In the Goat Bar and Grill in downtown Manchester, New Hampshire, the local Republicans were having a blast.
It was only a Monday night, but with a first-in-the-nation primary vote the following day, spirits were high. America’s eyes had turned on the Granite State in search of hints of what this election season would bring.
On stage, Scott Brown, the 64-year-old former Republican senator, sang the hits of Led Zeppelin, Steppenwolf and Skid Row. As he warmed up the room for his next cover, he looked for a crowd-pleasing line.
“Let’s bring inflation down,” he said, to screeches of approval. “Let’s bring down mortgage rates so our kids can get on the property ladder.”
The bar’s screens, usually reserved for American football matches, were tuned to Fox News. One attendee in his mid-60s cruised the room in a T-shirt that simply read: “Trump’s the best. F— the rest.”
Perched at the bar, 21-year-old Rebecca Awad was among a handful of women in the room, and brought down its average age by some years. It appeared she had walked into this eccentric scene by mistake.
As a Gen-Z Lebanese immigrant, she is one of the last people a casual observer of American politics would expect to find at a GOP election party.
“I’m voting for Trump,” she said. “I just agree with most of his ideas. I feel like he’s good for America, and I feel like he’ll be great in office.
“I think he will make America great again, especially our economy. I feel like he could fix it.”
If Rebecca’s support for the most controversial US president in modern history feels unusual, it isn’t. She is one of millions of young, college-educated voters who have decided to take a chance on Donald Trump – and show why the man who this week all-but wrapped up his Party’s nomination will be hard for Joe Biden to stop come their second showdown in November.
No longer toxic Trump?
The results in New Hampshire this week show a surprising change in American voting habits since 2016, when Trump swept first the Republican Party and then the nation, to become the White House’s 44th tenant.
By convention, the state should have been a walkover for Nikki Haley, the former UN ambassador and South Carolina governor who has become the sole alternative to Trump in this year’s primary.
Compared to Iowa, where Trump delivered a stonking victory the previous week, New Hampshire is relatively moderate, secular and wealthy.
As an open primary state, it also allows independent voters to cast a ballot in either the Republican or Democratic contest, injecting more than a hundred thousand extra votes into the mix and, in theory, boosting more moderate candidates.
Haley, 52, spent months and more than $30 million building her campaign there. Trump, with his busy schedule of court appearances, barely turned up. It was Haley’s best shot at an early-state win, which could put her in serious contention for the nomination.
But on Tuesday’s results night, support for Trump was higher than ever. Haley lost by more than 10 points – the benchmark that many pundits had set for her to remain in the race.
Digging into the data, the surge of non-traditional Trump voters goes some way to explaining her loss.
As expected, she won the support of moderate voters by a margin of more than three to one, and dominated the sizeable “never Trumper” constituency that chose her, the only other candidate on offer.
Trump, meanwhile, performed best with strongly conservative voters, white evangelicals and those without a college degree.
But he also saw significant growth among more unexpected groups. Half of all women voted for him, up from a third in the 2016 New Hampshire primary, along with 58 per cent more voters under 29.
His support among non-graduates increased the most, but voters with degrees – usually considered Trump-sceptics – were also more sympathetic than during his last primary campaign, along with non-white voters, who made up less than 10 per cent of the electorate.
Addressing her supporters in a packed hotel conference centre on election night, Haley vowed to keep fighting on to South Carolina, the next significant race, on February 24.
“New Hampshire is first in the nation – it is not the last in the nation,” she said, to cheers from the room. She added that the contest was “far from over”.
How Trump turned things around
Looking at the polls, however, it appears the race is indeed over. The latest surveys from Republicans in South Carolina, her own state, show Trump outstrips her by more than 30 points, while both senators and the state governor have endorsed him. Nationally, around three quarters of Republicans say they will vote for him.
Nothing short of a miracle, and some delusional donors, will keep Haley in the game after Super Tuesday on March 5.
The remarkable change in fortunes for Trump is a result of his own tenacity on the campaign trail.
“I’m the largest real estate developer in New York,” Trump said, in a pilot episode of The Apprentice which aired 20 years ago this month.
Stretching back in his limousine, he listed his various business holdings, including a string of casinos, golf courses and the Miss Universe pageant.
“But it wasn’t always so easy,” he added. “About 13 years ago, I was seriously in trouble. I was billions of dollars in debt.
“But I fought back and I won, big league. I used my brain. I used my negotiating skills. And I worked it all out. Now my company’s bigger than it ever was – it’s stronger than it ever was.”
With minor edits to the content, and the addition of even more dubious spray tan, the clip could have been issued this week.
Because 18 months ago, with Joe Biden well into his first term and Trump facing a mounting series of legal headaches, he had been all but written off.
No former president had ever been indicted by a criminal court, not least on charges of election interference and smuggling confidential documents out of the White House and into a lavatory. Only one former president had ever been voted out of office and returned in a subsequent election.
Against the odds, Trump turned his legal challenges into a campaign tool. “In the end, they’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you – and I’m just standing in their way,” he said, after receiving his first federal indictment in June. The line has since become one of his favourites.
Trump’s MAGA base, long used to his claims of government corruption after the “stolen” 2020 election, rose to his support. By the end of 2023, his approval ratings had increased by almost 10 points.
Eric von Muenster, a college-educated Republican who went to a Nikki Haley rally in Iowa earlier this month, came away disappointed and summarised the sentiment among a growing portion of the American electorate.
“Trump’s my guy. He’s a fighter,” he said.
But while Trump has reactivated his base, painstakingly built in the lead-up to the 2016 election, the addition of new voters is a more recent phenomenon.
Make the economy great again
The latest data shows it is not just among Republicans, but voters at large, where he is making gains, and it is among the groups where he had the least support in 2016 where his numbers have risen the most.
They include women, ethnic minorities, moderates, graduates and millennials.
Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said much of Trump’s appeal to new supporters can be explained by his strong performance on the economy.
In the three years since Biden took office, his administration has been plagued by persistent inflation that has driven American consumers away from the Democrats.
Polling for The Telegraph conducted last month found that in six key swing states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Florida, the economy was both the top priority of voters and one on which they trusted Biden the least.
In all six states, voters said they thought Trump would be more likely to improve their financial position than a second Biden term.
“There’s an opening there for Donald Trump because people see him as a candidate better able to handle the economy,” Bowman said.
“Inflation is such a powerful indicator, the fact that they see Trump as better able to handle the economy may at least be a partial explanation for the fact that he’s doing better among these groups than he did in 2016.”
This explanation may be especially true for women, who generally visit grocery stores more frequently, are more likely to manage household finances and more often report they are concerned about the economy than men, she said.
“Trump has to hope that the economy is going to be the issue in the [autumn], because he’s really seen as much stronger on that than Biden, and that could help him move a lot of groups his way.”
The economy is also a major issue for young voters, who are more likely to be concerned about future job security, the cost of housing and student loans.
A poll published last month found Trump leading Biden by 49 per cent to 43 per cent among voters aged 18 to 29. In 2020, Biden won that age group by 24 points.
Behind that swing is opposition to the current administration’s policies on the war in Gaza, crime and immigration, according to the latest edition of the Harvard Youth Poll.
As these concerns about Biden mount, many young voters are expected to either switch sides or stay away from the polls completely in 2024, or choose no-hope third candidates that would rob the president of a core Democrat constituency.
That trend could make all the difference for the Trump campaign in swing states where electoral college delegates are won on fine margins.
Trump is also making progress with young people who are motivated by debates on abortion – an issue on which he has avoided taking a traditional Republican pro-life stance.
Bowman said that young people and female graduates may have softened on Trump because he has not expressed support for a nationwide abortion ban.
“He doesn’t want to be seen as an extreme on the issue of Roe v Wade, and that too could solve the problems that he’d have with college educated women in particular,” she said.
Rather than discuss abortion directly, Trump prefers to talk in political terms about the effect of abortion on his campaign.
“We’re living in a time when there has to be a little bit of a concession one way or the other,” he said at a Fox News town hall in Iowa earlier this month.
“You have to win elections, otherwise, you’re going to be back where you were, and you can’t let that ever happen again. You’ve got to win elections.” And small numbers could make all the difference. In 2020, the closest state, Georgia was decided by a margin of less than 12,000 votes – 0.23 per cent of almost five million voters who cast a ballot there. Biden engineered similarly close wins in Arizona, Michigan and Nevada.
Trump 2.0 in office
The conventional wisdom in presidential elections is that candidates campaign from one wing of their party in a primary election, capturing as many partisan supporters as possible, before tacking to the centre for the national vote.
In office, the need to placate Congress requires presidents to be even more conciliatory, building consensus and passing bills in their first term to ensure they are reelected for another four years.
Trump, who can only serve one more term under the provisions of the 22nd amendment, does not have this constraint.
Nor does he have concerns about upsetting moderate Republicans in Congress, having largely transformed the congressional wing of the GOP and won over its leadership, including the new House Speaker, Mike Johnson.
Trump, an amateur politician back in 2016, has also learnt from his first term and intends to bring back many of the policies that were blocked last time by the civil service – known to his supporters as creatures of “the swamp”.
It was not until the last year of his first presidency that Trump introduced Schedule F, a controversial executive order that gave him the power to gut the federal workforce, sacking employees that obstructed his policy plans and replacing them with loyalists.
The order was ultimately mired in legal challenges, before being overturned in the first days of the Biden administration.
Trump has said he would immediately reintroduce it, in what he described in his first campaign rally in March as “retribution” against the “deep state”.
He has also pledged to bring back strict border control policies including “ideological screening” for immigrants, and to use the Justice Department as a political tool against his enemies – replicating the way he claims he has been treated in the past three years.
On foreign policy, he has been more explicit, promising to end the war in Ukraine “in one day”, in what has been interpreted as a call for territorial negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv. He has strongly hinted that he would have no qualms about leaving Nato, effectively destroying the alliance.
Other plans will reverse Biden-era policy and return to the course he set before 2020. Trump has repeatedly promised to “drill, baby, drill” – borrowing a slogan from former Republican candidate Sarah Palin – and scrap current incentives for Americans to buy electric cars.
He would also abandon Biden’s soft-touch approach to non-violent drug dealing, instead bringing in the death penalty.
On many other issues, it remains unclear how a second Trump term would play out.
His campaign is thought to be working on an exhaustive policy platform, but Trumpworld’s chaotic structure of allies, unofficial advisers and ideologues has become a rabbit warren that it is difficult for outsiders to penetrate.
Unlike most politicians, however, it appears Trump does not need or intend to campaign on policy. He intends to campaign on Trump.
The former president’s successes in the Republican primary and gains among unexpected portions of the American electorate show that his remarkable force of personality can overcome extraordinary hurdles.
As his campaign continues, he has produced one of the most valuable commodities in politics: a sense of inevitability.
A year ago, Americans looked at Trump’s plans for a second presidency and asked each other, ‘Could Trump really win?’
Now, in bars and churches and bus shelters, the question is different: can Trump lose?