The morning before the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, the atmosphere at the media center of gravity in Manchester was busy but hardly frenetic — muted may be more like it.
At the Doubletree Hotel, there was the typical gathering of reporters in the lobby lounge and the appearance of attention-starved long-shot candidates, but the media footprint is smaller than it was four years ago. A group of a dozen of so twentysomethings gathered along a long table, clattering away on their laptops, but they were from a college class, not some news outlet.
On Tuesday, the cable and broadcast networks again will provide a swarm of coverage of the final hours of the race, then feverishly report on the initial exit polls and finish by micro-analyzing the results.
The question is whether viewers will show up.
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Election season typically is a chance for networks to show off their brands and newsgathering strengths, with the expectation of a viewership spike. But last week, coverage of the Iowa caucuses was way down, drawing 4.67 million watching the three major cable networks, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. That’s about half the audience that tuned in in 2020.
The New Hampshire vote might have the advantage of a head-to-head matchup against former President Donald Trump and former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, defining whether the race is all but concluded or still has a bit of life left in it. And although a number of polls show Trump still leading, the Granite State can surprise, as if to send a message that the Republican contest should not be a coronation.
The coverage of the Tuesday vote also will not be going up against an NFL playoff game or, to a lesser extent the Emmy Awards, as the caucuses did.
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But this cycle, so much of the media excitement that typically precedes the week before the New Hampshire vote — like a standout moment from a debate — didn’t happen. The ABC News/WMUR-TV event was canceled when Haley declined to participate unless Trump did, a move that likely cost the network millions, sources said. A second debate sponsored by CNN also was canceled, and although the network scheduled a Haley town hall, such events don’t draw the same level of cross-media attention.
Moreover, some political veterans note that there is not the same level of breakneck campaigning across the state as in cycles past, largely due to the winnowed field. Trump, meanwhile, has focused on large-scale rallies while he’s been attending the E. Jean Carroll civil case. He was there again today, before planning to return to New Hampshire this evening for another rally in Laconia.
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One network correspondent called the primary “the strangest I have ever seen,” with Trump “barely there” and Haley skipping the debates. The smaller network presence reflects “the budget reality and the primary not being overly competitive.”
CBS News’ chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett, who traveled to New Hampshire over the weekend, said that this may be the quietest he’s seen it here — and he’s been coming since 1992.
In Iowa, Garrett said, “the weather predominantly influenced turnout on the downward side. But there was very little excitement. The excitement and interest and energy, person to person and Republican to Republican this year, is starkly different and much less than 2016.”
“In the main, viewership was down because it wasn’t a mystery,” he said. “It just wasn’t. Trump was going to win. I think viewership will be a little higher on Tuesday night for New Hampshire because there is a little bit more of a variable there, a little bit more unpredictability.”
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But he said that the lack of a pre-primary debate “takes a lot of starch out of this.”
Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto said via email: “At first blush when I arrived for my Saturday show, it definitely seemed like a smaller media presence, but I attributed that more to the weekend and that attention and crowds would build. That doesn’t appear to be the case, certainly compared to my coverage here in 2016 and even more so in 2020.”
He added: “It probably doesn’t help matters any that Democrats have de-emphasized New Hampshire and President Biden himself isn’t even on the ballot. Voters have to literally write in his name. Awkward, to put it mildly. Add the rapidly winnowing GOP field, and you clearly have winnowing suspense and media attention as well. Everyone seems staffed for surprises, but judging by the crowds, not planning on any. We shall see.”
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Haley is a ubiquitous presence on the airwaves, with $30.4 million spent in support of her bid, compared to $15.7 million for Trump and $8.04 million for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, before he dropped out, according to research firm AdImpact.
Much of the recent media coverage of Haley’s campaign has focused on her attacks on Trump: Over the weekend she questioned his mental fitness after he referred to her when he really meant Nancy Pelosi. But Haley’s criticisms are nowhere near the level of Chris Christie, who dropped out of the race earlier this month.
“The problem for Haley is, she knows that sound bites live forever,” Garrett said. “She goes hard on Trump in New Hampshire, she will live with every one of those sound bites in South Carolina, where Trump is much stronger and the idea of attacking Trump in South Carolina lands much differently.”
Fergus Cullen, New Hampshire political consultant and former chairman of the Republican State Committee, said that while Haley has gotten more pointed in her criticism, it has been “nowhere nearly enough to connect with independent voters, to make news.”
He recalled what happened in 2008, when Barack Obama, at a debate days before the primary, made a gaffe in telling Hillary Clinton, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” Then, the day before the primary, Clinton got emotional and wistful in talking about the race, in a way that “humanized her as a candidate.”
“In hindsight, most people would say that moment was the difference between winning and losing,” Cullen said. “Nikki hasn’t created any kind of those moments this week.”
In fact, as the dynamics of the race have remained unchanged with Trump leading, some pundits have started to focus more on vice presidential prospects rather than the race itself.
“Just by the nature of this race, you are going to see fewer reporters from fewer media outlets camping out in New Hampshire this time,” said MSNBC anchor and NBC News correspondent Katy Tur. “So it’s more subdued, but that is just the characteristic of who’s running and the state of the race right now.”
Tur, who was in the state last week, said that despite the differences from cycles of the past, the primary still has the possibilities of an upset.
“This is the place where, if the Republican party is going to have a nominee not named Donald Trump, it will start in New Hampshire,” Tur said. “This is Nikki Haley’s best shot at winning a state. If she is able to pull off a win … I think it’s huge deal.”
During her visit last week, Tur said that she was struck by the number of people in the state who wanted an alternative to Trump. “I just think that this is going to be fascinating to see if the Republican Party wants and alternative or if the Republican Party wants to go back to their favorite item on the menu, which is Donald Trump.”
She added: “What I found really interesting was I talked to a lot of self-described very liberal people who said that they were interested in Nikki Haley. That to me said something about the general election.”
New Hampshire polls have been off before — Clinton pulled off a surprise upset over Obama in 2008. Voter enthusiasm seemed to have built somewhat over the weekend. At a Haley event on Sunday, a crowd filled a high school theater and was warmed up by Haley’s top surrogate, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, and the sounds of Tom Petty’s “American Girl.”
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Tur said: “I detected a little bit of malaise from voters who said, ‘This feels like we’re in Groundhog Day. It feels like a rerun.’ But the issues at stake are certainly animating groups of voters. I spoke to three women who told me they are absolutely going to go out and vote. They feel like democracy is on the ballot. They are scared for the future. They need to participate. They don’t want Donald Trump to win. They are voting for Nikki Haley. They are desperate for a different person. And then I talked to people, Trump voters, who said that they were excited to get Trump back in office.”
As for younger voters, Tur said: “I hear a lot of, ‘Why even bother?’ These two guys don’t know and don’t represent me, and I am not sure why I should participate.’”
An exit-poll question she is looking out for on Tuesday is one on the order of, “Do you want someone different?” “That’s going to be a big indicator of where New Hampshire goes, or do you think this race is already in the bag.”