As a rule, most of them don't act like an emotionally incontinent psychopath like their Dear Leader.

Most go to work every day and rarely get taped bragging about how they like to "grab 'em by the pussy." They pay their bills by working, instead of defrauding people. They don't call on their social media followers to murder their colleagues and then run around afterward, telling everyone the victim had it coming. They don't sexually assault women in department stores and then, when sued over it, act victimized because men have been able to get away with rape for "the last million years." Most Republican voters act normal enough in person. It's hard to imagine their souls are so dark that they think this man — a fascist who sends violent goons after people and is currently harassing a woman he once sexually assaulted — is their number one pick for president. It's hard to believe it, but true: They may not act that way in person, but on some level, they really wish they could. 

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When truth is stranger than fiction, it is often easier to disbelieve, at least until the facts make it impossible to ignore reality. For those of us who have Republican voters in our lives who are also loved ones, this is especially difficult. Certainly, a major stress point for me personally is knowing that so many of my relatives back a man who committed a sexual assault against E. Jean Carroll, an assault that is almost identical to the one they know full well I endured. Indeed, thinking about it sometimes creates a sense of disassociation that is reminiscent of how you feel during an assault or an accident. The word "incomprehensible" was coined for these moments, when you know it must be real, but it makes so little sense your brain is sending "doubt" signals anyway.  

Unfortunately, this is indeed happening: Trump is the Republican nominee. The good news is that most people do start to accept even surreal realities, once the facts on the ground become unavoidable. Most 2024 election polls were conducted with nearly half of respondents thinking it was silly to ask about Trump as a candidate. Now that they know it's an accurate portrayal of the year to come, most will get back on board the Stop Trump train. A Tuesday report from Politico suggests this shift may already be happening. Polls show that Trump will struggle "to win back the people he’s alienated, including those once willing to vote Republican." Meanwhile, while Biden's approval ratings are shaky, he seems to be solidifying votes from those leaning his way faster than Trump is doing with maybe-Republican voters. 

Will it be enough to keep Trump from eking out a narrow victory in a few swing states, enough to slide back into the White House? That remains to be seen. But the first obstacle for Biden to overcome was getting people to believe this is real. With Trump securing the win in New Hampshire, hopefully voters will start waking up. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Donald Trump Elections 2024 Gop Gop Civil War New Hampshire Primary Nikki Haley Republicans