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Haley’s voters might decide Biden’s fate in November. Here’s why.

Analysis by Ronald Brownstein, CNN

(CNN) — As the South Carolina Republican primary approaches, the evidence is growing that Nikki Haley’s coalition is almost certainly not large enough to deny Donald Trump the GOP presidential nomination. But evidence is also accumulating that her coalition is more than large enough to deny Trump the White House in a general election if her voters remain as alienated from him as they now say they are.

The support for Haley in the early GOP contests has mapped, probably more precisely than ever before, the segments of the Republican electorate most deeply disaffected with Trump. In a possible rematch with Trump this fall, President Joe Biden will likely need to attract crossover support from a significant share of those ordinarily Republican-leaning voters to overcome the towering discontent evident in polls about his own performance.

So far, most polls show Biden making only very limited inroads in a general election against Trump with the kind of GOP primary voters displaying the most support for Haley – a universe centered on college-educated, ideologically centrist, and Republican-leaning independent voters. But surveys of voters participating in the Iowa and New Hampshire nominating contests show that most Haley supporters express deeply negative views about Trump. That could provide Biden an opening for greater gains in the months ahead – if he can resolve, or even temper, more of those voters’ doubts about his own record, age and strength.

“If there’s anything that should be sending warning flares up in the sky for the Trump people, this is it,” said Ace Smith, a California-based Democratic strategist, referring to the large number of Haley voters expressing negative views of the former president in polls.

Long-time GOP strategist Michael Madrid, who advised the anti-Trump Lincoln Project in 2020, said the evidence of the early Republican results, and polls of GOP voters nationwide about the Trump-Haley contest, are sending the party a clear, but dual, message.

On the one hand, Madrid said, all of these signals show “there’s not a lane for anyone else to get the nomination: This is Trump’s party.” But the same evidence, Madrid said, shows “Trump is entering this race significantly weaker with the Republican base than at any time since he secured the nomination in 2016.”

The first stages of the battle for the 2024 GOP nomination have largely confirmed the party’s divided attitudes about Trump, which have been seen in national surveys over the past several years.

Depending on the question, somewhere between one-fifth and one-third of self-identified GOP partisans have consistently expressed negative views in polls about Trump, particularly regarding his role in the January 6, 2021, insurrection and his broader effort to overturn the 2020 election result.

For instance, in a recent Washington Post/University of Maryland national survey, between 19% to 23% of Republicans and independents who lean toward the party agreed that Trump bore significant responsibility for the January 6 riot; that Trump “threatened democracy” when he told his supporters to march on the Capitol that day; that he was likely guilty of the criminal charges against him for attempting to overturn the 2020 election; and that the January 6 assault “was an attack on democracy that should never be forgotten.”

Likewise, in a recent CBS poll released on the third anniversary of January 6, about one-fourth of Republicans said they would describe the attack on the Capitol as an insurrection and an attempt to overthrow the US government. Roughly 3-in-10 Republicans said Biden had legitimately won the 2020 election and about one-third opposed pardons for the January 6 rioters, which Trump has signaled he will offer if elected to another term.

More broadly, in the latest CNN national poll conducted by SSRS, just under one-fourth of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents said they viewed Trump unfavorably. Almost exactly the same share said the party would have a better chance to win in November with a nominee other than Trump. In a national NBC News poll released Sunday, 22% of GOP primary voters agreed that “the Republican Party needs a new leader with better personal behavior and a different approach” than Trump, while another 14% said “Donald Trump was a good president, but it is time to consider other leaders.”

Across all of these questions, the share of Republican-leaning voters expressing negative views about Trump does not nearly approach a majority of the party. That explains why Haley faces such a steep uphill climb against him for the nomination, even though she has finally achieved the one-on-one race against Trump that his Republican critics have sought since 2016.

Yet through Iowa and New Hampshire, despite not winning those contests, the former South Carolina governor has demonstrated that the minority of the party that has long expressed anti-Trump views in polls can be mobilized into a coherent coalition of resistance to him at the ballot box. And at a time when the nation is divided so closely between Republicans and Democrats, defection from even such a minority faction in his own camp could be difficult for Trump to overcome in a general election should he advance that far.

Even if only about 1-in-10 ordinarily Republican voters “would defect if Trump is the nominee, that’s potentially significant in a close election,” said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist.

In Iowa, the voters resisting Trump split between Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has since dropped out; in New Hampshire they consolidated around Haley as the sole remaining alternative. But in each case, the GOP voters rejecting Trump have displayed similar demographic and ideological characteristics, according to the entrance and exit polls conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of media organizations including CNN. In each state, Trump showed significantly less strength among voters with a college degree than those without one and much less strength among independents who voted than partisan Republicans. He also lagged among voters who identify as somewhat conservative or moderate compared to those who called themselves “very conservative” and did not run as well among those who do not identify as evangelical Christians as those who do.

“This is not a casual vote, it’s a really thought-out vote,” said Celinda Lake, a long-time Democratic pollster who advised Biden’s 2020 campaign. “It has a whole schema around it – views about policy, views about temperament, about the criminal cases. It’s a very integrated view [about Trump].”

In the two kick-off contests, Haley voters in particular expressed strikingly negative views about Trump and his assertions about the 2020 election. In the entrance poll conducted of GOP caucusgoers in Iowa, almost exactly 4-in-5 Haley voters said Trump would not be fit to serve as president again if convicted of a crime, according to results provided by CNN’s polling unit; likewise 4-in-5 Haley Iowa voters said Biden had legitimately won the 2020 election.

In New Hampshire, more than 4-in-5 Haley voters said Trump would not be fit to serve again if convicted and that Biden had legitimately won. Fully 85% of Haley supporters said they would be dissatisfied if Trump were the nominee.

The AP/NORC VoteCast poll offered similar warning signs for Trump. In that poll, two-thirds of Haley voters in Iowa said they would not vote for Trump in a general election; that number soared past three-fourths of her voters in New Hampshire.

The Washington Post/Monmouth University poll of GOP voters in South Carolina released last week showed Trump opening a resounding 26 percentage point lead over Haley in her home state, which will hold its critical GOP primary on February 24. Yet the survey also raised the same general election red flags for Trump as the Edison surveys in Iowa and New Hampshire.

In the South Carolina poll, roughly three-fourths of those voting for Haley said they viewed Trump unfavorably; over three-fourths said Biden legitimately won in 2020; nearly three-fifths said Trump committed a crime in his response to that result; and less than one-in-five said they planned to vote for Trump in November.

Smith said that the resistance to Trump surfacing in these early GOP primary polls will be “a huge, huge problem” for him in the general election. Two factors largely explain it, he believes: hostility to Trump’s role in overturning the nationwide legal right to abortion, which the US Supreme Court did in 2022, “plus people just not wanting the craziness and the chaos.”

Madrid said the cumulative evidence from the early election results and these surveys indicates that the component of the GOP coalition dubious of Trump is larger than most people have thought – and likely larger than at any point since he first emerged as the party’s nominee in 2016.

The Republicans critical of Trump were so isolated that “we used to be on one group chat and now we are running out of muskets to hand out to be in the conflict,” Madrid said. “I think everybody you talk to will all say the same thing: something has shifted. [Haley] is becoming the rallying cry for something different and something bigger, and that tells me that the swamp fever has broken with a wide part of the Republican Party.” Madrid estimates that the share of ordinarily Republican-leaning voters fundamentally disaffected with Trump has grown from around 6%-8% in 2020 to as much as nearly 20% now.

Still, experts in both parties agree that many of the Haley primary voters now saying they would not support Trump in November would eventually fall into line behind him if he becomes the nominee. Haley herself, of course, has said that if she loses the nomination she would vote for Trump over Biden “any day of the week.”

Jennifer Horn, a former New Hampshire Republican party chair who has become a fierce Trump critic, said, “I don’t think that whole 30%” or so of GOP voters coalescing behind Haley in the early states “goes to Biden because amongst that 30% are folks that are very loyal Republicans. They might not be loyal MAGA … but we know there are people out there who simply won’t vote for a Democrat.” The key “question for Biden,” she added, “is how many of the others can he win over?”

Jim McLaughlin, a pollster for Trump’s 2024 campaign, said that Trump would suffer minimal defections in the GOP coalition in a rematch with Biden because Republican voters believe Trump’s presidency produced far better results on the issues they care about than the current administration.

“As long as they think Joe Biden is a really bad president, [Trump] will still keep those” voters now flocking to Haley, McLaughlin said. “They will be voting their self-interest. They are voting their pocketbooks, the border, crime and safety. They are voting war and peace. We always say the presidential race is decided by the two p’s: peace and prosperity. And on those ‘two p’s’ they look at Donald Trump and say, he did a better job.”

The CNN national poll released last week suggests that many of the Republicans skeptical of Trump are indeed making that calculation. In a hypothetical matchup against the former president, the survey found Biden winning just 6% of GOP partisans and independents who leaned toward the party – far fewer than the 23% of those voters who expressed an unfavorable view of Trump. One key reason: fully 93% of all GOP-leaning voters said they disapproved of Biden’s performance as president.

Similarly, in the new national NBC poll, just 8% of all GOP primary voters said they plan to vote for Biden in the general election – far fewer than the more than one-third in the survey who said they wanted the party to move beyond Trump. “I just don’t think there’s some significant possibility of [the] people telling AP VoteCast or the Exit Poll they are Republican not voting for Trump,” despite what they say now, veteran GOP pollster Bill McInturff – whose firm conducts the NBC survey with a Democratic partner – said in an email.

Lake agrees the Republican disaffection surfacing in the primaries is so far translating more into hesitance about Trump than support for Biden. But she sees opportunities for Biden to flip more of those conflicted voters in the months ahead.

Trump’s vehement personal attacks on Haley – as well as his vituperative comments about E. Jean Carroll and his supporters’ fervid denunciations of Taylor Swift ­– will alienate more GOP-leaning women, Lake believes. And the fact that so many independents have made the effort to participate in a Republican primary to vote against Trump, she said, shows they remain within reach for Biden, even if they are down on his performance now. In addition, Lake noted, the Haley coalition revolves heavily around college-educated voters who are the most likely to express growing optimism about the economy, particularly with the stock market surging.

Chris Wilson, a Republican pollster who advised the super PAC supporting DeSantis during his presidential run, takes a position somewhere in between McInturff and Lake. Wilson believes many of the voters flocking to Haley are lost to a Trump-led GOP, but that Trump can win a general election without them. He can offset any defections, Wilson wrote in an email, “by winning votes from groups that would have voted for Democrats prior to the last few elections.”

“We can see in some of the recent national polls what his 2024 path to victory might look like,” Wilson added, “and it’s through the White and Hispanic working class rather than by winning over all the Haley voters.”

Madrid counters that the primary results so far show Trump faces the risk that his losses among upscale voters compared to 2020 will exceed his gains in blue-collar and non-White communities. Madrid believes Biden’s record on immigration is the biggest obstacle to him harvesting support among the Republicans uneasy about Trump. Discontent over illegal immigration, Madrid argues, is the most powerful weapon Trump will have in a general election to win back Republican-leaning women who both dislike his behavior and support abortion rights. For Biden, who has endorsed a tough bipartisan Senate immigration bill, “the best way he can guarantee his reelection is to crash hard into the center on that issue, and go hard on the border,” Madrid said.

Lake doesn’t agree that any single issue is critical for Biden with the kind of GOP voters who have rallied to Haley. Instead, she believes the GOP primaries are again showing that Trump’s biggest weakness are doubts about his character, demeanor and priorities.

“We know that they [the Republicans resistant to Trump] are worried about how strong and effective Biden can be,” Lake said. “But the reality is their vote is going to be about Trump; it’s not going to be about Biden. Biden has to be the mirror to show you what Trump really is. Where Trump is chaos, he is steady. Where Trump is about revenge, he is about solutions.”

The widespread dissatisfaction with Biden’s performance has generated ominous splits in the Democratic coalition, particularly among younger voters and minority men. Finding ways to exploit the divisions in the GOP coalition that Haley has exposed may be Biden’s best hope of overcoming the cracks in his own electoral foundation.

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