Immigration, the economy and foreign policy could decide the New Hampshire primary

Fresh off his big win in the Iowa caucuses, former President Donald Trump is also expected to best his remaining opponents in the New Hampshire Republican primary Tuesday. But his polling lead in the state isn't quite as large as it was going into Iowa, with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley even cutting his lead to single digits in some recent polls.

In part, that's because New Hampshire Republican primary voters are more moderate than Iowa's Republican caucusgoers, and those moderates prefer Haley. Fewer potential Republican primary voters in New Hampshire are evangelical Christians, and those differences show up in how they think about issues like abortion, about which the state is generally less conservative than Iowa.

But do these more moderate Republicans differ significantly from the rest of their party on the issues most important to them? Recent issue polling in the state seems to tell us that, when it comes to the issues most affecting their voting decisions — immigration, the economy and foreign policy — they don't differ too drastically. Democratic and independent Granite Staters too seem concerned about the country's direction on these issues under President Biden — so these polls could tell us something about the strengths and weaknesses of both parties' frontrunners heading into the general election.

Why should we care what's going to happen in yet another small state that is mostly white and not representative of the country as a whole? Haley's performance Tuesday may be less about her real chances of snatching the nomination and more about whether a more moderate candidate — in demeanor and public perception, if not necessarily in policy stances — can still hold a candle in some corners of the party.

Like Republicans nationwide, New Hampshire Republicans worry about immigration

Immigration is a big motivator for Republicans nationwide, and the Granite State is no different. When asked to name the single most important issue facing the country, immigration was the most common answer for likely GOP primary voters in New Hampshire: 25 percent chose it as their top voting issue in a November Monmouth University/Washington Post poll. In that same poll, 59 percent said it was an extremely important issue. That's true even though immigration isn't something these voters think particularly affects New Hampshire: Only 5 percent of registered voters thought it was the most important issue facing their state in an Emerson College/WHDH-TV poll from November.

But 66 percent in that poll thought Biden's immigration policy was "more of a failure" than a success, indicating that they thought it was time for a change nationally on that front. In the University of New Hampshire Survey Center's Granite State poll conducted in late September and early October, 59 percent of all New Hampshire residents and 98 percent of registered Republicans said they thought illegal immigration was a "very serious" problem for the country. And in a Suffolk University/Boston Globe/USA Today poll this month, a plurality of 30 percent of Republicans named illegal immigration as a bigger threat to U.S. interests than Chinese aggression, war between Ukraine and Russia and war between Israel and Hamas.

In general, New Hampshire Republicans are in line with the rest of their party when it comes to policy proposals on immigration, including reducing the number of legal immigrants. Sixty-four percent of likely Republican primary voters supported that policy in a December YouGov/University of Massachusetts Lowell Center for Public Opinion poll. In a YouGov/CBS News poll from December, 80 percent said they would prefer a nominee who would "deport millions of immigrants they believe to be undocumented." And in a November University of New Hampshire Survey Center/CNN poll, more supported than opposed (47 to 31 percent) a policy that would end birthright citizenship — a Trump proposal echoed by businessman Vivek Ramaswamy on the 2024 campaign trail.

Views on immigration have shifted in the state since Trump first took office. Among Republican primary voters surveyed, 84 percent told the University of New Hampshire Survey Center in October that they supported building a wall on the southern border, up from 69 percent in 2017. In the same poll, only 34 percent of Republicans supported a path to legal citizenship for undocumented immigrants, down from 68 percent in 2017. It's more evidence of Trump's power to move his party toward more extreme, nationalistic positions on immigration.

New Hampshire voters are worried about the economy

Like all voters nationally, New Hampshire voters, regardless of political affiliation, care about the economy — and they don't think it's doing well. When told most economists think the economy is improving and inflation is going down, 57 percent of all likely voters in the Suffolk poll said they did not feel that in their everyday life.

Seventy-eight percent of likely Republican primary voters ranked jobs and the economy as one of their top three issues, and 40 percent ranked it as their top issue, in deciding who to vote for in the November UNH poll. The Monmouth/Washington Post poll more specifically listed inflation and rising prices as an issue, and it closely followed immigration as a top issue for likely Republican primary voters, with 58 percent saying it was an extremely important issue facing the country and 20 percent picking it as the single most important issue.

Relatedly, New Hampshire Republican voters are also worried about the amount of money the federal government spends. In that same Monmouth/Washington Post poll, half said government debt was extremely important and 6 percent chose it as their top issue. Sixty-nine percent in the November UNH/CNN poll supported a policy to return government spending to pre-COVID-19 levels. Reducing federal spending is a key part of Haley's economic proposal, unveiled in September, which heavily criticized the Biden administration's federal spending programs and levels. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has rejected federal funding and cut his state's budget, and Trump has promised to cut federal spending if reelected.

This issue is likely to play a bigger role in voters' decision-making when it comes to the general election — and Republicans seem to have the upper hand on it. But feelings about the economy have grown warmer over the past month, so this could change by November.

Foreign policy has emerged as a bigger concern in recent months

Foreign policy is another area that seems like a potential losing issue for Biden in the public's eyes. Russia invaded Ukraine almost two years ago, and supporting Ukraine financially has been one of the Biden administration's top concerns. But continuing to fund Ukraine's defense has become a harder sell with the current Congress, and its popularity with the public, though still high, has faded somewhat over time, particularly among Republicans. Only 46 percent of New Hampshire likely GOP primary voters supported providing further military aid to Ukraine in the Monmouth/Washington Post poll. (Support was particularly low among Trump supporters specifically: 24 percent.) A plurality, 45 percent, strongly opposed further military aid to Ukraine in the YouGov/UMass Lowell poll.

What's helped complicate the picture is, of course, the U.S.'s military aid to Israel for its war in Gaza since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks. The event appeared to boost foreign policy from a distant third place in September to second place in the November UNH/CNN poll when likely New Hampshire Republican primary voters were asked to name their most important issues in deciding which candidate to support. Fifty-seven percent chose it as a top-three issue in November, up from 28 percent in September.

Ninety percent of New Hampshire Republicans disapprove of Biden's handling of foreign affairs in the October University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll. Half of respondents in the YouGov/UMass Lowell poll said Biden's handling of the Israel-Hamas conflict made them view Biden much less favorably, and 61 percent strongly or somewhat supported banning Gazan refugees from coming to the United States in the November UNH/CNN poll. But 69 percent want the U.S. to continue to provide military aid to Israel in the Monmouth/Washington Post poll.

Foreign involvement is one area that could lay bare some differences between GOP candidates. During Trump's presidency, he upended traditional Republican foreign policy norms, shifting away from international agreements like support for NATO and calling for less global intervention. The Republican Party shifted with him. But in New Hampshire and elsewhere, Haley's foreign policy experience as U.N. Ambassador has appealed to some voters. She's taken a more traditional stance in continuing to call for Ukraine aid, but also takes a hard line on combating China as an increasing threat and unwavering support for Israel, views that keep her in line with the Republican base.

No matter who wins on Tuesday, New Hampshire voters seem to share the nationwide disapproval of Biden's handling of important issues. That could give the eventual Republican nominee a chance in the state, despite its record of supporting Democrats for president in the last five elections.

Immigration, the economy and foreign policy could decide the New Hampshire primary originally appeared on