Nikki Haley protest votes raise red flags for Donald Trump in November

The tens of thousands of primary votes cast in favor of Nikki Haley over the last several months are underscoring the apparent discontent many Republicans feel with former President Trump as their presumptive nominee, raising alarm for his campaign and fueling questions over whether he needs to do more to unify the party’s different factions. 

Haley most recently racked up significant vote shares in the Maryland, Nebraska and West Virginia GOP primaries, which were closed off to Republican voters — meaning, unlike in some past primaries, Democrats and independents couldn’t participate. 

It was just the latest indication that there’s a significant swath of the party willing to cast a vote for Haley even though she hasn’t been a candidate since March, leaving many Republicans pondering how she will wield her influence and what Trump will do — if anything — to appeal to those voters. 

“She’s seeing a consistent message that is coming back off of these primary election results,” said Dave Wilson, a South Carolina-based Republican strategist. “There is a significant chunk of people, Republican primary voters, who are saying they don’t want Donald Trump.” 

Trump and his allies argue that Haley is getting relatively big shares of the vote in open primaries where Democrats and independents can vote in the GOP primary. But other Republicans argue the votes for her are still a red flag. 

And in the case of Tuesday’s results, Haley’s votes in the three states came entirely from registered Republicans. 

“Many believe that these votes are an anti-Trump vote, but there are many who aligned with her policies and style as a politician,” said Ashley Davis, a Republican strategist. “These are solid conservative Republicans that will need to break Trump’s way.”  

“We have to remember that in the general election it won’t matter if the voters are registered [Republican], [Democrat], or [independent],” she continued. “They can vote for whoever they want. And as we know, there are many voters that are not excited about any candidate.” 

Candidates receiving support after they have dropped out of presidential races is far from unheard of. In the 2012 Republican primaries, ex-candidates like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich received percentages — at times in the double digits — even after Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) clinched the nomination that year. 

And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) still had decent showings throughout the 2020 primary season after President Biden mathematically clinched the nomination. 

But Haley has at times approached or even surpassed 20 percent of the vote in a few states, a strikingly high number. And the fact that Haley has at least not yet endorsed Trump for president further amplifies the Republicans apparently also not ready to throw their support behind the presumptive nominee. 

She saw some of her highest marks yet Tuesday with 20 percent of the vote in Maryland and 18 percent in Nebraska as of the latest vote count. That came a week after she reached almost 22 percent in Indiana. 

And Haley received more than 100,000 votes in each of the two key battleground states of Arizona in March and Pennsylvania in April. 

Trump brushed off the idea of being at risk of losing those Haley voters Thursday, saying in an interview with Scripps News that “she got very few voters relatively.” 

“And those voters are all coming to me, and you may have a lot of Democrats in there because they have a very tricky little system,” Trump said. “But those voters are coming to me.” 

Trump spokesperson Karoline Leavitt told The Hill in a statement that Trump is “building a historic and unified political movement” and has more than 90 percent approval from Republicans. She also pointed to polls showing that Trump has made gains with traditional Democratic constituencies like Black and Hispanic Americans. 

“Anyone who believes in securing the border, rebuilding the economy, restoring American energy dominance, and ending the wars Joe Biden has created around the world is welcome to join President Trump’s team,” Leavitt said. 

However, other Republicans say it’s not necessarily a sure bet that all of Haley’s supporters will come out for Trump in November.  

“Everything we see in this race is based on one of the candidate’s weaknesses. This is a big one for Trump,” said Doug Heye, a GOP strategist. “Even if most of the Haley voters naturally come home to Trump — which they will — what about the rest? It’s not clear if there is a plan for how to win over those Haley voters who happily donned ‘permanently banned’ T-shirts. In close states, they could matter.” 

Republican strategist Rina Shah said the votes that Haley has received are a “statement” that many voters still view her favorably and are waiting to decide what to do. 

“They understand that here’s a person that has conducted themselves probably as perfectly as one could after exiting the presidential race,” she said, referring to Haley. “She hasn’t felt the need to go out and endorse Trump for the sake of it, simply because he has an ‘R’ next to his name.” 

Shah added that the votes for Haley are a combination of a statement and “wishful thinking” that Trump and Biden will not be the choices for the country in the general election. She said Haley was able to draw some attention even from the center-left while running for president. 

“At the end of the day, it is people feeling like this GOP could have done better,” she said. 

While Biden has not personally reached out to Haley or her voters, his campaign has left the door open. In March, the president’s reelection campaign rolled out an ad geared toward Haley’s supporters titled “Join Us.” The 30-second spot featured instances in which Trump insulted Haley and her supporters.  

Some polling suggests there could be votes to gain for Biden among Haley’s supporters. An Emerson College survey released in March after Haley suspended her campaign found that 63 percent of Haley’s supporters said they would back Biden, while 27 percent said they would support Trump.

But other Republicans are skeptical, given where Biden stands on major issues.  

“I think many of her voters are still solid Republicans and are concerned about the economy, border and crime,” Davis said. “Even if they were not initial Trump voters in the primaries, they know he will be better than President Biden on those issues.” 

Shah said these voters will not necessarily flip to vote for Biden but will likely take a long time to decide who to support. 

“The bigger picture is it cannot be extrapolated as a sure Biden vote,” she said. “We just don’t know enough about this group.” 

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