Chris Christie and Nikki Haley on a debate stage last month.Credit…Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
Eight years ago, Chris Christie gave Donald J. Trump the biggest political assist of the 2016 campaign.
He eviscerated a surging Marco Rubio on the debate stage just days before the New Hampshire primary. In doing so, he ensured that the Republican mainstream would be divided and allowed Mr. Trump to regain his footing with a win after a loss in Iowa.
Mr. Trump won’t be getting the same favor again.
On Wednesday, Mr. Christie withdrew from the race. Whatever his intent, by bowing out he has effectively done what he didn’t do eight years ago: step out of the way of a mainstream conservative with moderate appeal, in this case Nikki Haley, who is surging heading into the New Hampshire primary.
In the most recent polls, she reached about 30 percent of the vote in New Hampshire. It was a tally that put her within striking distance of Mr. Trump and even made a victory imaginable. But she still trailed by about 12 percentage points, and her path to victory remained quite narrow.
With Mr. Christie out of the race, those 12 points don’t look so hard anymore. He has held around 10 percent of the vote in New Hampshire for months, and Ms. Haley and Mr. Trump would essentially be tied in New Hampshire if her support were hypothetically combined with Mr. Christie’s.
According to FiveThirtyEight on Wednesday night, Ms. Haley and Mr. Christie’s support added up to 41.5 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, to 42.4 percent for Mr. Trump.
Of course, not every one of Mr. Christie’s voters will back Ms. Haley. But in this particular case, there’s good reason to think the preponderance of his voters really will coalesce behind her.
Mr. Christie is the only vocal anti-Trump candidate and, not surprisingly, his supporters are the likeliest to be anti-Trump. In a CNN/UNH poll this week, 65 percent of Mr. Christie’s supporters said Ms. Haley was their second choice. In a CBS/YouGov poll last month, 75 percent of Mr. Christie’s supporters in New Hampshire said they would consider Ms. Haley. Just 9 percent said they would consider Mr. Trump.
With these numbers, Ms. Haley’s path to victory isn’t like hitting an inside straight — it is fairly straightforward. No, the Christie vote, alone, will probably not be enough. But she has been steadily gaining in the polls and, historically, there’s a lot of precedent for surging candidates to keep gaining — especially over a contest’s final days. With Mr. Trump at just 42 percent of the vote, there’s no reason to think her path is closed off.
Of course, a Haley win in New Hampshire would not mean that Mr. Trump’s path to the nomination was in jeopardy. Not even Mr. Christie seems optimistic about her chances; he was heard on a hot mic Wednesday saying “she’s going to get smoked,” presumably referring to Ms. Haley, and he did not endorse her.
Her appeal is concentrated among highly educated and moderate voters, who represent an outsize share of the electorate in New Hampshire. She also depends on the support of registered independents — in some other key primary contests, they are not eligible to vote. Back in 2016, moderate candidates who went nowhere nationally — John Kasich, Mr. Christie and Jeb Bush — added up to 34 percent of the vote in New Hampshire. If you add the 11 percent held by Mr. Rubio, a mainstream conservative, that’s 45 percent of the vote that went for establishment candidates. In other words, this state is not representative of the Republican electorate.
But this time, the voters who backed those moderate Republicans will have a chance to coalesce behind a single candidate and, in doing so, deal a blow to Mr. Trump. The consequences may mostly prove to be symbolic: a rare Republican rebuke of Mr. Trump and a reminder that the old mainstream of the Republican Party remains to be reckoned with.
But there is a chance, albeit a small one, that a Haley win in New Hampshire would prove to be more important. Mr. Trump will face criminal trials in the months ahead. While it seems exceedingly unlikely today, an erosion of his aura of dominance might make him ever so slightly more vulnerable once a trial gets underway.