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Nikki Haley’s voters are now one of the biggest unclaimed prizes in the 2024 election

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Emily Elconin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What’s happening

Nikki Haley dropped out of the Republican presidential race on Wednesday following a wave of losses to Donald Trump in primary contests across the country on Super Tuesday.

The former South Carolina governor waged a vigorous campaign that was ultimately no match for Trump’s march to the GOP nomination. But she was able to capture 20% to 40% of the Republican primary votes in a handful of key states, more than enough to turn her supporters into one of the most crucial unclaimed groups that will decide whether Trump or President Biden wins the 2024 presidential election.

Historically, voters who backed a losing primary candidate have tended to rally behind the party’s nominee en masse. But today’s Republican Party is uniquely fractured, and exit polls from the primaries suggest that Trump can’t simply assume Haley’s voters will come back into the fold.

“It is now up to Donald Trump to earn the votes of those in our party and beyond it who did not support him,” Haley said Wednesday. “And I hope he does.” She also declined to endorse Trump’s bid for the presidency.

Shortly after Haley’s announcement, both candidates took their first stab at courting her voters.

“Donald Trump made it clear he doesn't want Nikki Haley supporters. I want to be clear: There is a place for them in my campaign,” Biden wrote in a statement. Trump also invited Haley voters to join his movement, but only after mocking her for being “TROUNCED” on Super Tuesday.

Why there’s debate

Haley’s voters will have three choices in the general election, none of which may be particularly appealing to them: Support Trump, vote for Biden or sit out the race entirely.

Many political analysts believe that the vast majority of her supporters will ultimately fall in line because, in today’s deeply polarized political environment, most GOP voters would still rather back a Republican they dislike than a Democrat — especially when that Democrat is someone they also strongly disapprove of. Now that the primary is effectively over, Trump also has plenty of opportunity to “earn” the support of Haley’s more moderate voters by cooling his rhetoric and shifting to the center on a few key policies.

But other experts say there’s a strong anti-Trump coalition within Haley’s voter base who won’t be persuaded under any circumstances to back him in the general election, particularly after he attacked her so aggressively in the later stages of the primary. While it’s not clear how many “never Trumpers” there really are, they could prove to be incredibly important in tight swing state races.

The situation is also complicated by the fact that some states held open primaries, meaning voters with any party affiliation can participate in the GOP race. In these states, a fair share of Haley’s support likely came from independents or even Democrats who would never consider voting for Trump, but were instead using the primary as a chance to damage Trump or express their discontent with Biden.

What’s next

With Haley now out of the race, the remaining states on the GOP primary calendar might not provide much new insight into how strong opposition to Trump is within his own party. Polls could create a slightly clearer picture in the coming weeks and months, but the true answer of where Haley’s voters end up likely won’t be revealed until Election Day in November.

Perspectives

Anti-Trump sentiment in the GOP is mostly just talk

“Right now, the numbers are really high for Haley voters to say 'I would never vote for Trump.’ But almost certainly most of them will come around.” — Hans Noel, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University, to Reuters

Most Haley voters are loyal to the GOP, but the small share who aren’t could be a problem for Trump

“Even if most of those voters hold their noses and vote for Mr. Trump in a race against Mr. Biden, the question is how many stay home, vote for a third party, or go over to Mr. Biden. Even a 10% defection could be decisive. … Mr. Trump is making no such effort.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

Trump really does need to earn their support

“If … Republican partisans tell themselves that the anti-Trump vote in the primaries is attributable only to ‘resistance libs’ — heaping scorn on the enterprise when they’re not outright dismissing its significance, and insisting that those who are not sold on Trump’s candidacy are ‘welcome to leave’ the GOP … Republicans will miss the message these voters are sending.” — Noah Rothman, National Review

The fact that they like Haley means they’re foundationally opposed to someone like Trump

“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, Bloomberg

The voters who decide they have no one worth supporting could make a huge impact

“Many will vote for President Joe Biden. Many will indeed hold their nose and vote GOP again. But what will probably make the difference will be how many of them just stay home.” — Chris Stirewalt, The Dispatch

The independents and disaffected Dems in Haley’s coalition will flock to Biden in the end

“Many of these Haley votes are likely coming from people who already cast ballots against Trump in 2016 and 2020 — and who are committed to doing so again in 2024. To them, these primaries amount to a bonus opportunity to cast yet another vote against Trump.” — Steve Kornacki, MSNBC

Trump seems to be doing everything he can to push Haley’s supporters away

“All the indications are that Haley isn’t creating strong loyalists in her element of the primary vote that will follow her wherever she goes. … Killing her with kindness would make much more sense for Trump than, in irate speeches and unhinged social media posts, reminding her voters why they don’t like him in the first place.” — Rich Lowry, Politico

Thanks to Haley, Trump now knows exactly which voters he needs to court

“Although nothing in politics is as obvious as the need to turn out one’s base, actually doing so requires recent, reliable information of the kind that primary contests provide. … The primaries are a dry run for the general election, and the more Trump perfects his get-out-the-vote operation now, the more formidable he’ll be in the main event.” — Daniel McCarthy, CNN

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Emily Elconin/Bloomberg via Getty Images