Haley’s voters will haunt Trump until November

Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley lost the New Hampshire primary to Donald Trump by double digits Tuesday. It’s hard to foresee Haley competing more aggressively, or with better results, in any state in the near future. She hasn’t yet quit the field, but it appears to have quit her.

Still, exit polls, along with dozens of interviews that I conducted with New Hampshire voters, suggest her campaign might have a lasting imprint just the same. Haley won independents by 24 points even as Trump crushed her among registered Republicans, winning them three to one. Republican voters love Trump. Some worship him. But those who supported Haley sometimes did so with a potent amount of side-eye for the MAGA king. In interviews as they left polling stations in southern New Hampshire, a few shook their heads in dismay about the state of the GOP — by which they meant the state of Trump. A “mess,” one said. Others used the word “chaos” — as Haley often has — to describe the brand of politics they were fleeing when they embraced the former UN ambassador who served in the Trump administration.


Trump will have a ferocious MAGA wind at his back as he rolls into his contest with President Joe Biden. But Haley Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who don’t like Trump’s chaos or have misgivings about his misogyny or his alleged felonies, likely pose a serious challenge to his ambition to return to the White House. More than four in five Haley voters said they would consider Trump unfit to be president if he is convicted of a crime. That assertion may not be tested before November. But then again, it just might. Similarly, four in five Haley voters said they disbelieve Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.

Crimes and lies will figure prominently in the campaign ahead. Republican voters who recoil from them are a minority of the party. But Trump, facing headwinds against a Democratic Party that has won the popular vote in all but one election going back to 1992, will need every Republican voter he can get.

Using a 2023 New York Times/Siena poll as a guide, about 14% of the GOP consists of “moderate establishment” voters, the kind of affluent, highly educated White voters who gave Haley a boost in New Hampshire on Tuesday. How many of them in swing states can Trump afford to lose in November?

Trump will no doubt run a campaign to energize his MAGA base, which feeds his ego while padding his mailing list and his small-donor contributions. But he will also have to run a campaign to suppress Biden’s most ambivalent voters —Hispanic men, Black men, Michigan Arab-Americans upset about the war in Gaza, and the party’s left flank, which is upset about the war and more. For every Haley supporter who bails on chaos and lies, Trump will have to subtract a Democratic voter from Biden’s rolls.

That will only increase the importance of moderates and independents. They have seemed lost in American politics in the MAGA era. But they continue to matter. Many of the suburban women who organized in 2018 in reaction to Trump, jettisoning the Republican majority in Congress, were moderates and independents. They rejected lies and chaos. They worked to build support for Democratic candidates. And they won a resounding victory.

The moderates who voted for Haley in New Hampshire may be more conservative than the typical moderate superwoman who became a Democratic organizer in 2018. But it’s been six years since Trump’s successful 2016 campaign. Voters, women especially, who are still cold to him after all these years are unlikely to warm up soon. They know Trump.

They know very well why they don’t like him. And they live in more places than just New Hampshire.

So, while Haley is unlikely to ride the campaign trail much further, her key voters may have a powerful afterlife. Anyone capable of supporting an intelligent, accomplished and confident Brown woman, the daughter of immigrants, in a Republican primary is likely a serious threat to abandon MAGA. And if there is one thing we know about Trump, he will almost certainly give them additional reason to flee.

Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering US politics and policy. Previously, he was executive editor for the Week and a writer for Rolling Stone.