Election 2024 Haley
Nikki Haley recently began attacking Donald Trump — but it may be too late to sway Never Trump voters. Abbie Parr/AP

Nikki Haley Has a Problem With Trump Skeptics

“There’s just no evidence Nikki Haley is appealing to the unaffiliated voters she needs to make this a race,” said a former New Hampshire GOP chair.

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Any chance Nikki Haley has to defeat Donald Trump here and energize her flagging campaign depends on winning New Hampshire’s famous bloc of moderate Republican and independent voters, most of whom loathe the former president.

There’s just one problem: Many of those same people are also dubious about Haley.

In interviews in the days before Tuesday’s primary, many centrist New Hampshire GOP officials, strategists and rank-and-file voters expressed ambivalence about the former South Carolina governor, calling her a better candidate than Trump but voicing frustration over her far-reaching conservative ideology and longstanding reluctance to criticize the former president. That pervasive skepticism, they say, could lower her support among moderate voters — and make victory over Trump all but impossible.

“There’s just no evidence Nikki Haley is appealing to the unaffiliated voters she needs to make this a race,” said Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire GOP chair who considers himself a Never Trump Republican.

“She doesn’t have that kind of personal connection and doesn’t have the issue set that’s driving her candidacy. There’s no Straight Talk Express element to it,” he added, referencing former GOP presidential nominee John McCain’s past campaigns.

Cullen was one of a dozen Republicans or undeclared voters who told NOTUS they previously supported Chris Christie, the primary’s foremost Trump critic before dropping out of the race earlier this month, but were feeling much less enthusiastic about Haley.

Haley, trailing in the polls to Trump but barnstorming the state in hopes of closing the gap, has shown signs of a new outreach to this voting bloc, more forcefully denouncing Trump (including raising questions about his mental acuity) and renewing her emphasis on traditional Republican values, including fiscal restraint and a strong U.S. presence abroad. It’s an apparent attempt to align herself more closely with a wing of the party that considers Trump an unacceptable leader and resists changes he’s brought to the GOP ideological agenda.

But some New Hampshire voters said her new approach comes too late.

“I’m meeting a lot of independents, and the Christie people are not rolling for Nikki,” said Lori Davis, a resident of Weare who considers herself a moderate Republican.

Davis voted for Trump in the last two elections before supporting Christie this time around until he dropped out. She then planned to back Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis; after he suspended his campaign on Sunday, she told NOTUS she would support “Trump very reluctantly with tremendous misgivings.”

A CNN/University of New Hampshire poll released Sunday found Haley winning 58% of undeclared voters in the state. Among those who identified as ideologically moderate, 71% said they planned to back her.

But Haley needs to not just win a majority of those voters — she needs them to turn out in droves.

Haley’s problem in New Hampshire highlights one of the most vexing challenges her campaign has faced since launching early last year; trying to appeal to anti-Trump Republicans while not alienating the majority of GOP voters who still like the former president even if they’re willing to consider an alternative. Her tactic for most of her campaign has been to only lightly criticize Trump, urging the country to find newer, younger leadership but avoiding more personal attacks.

That type of approach, however, is very difficult to navigate, GOP strategists said.

“These candidates keep trying to thread the needle where they don’t alienate Trump voters but they still become the alternative to him,” said Sarah Longwell, founder of the anti-Trump group Republican Accountability Project. “But they don’t realize that can put them in a sour spot with all voters, where they can turn everybody off.”

Longwell said her group conducted focus groups with multiple anti-Trump Republicans in New Hampshire who were largely supportive of Christie but skeptical of Haley, noting that she hadn’t ruled out being Trump’s vice president. (Haley said on Friday that is “off the table.”)

Longwell added that many of those voters said they thought they would eventually vote for the South Carolina Republican. And even skeptics of her campaign conceded that despite the lack of enthusiasm, many moderate Republicans and other undeclared voters in New Hampshire would still eventually vote for her.

But the lack of enthusiasm for her candidacy could limit her showing on Tuesday, say Republicans like Tom Rath, the state’s former attorney general.

“What Christie had going for him was he clearly put character and demeanor and behavior in play,” said Rath, a moderate Republican. “And I think Haley has been less inclined to do that.”

Rath declined to say that he would vote for Haley, adding only that he wouldn’t be voting for Trump.

New Hampshire has more than 340,000 undeclared voters. And even many of the state’s registered Republicans are less ideologically uniform than GOP voters elsewhere, with many — like Gov. Chris Sununu — supportive of abortion rights and angry about Trump’s leadership of their party. (Sununu, who has endorsed Haley, has been a ubiquitous presence at her side campaigning this past week in New Hampshire.)

But interviews in the state showed that many moderate voters were unimpressed, with a significant number telling NOTUS over and over again they were dissatisfied with Haley’s failure to criticize Trump, her decision not to participate in a debate last week, her choice not to take more questions from the audience at campaign stops, and their belief she tells different messages to different groups of voters.

Even among moderates who support Haley, the energy is sometimes a bit, well, moderate.

Stephen O’Keefe, and his son, UNH student Keegan, said they’ll both vote for her in the primary. Keegan said he’s an independent who’s more fiscally conservative and socially liberal. Stephen is a moderate who leaned toward Christie before he dropped out.

But the elder O’Keefe described his attitude toward Haley as neither a mega fan nor a reluctant supporter, but somewhere in between.

“When the day comes, you’re given your hand of options, and you choose the one that you feel is the best. And Nikki’s that person,” he said.

Keegan is more enthusiastic, but even he doesn’t view Haley as his dream candidate.

“There definitely could be better. And personally, I wish there was someone better on the left that’s running,” he said.

A lot of voters, as reflected in enthusiasm polls, feel they’re voting against Trump, and not for Haley.

“I see this is how the Republican Party can do better than it has been doing,” Keegan said.

Other voters were more critical of Haley.

“It’s very hard for people to want to put in Nikki because they don’t feel that she’s got any kind of spine,” Davis, the now-DeSantis supporter, said.

Catherine Johnson, a moderate Democrat and political junkie, came out to see Haley in Milford, for what she says was the fifth time in three days.

Johnson said she would normally vote for a Democrat but was put off by the DNC’s decision to bump New Hampshire from its first-in-the-nation primary status. In search of people who, in her eyes, were willing to work for her vote, Johnson volunteered for Christie’s campaign over the last three months and said she would have written in his name in the Democratic primary if he had stayed in the race. Now, she’s not sure what she’ll do.

“At the 11th hour, all of a sudden she’s gonna take on Donald Trump? I mean, it’s just too little, too late,” Johnson said.

Johnson is positive about Haley despite her criticism, even saying she really likes her, but was ultimately disappointed by her responses to questions about race, especially after Haley didn’t acknowledge at a town hall earlier this month slavery as a cause of the Civil War. Now, she thinks the former governor is going too far to curate her message.

“She’s not always saying the same thing in Iowa that she’s saying in New Hampshire, and that bothers me,” Johnson said.

“The reality of the challenges facing the Republican Party right now compel me to vote for Nikki, even if I have to hold my nose a little bit while doing it,” a young voter, who requested anonymity to discuss the race and had supported Christie, told NOTUS.

Alex Roarty is a reporter at NOTUS. Casey Murray is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.