• Reuters

To Beat Trump, Nikki Haley Tries to Expand Coalition, and Fast

REUTERS/Christopher Reistroffer/File Photo
Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks alongside her daughter Rena Haley during the “Faith and Family with the Feenstras” event moderated by Rep. Randy Feenstra in Sioux Center, Iowa, U.S. December 9, 2023.

CLEAR LAKE, Iowa (Reuters) – Republican presidential contender Nikki Haley has risen in opinion polls in recent months largely on the back of college-educated, affluent, suburban professionals, many of whom have tired of Donald Trump’s caustic rhetoric and legal troubles.

If the former South Carolina governor is to ascend any further and have a real shot at beating Trump in the 2024 Republican nominating contest, supporters and opponents say, she must expand that coalition – and quickly.

That means pulling in more voters who live in rural areas, are middle- or working-class, or lack college degrees, according to eight pollsters and strategists interviewed by Reuters. Some are affiliated with the Haley nomination effort and some are independent.

Ahead of the Republican nominating kick-off in Iowa on Jan. 15, Haley has been traveling to Trump-friendly territory in the state, including a December campaign swing that took her through a deeply conservative area along its northern border.

She also launched a “Farmers for Nikki” coalition in November, while her campaign and its allies have blanketed the airwaves with ads in rural areas in an effort to build her name recognition and broaden her appeal.

In a barn with hand-hewn wooden beams in Spirit Lake and at a Clear Lake restaurant where a mounted bison head loomed large, Haley spoke this month about the small South Carolina town where she grew up that had only two traffic lights.

“The area I grew up in was much like Iowa,” Haley told an audience in the town of Sioux Center. “I grew up playing in a cotton field and in a dairy farm.”

She talked at length about shortcomings in the public healthcare system for America’s veterans, which caters disproportionately to rural Americans. While she has stepped up her criticisms of Trump in recent months, saying that his management style is too chaotic and divisive to be effective, she did not bring up the former president much on the trail.

Trump leads his Republican rivals in Iowa with about 50% support, polls show. Haley, who was U.N. ambassador under Trump, is in a close third place behind Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Her numbers have moved up in recent weeks while DeSantis, once seen as a serious threat to Trump, has faltered.

Les Hardy, a truck driver at a local chick hatchery, braved bone-cold conditions to attend Haley’s town hall in Clear Lake. He arrived undecided about which candidate to back, but said he was considering Trump.

After the event, Hardy said he was leaning toward Haley thanks to her straightforward answers to audience questions and what he described as her “down home” manner.

Most of his co-workers, however, stood behind the former president. “Trump is definitely number 1 in the majority of their eyes,” Hardy said. “But number 2, it’s anybody’s race.”

ROOM TO RISE

In a Reuters/Ipsos poll released in December, Trump led the Republican field nationally with 61% support, while Haley and DeSantis both stood at 11%. The winner of the Republican primary will take on Democratic President Joe Biden in November 2024.

Haley scooped up around a fifth of college-educated Republicans, while also outperforming among suburbanites. About seven-in-10 Republicans without a college degree backed Trump.

Internal polling from SFA, one of the outside PACs supporting Haley, also indicates she is outperforming in high-income, college-educated and suburban areas, according to an official there, who requested anonymity to discuss private polling and campaign strategy.

That official said Haley has room to grow with rural and non-college voters as they start paying more attention to the presidential race and become more familiar with her candidacy.

SFA has spent more than $25 million on ads and mailings backing her White House run since late September, when Haley began gaining serious traction among some major donors, and mid-December, according to disclosures made to the Federal Election Commission.

One recent spot by SFA focused on the struggles of the middle class, lamenting that “the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer.”

“Nikki isn’t taking any voter for granted,” said Olivia Perez-Cubas, a campaign spokesperson. “She’s traveling across Iowa holding town halls, answering every question and shaking every hand.”

In New Hampshire, which will hold its primary a week after the Iowa caucuses and is a significantly more affluent state, Haley is in a clear second, behind Trump. In an internal poll conducted in mid-December and shared with Reuters by AFP Action, a political advocacy organization supporting Haley, she is statistically tied with Trump in a theoretical head-to-head match up there.

DeSantis campaign officials say Haley would fail to beat Trump in a one-on-one race because she does not appeal to voters who still admire the former president.

Interviews with 20 people at Haley’s events in northwestern Iowa showed she was drawing some voters who were ready to move on from Trump, along with some still willing to consider him.

Of the 10 who wanted to move on, all were leaning toward Haley. Of the 10 who were still open to the former president, some preferred Haley, some preferred DeSantis and others said they would likely stick with Trump.

Toni Featherston, a 64-year-old nurse from Rockford, Iowa (pop. 758), said Haley impressed her.

While Featherston still likes Trump, she said his legal issues and propensity for making controversial statements that distract from policies make it unlikely he would accomplish everything he set out to achieve in a second term.

“Haley seems down to earth,” Featherston said. “I like Trump, but I agree with Haley. That’d be too much chaos.”