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Nikki Haley's loss to Donald Trump shows how to beat him in November

Nikki Haley's loss to Donald Trump shows how to beat him in November


In Iowa, 49% of the Republican caucus supported someone other than Donald Trump. In the New Hampshire primary, the non-Trump vote was 46%. In South Carolina, the state's former governor, Nikki Haley, won the support of four in ten voters.

These dissidents are not enough to stop Trump. Barring an unforeseen calamity, such as a major health or legal setback, the former president will be the Republican nominee for the third consecutive election.

But all the headlines about Trump's triumphs miss a crucial point: The primaries revealed deep divisions in the Republican ranks and exposed serious weaknesses that could hobble Trump in November.

“I'm an accountant,” Haley said after the South Carolina vote. “I know that 40 percent is not 50 percent, but I also know that 40 percent is not a small group. In our Republican primaries, a lot of people say they want an alternative.”

Of course, Joe Biden has serious flaws: 86% of voters polled recently by ABC said he was too old to be president. And most Republicans who despise Trump today will probably end up voting for him.

But the election is likely to be very close, and if even a small fraction of voters who abandoned Trump in the primaries don't support him in November, they could help give Biden a second term.

“What is Nikki Haley doing?” » asked the Wall Street Journal. “The answer is pretty clear: demonstrate the inconvenient fact that a significant portion of the Republican primary electorate is not on board with another Donald Trump nomination, inevitable as that seems.”

“The voters who support Nikki are the ones Trump needs in the general election,” Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, told the Washington Post. “It's Trump's failure to make these people comfortable with him. (…) It's his problem, and it's his responsibility.”

Exit polls in South Carolina indicate who Cullen is talking about and what matters to them. As in other states, education and income were key variables: 53 percent of college graduates supported Haley, and voters earning more than $100,000 were split evenly.

The issue of abortion was a crucial asset for Haley, who identifies as “pro-life” but advocates for a more compassionate approach to women facing an unwanted pregnancy. Of those surveyed, 44 percent said they opposed a federal law banning “most or all abortions nationwide,” and three in five of those voters supported Haley.

Haley drew 60% of independents, 73% of moderates and liberals and 81% of South Carolinians who accept that Biden won the last election. In a particularly telling result, 17% said choosing a candidate with the “right temperament” was the most important factor in their decision, and almost all of these voters (96%) chose Haley.

Trump has effectively used his legal troubles to shore up his base, citing his indictments as proof that the “deep state” is out to prey on him and them. But the four criminal cases and 91 criminal charges against Trump are hurting him among less loyal, more reality-minded voters.

After the primary, 36% of voters told pollsters that if Trump were convicted of a crime, they would no longer consider him “fit to be president.” Nearly the same number said they would be “dissatisfied” with Trump's nomination, and one in five said they would never vote for him in November.

Haley criticized Trump for focusing on his core supporters, calling him a sure loser in November. “If you’re running for president, you’re supposed to bring people in,” she said at a campaign event. “It's a matter of addition. You don't push people out of your club.”

The Haley campaign has given Biden's forces a clear playbook for undermining Trump in the fall: focusing on more educated, higher-income voters, often living in the suburbs, using abortion as a divisive issue and putting emphasis on Trump's changing and dangerous personality. Repeat two of Haley's favorite words as often as possible: Trump means “chaos,” while voters want a “normal” leader.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom was only half-joking when he said of Haley on CNN: “I think she's one of our best surrogates.”

All elections depend on many factors, and Biden is having great difficulty consolidating his own base, especially young people and voters of color. Inflation remains negative and persistent. The age of the president too. But by losing to Trump in the primaries, Nikki Haley showed how to attack him in the general election.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Gene Lyons is on vacation.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and opinion pieces. Check out our guidelines.

The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.




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