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Nikki Haley’s plan to fight Trump for the Republican nomination? Win over non-Republicans

Mark Abramson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) — As former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley continues on in her quest to try to take down former President Donald Trump in the Republican nominating race, after three straight losses so far, she is focusing on states where non-Republicans can vote — and targeting voters outside of a GOP base that still overwhelmingly favors her rival.

“We want to bring in as many people as we can,” Haley told ABC News. “I’m going to be serving everybody, so whoever cares enough about this election and wants to be involved? We want their support.”

Despite her repeated defeats, Haley has described her campaign against Trump as about building “momentum” on her way to South Carolina’s Feb. 24 primary and touted her increasing numbers from Iowa to New Hampshire, the first two states to vote for the 2024 Republican nomination.

After Haley placed a distant third in the Iowa caucuses in January, she got to 43% in New Hampshire about a week later.

Exit polls in New Hampshire showed her doing especially well with undeclared voters, who were able to vote in the Republican primary. She also got strong backing from self-described moderates, just as she did in the Iowa caucuses, where she won about one-third of self-described independents, exit polling found.

By contrast, Trump has so far handily beaten her with conservative and evangelical voters. For example, in Tuesday’s primary in Nevada, in which only registered Republicans can vote, Haley only got 30% of the vote and actually lost out to the quirky option “none of these candidates.”

And while South Carolina’s open primary means registered voters are able to cast their ballot in either the Democratic or GOP primaries regardless of their party — but not both — the state has many more active Republican voters than Democratic ones. And it doesn’t have New Hampshire’s tradition of independent voters swinging back and forth.

Polling still has Trump ahead of Haley in South Carolina by more than 30 points, according to 538.

The entrance and exit polling from Iowa and New Hampshire also shows Haley handily lost to Trump with purely Republican-identified voters.

Haley’s campaign is making it clear that her plan to keep competing against Trump includes attracting a wider range of voters — not just in South Carolina’s open primary but in the 10 more states with open and semi-open primaries coming up in the next month as well. (Unlike open primaries, semi-open primaries require voters to cast a party-specific ballot when they vote. In a third kind of primary, semi-closed, voters must affiliate with a party before casting their ballot.)

Although the Haley campaign is not outwardly saying they are targeting Democrats, it’s not stopping some of those voters from considering supporting her.

Dale Bowling and Georgia Koss, who said they have supported Democratic presidential candidates since the ’90s, told ABC News that they’re planning on voting for Haley in South Carolina’s GOP primary after attending a rally for her in Conway in late January.

The two women both voted for President Joe Biden in 2020 but are now undecided, they said. They’re concerned with the president’s age and believe it’s time for new blood in the White House.

“I think Biden’s a little too old, honestly,” Bowling told ABC News.

“I just think that we need somebody young and fresh, lots of new ideas,” Koss added.

After hearing Haley speak, the pair told ABC News that they would be voting for her in the state’s GOP primary.

Haley’s campaign insists they see opportunity in trying to persuade the many non-primary voters who identify as Republicans but may not identify as the highly engaged members of their party’s base, who reliably turn out for every vote.

Primaries have historically low turnouts, especially relative to general elections.

“We are looking primarily at independents who can participate in primaries and we are also looking at expanding the people who do participate in these primaries,” Haley’s campaign manager, Betsy Ankney, told reporters on Monday. “There are a lot of general election Republican voters who do not participate in primaries typically.”

Can that boost Haley’s chances? Some aren’t persuaded.

“The Trump phenomenon is still very much a thing in South Carolina,” Mark Sanford, a former South Carolina congressman and governor who preceded Haley in office, told ABC News. “The demographics of the base South Carolina Republican voter align well with the Trump voter and may be one and the same.”

Sanford lost the 2018 GOP primary for his Charleston-area congressional seat to a Trump-backed opponent, after he repeatedly criticized Trump’s fiscal policies.

“He’s become a proxy going against the system. And a lot of rank-and-file Republican types feel like the system has failed them,” Sanford added. “Never mind the fact that Trump didn’t do anything about the debt when he was there, they see him as someone who will fight for them and fight against a system rigged against them.”

Activists urge a vote for Haley is a vote against Trump

For some voters and activists, their goal for this election cycle is to ensure that Trump never returns to the White House, leading them to try to block his path to the Oval Office in the primary by putting all of their efforts behind Haley.

Primary Pivot, an anti-Trump group that describes itself as focused on democracy, has been encouraging voters across the political spectrum to vote for Haley in open and semi-open GOP primaries as the field has essentially narrowed to a two-person race.

Robert Schwartz, who leads Primary Pivot, told ABC News that although he’s wary of Haley’s chances of beating Trump in South Carolina, he hopes she “survives” so she can stay in the race to compete in more “favorable states.”

And Primary Pivot is still investing resources in South Carolina, including having staffers on the ground and reaching out to voters of different political ideologies to support Haley.

The group said they have sent out more than 200,000 text messages encouraging people to think about their options, suggesting that Biden would win the state’s Democratic primary and that the Republican race is more competitive.

“[Haley] is catching up in the polls. Please make your vote count,” the texts read.

Schwartz told ABC News they plan on setting aside resources for several states leading up to Super Tuesday on March 5, when many states will hold simultaneous primaries.

Kelley Johnson a Democrat from Summerville, South Carolina, said she thinks a general election without Trump would allow voters to focus on the issues.

“I think it’s good for the country, because it’ll be a much more civil election,” Johnson told ABC News. “It’ll be fought on the policies rather than who’s just listening to Trump and trying to figure out what is going to come out of his mouth next.”

But some Democrats who don’t want to see a Republican win the election are critical of this strategy, because of how recent polling shows Haley beating Biden in a hypothetical matchup in the general election.

In a recent Quinnipiac poll, for example, Haley would defeat Biden 47-42%.

“I very much hope that it is just a one-on-one match between Biden and Donald Trump. Because I feel like it gives Joe Biden the best chance to prevail,” said Waring Hewe Jr., a voter from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.

Jaunita Miton from Summerville, South Carolina said that although Haley brings up some valid issues, she, too, would prefer Biden to face Trump.

“If I have to choose obviously, I’m gonna choose the weaker candidate and that’s Trump,” Miton said.

But 21-year-old student Lilli Taylor, of Columbia, South Carolina, who voted for Biden in 2020, said not everyone is thinking that way.

“I do have a lot of friends who identify as Democrats or liberals, but a lot of them do like Nikki and so it’s not necessarily just a vote against Trump,” Taylor said. “I think a lot of them generally do see a lot of potential in Nikki.”

‘I don’t know what state she can win’

Some major Democrats have played down the chance that Democratic voters could really sway the course of the Republican primary race against Trump.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a surrogate for Biden’s reelection campaign, told ABC News Chief Washington Correspondent Jonathan Karl in a recent interview that he doesn’t believe Haley can win over enough non-Republican voters to win anywhere.

“We’ve seen that game played over and over and over and over again. … I just don’t think you’re going to stack enough votes in that — I don’t know what state she can win, including her own state,” Newsom said.

But, he suggested, Haley sticking in the race and going after Trump could have other ramifications.

“Watching her … take shots at Trump, that didn’t leave me wanting. I was enjoying that. Meaning, she was saying a lot of the same things I’ve been saying about Trump,” Newsom said, “and so I don’t think it’s unhealthy in that respect.”

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