Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley is leaning into the idea that she is a more general-election-friendly Republican than former President Trump as she seeks to appeal to GOP voters and independents in Tuesday’s pivotal New Hampshire primary.
Haley needs a Granite State win to have any realistic hope of toppling Trump in the primary, and she is telling voters she’s much more of a sure thing than the former president when it comes to winning in November.
A recent CBS News/YouGov poll showed Haley beating Biden by 8 percentage points, and she leads him in the polling average from Decision Desk HQ/The Hill by nearly 3 points.
Trump also leads Biden, but by just 1 point in the same average of polls.
It’s a point she’s emphasizing to voters as she steps up her attacks against Trump, the front-runner for the GOP nomination, ahead of Tuesday and tries to make inroads with independents cool to a Biden-Trump rematch.
“I know that we’ve had some independents come our way and yes, we’ve had some Democrats say they want to support us because they’re not happy with Joe Biden,” Haley said Thursday at a CNN town hall in Henniker, N.H.
She pointed to a Wall Street Journal poll from December that found her beating Biden by 17 points in a hypothetical match-up, while Trump led him by just 4 points.
“All the evidence says that if it’s a Trump-Biden rematch, it’s going to be another tossup election. It could go either way,” Haley said in remarks after Iowa’s caucuses last week. “And then look at what happens when I go head-to-head against Biden. We win in a landslide. It’s not even close.”
Republican strategist Matthew Bartlett noted that Haley’s references to her 17-point lead in the WSJ poll have gotten “thunderous applause” from her crowds on the campaign trail.
“People get that. People want to win,” Bartlett said. “For the Republican base voter, that is a real, key message that absolutely resonates.”
Despite her third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses behind Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Haley has insisted the Hawkeye State made the Republican presidential race a two-person primary with Trump because DeSantis polls well behind both in New Hampshire.
Roughly 40 percent of New Hampshire’s voters are unaffiliated, according to data from the Independent Voters Project — and they’re allowed to cast ballots in either party’s contest under the state’s semi-closed primary system.
An Emerson College Polling/WHDH New Hampshire survey released earlier this month found Trump leading Haley 44 percent to 28 percent among GOP primary voters in the state. He was also leading among registered Republicans, but Haley won out among independent voters.
A Marist poll released Friday found Biden up 7 points against Trump in a hypothetical match-up among New Hampshire’s electorate and up 9 points against DeSantis. Haley, however, beat Biden by 3 points in the Marist survey.
Trump’s electability, Bartlett argued, has been the former president’s “Achilles’s heel” after his narrow win in 2016 and his loss in 2020.
“Every Trump voter recognizes, as much as they love him, that he’s polarizing,” he said. “Donald Trump can drive a lot of Republican voters to the polls, but also drive maybe even more Democratic voters to the polls to vote against him.”
GOP strategist Ron Bonjean argued it’s “virtually impossible” for a non-Trump candidate to get his base at this point in the race, and electability is a “safe argument” Haley can make as she appeals to independents before the New Hampshire primary.
“It’s not one that’s going to alienate the Republican base,” Bonjean said, adding the framing could also help Haley build her credibility as a candidate if she decides to run again in 2028.
Whether it helps Haley in the long run is a bigger question.
New Hampshire is a unique contest in the GOP race and a state that may be uniquely helpful to Haley. She needs a strong result there to build momentum for tougher climates, including in her home state of South Carolina.
Haley is “having her moment” heading into the Granite State, but she faces an even tougher calendar in the weeks to follow, Darling said.
South Carolina, which holds its primary on Feb. 24, is an open system that lets voters cast ballots in either party’s primary, just not both. But moving on toward Super Tuesday, the candidates will face more states with “closed” systems like Iowa, in which only GOP registered voters can cast ballots in the party’s contest.
The Hill/Decision Desk HQ’s polling averages for the GOP race in South Carolina show Trump with 53 percent support and a 28 percent lead over Haley, at 25 percent. DeSantis sits in a distant third around 9 percent.
Some GOP strategists say this shows the electability argument will carry Haley only so far.
“The electability argument, it’s just not going to sell with enough voters, number one. Number two: the voters that it’s going to sell with are already going to vote for her. It’s not going broaden her base,” said Republican strategist Justin Sayfie.
A CNN entrance poll of Iowa voters amid the state’s caucuses last week found just 14 percent picked the ability to beat Biden as the candidate quality that mattered the most.
“She has to win on the issues, not on inside-baseball arguments like electability,” Sayfie said.
Haley is also using her opponents’ age as another arrow in her quiver. At 81, Biden has been plagued by questions about his fitness for office as he tries for another term in the White House — and at 77, Trump is just a few years behind.
“Both Biden and Trump would mean that our options would give us an 80-year-old president,” Haley said in Thursday night’s New Hampshire town hall, arguing that “we need someone who’s going to be at the top of their game.”
The former South Carolina governor has repeatedly cited stats showing many Americans don’t want a Trump-Biden rematch in November and has pitched the prospect of a “nightmare” rematch between the current and former presidents as a harbinger of “chaos” in another Trump term.
“She seems to be linking them on age and competency. She’s trying to thread that needle,” said Bartlett. “She needs to make the most of it [with] a convincing argument to both the MAGA base as well as independents and disaffected Republican voters.”
Observers say a Trump win in both Iowa and New Hampshire would all but secure him the nomination, underscoring the importance to Haley of nailing the electability argument — and getting a positive result next week.