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Independents and Democrats could help Haley catch Trump in N.H. primary

A woman in jeans and a sweater with the American flag, presidential candidate Nikki Haley, speaks into a microphone on a stage with American and New Hampshire state flags.
Anthony Brooks / WBUR
Republican presidential candidate, Nikki Haley, campaigning in Rochester, N.H.

Marie Mulroy is just the kind of voter Nikki Haley is counting on for a chance to beat Donald Trump in the New Hampshire primary.

The 74-year-old Manchester resident usually votes Democratic and supported Joe Biden in 2020. But she is an unenrolled voter, a so-called independent, who says she plans to pull a Republican ballot and vote for Haley in the Jan. 23 primary — because she fervently opposes the former president.

"The primary goal is to not ever let Trump back into office again," she said.

Following Haley's third-place finish in Iowa, the focus now turns to New Hampshire in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. The first-in-the-nation primary represents a big opportunity for Haley, who, recent polls show, has a chance to pull off an upset victory over Trump, the front-runner who just trounced his rivals in Iowa. Haley is counting on moderate Republicans, independents, and even some Democrats to give her a boost in the Granite State.

"We have a country to save," Haley told voters at a recent town hall event in Hookset. "I trust Granite Staters to get this done."

A woman in a black sweater with the American flag smiles while talking with a man in a casual black jacket.
Anthony Brooks / WBUR
Nikki Haley meets a voter at a town hall event in Hookset, N.H.

In the age of Trump's divisive approach to politics, Haley strikes a more moderate tone that appeals to many of New Hampshire's independents — people like Mulroy, who make up the state's largest block of voters. Mulroy said she was torn between Haley and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, but after Christie suspended his campaign last week, she's all in for Haley — and believes she can beat Trump.

"He doesn't have a moral compass," Mulroy said of Trump. "I don't understand how anyone could vote for him."

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu predicts that independents will come out in record numbers on primary day and help Haley catch Trump. He believes Trump has reached a "ceiling" of support because many people are just "tired of the chaos."

"Well over 50% of the Republican core base voter wants someone else," said Sununu, who endorsed Haley in December and has been cheering her on at the many town halls she's held across New Hampshire for the past 11 months.

"I've been in this game long enough to know that political momentum is real," Sununu said.

A woman in a brown jacket and a man in a blue jacket, standing in front of an American flag, smile while talking with reporters.
Josh Rogers / NHPR
Nikki Haley and Gov. Chris Sununu talk to reporters after Sununu endorsed Haley for President Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, in Manchester, N.H.

Kim Rice, a former New Hampshire state representative, who is one of the co-chairs of Haley's campaign, agrees with Sununu and predicts Haley is surging at just the right time, thanks to support from independents and some Democrats.

“I've been in this game long enough to know that political momentum is real.”

"I think we are going to be surprised," Rice said, adding that her own daughter changed her party affiliation from Democrat to Republican to vote for Haley in the primary. And her daughter is not alone. Nearly 4,000 Democratic voters switched affiliation to Republican or undeclared ahead of the primary, according to the New Hampshire's Secretary of State's office.

That could bode well for Haley, as polls suggest she is within striking distance of Trump. Haley is getting help from other quarters, including the super PAC Primary Pivot, which has been urging voters from the political center and the center-left to vote for Haley in the primary as part of an effort to stop Trump.

"We believe he's an existential threat to Democracy," said Robert Shwartz, co-founder of Primary Pivot.

Shwartz believes Trump is unfit for office, after encouraging the Jan. 6 attack on the capitol and for continuing to claim, without basis, that the 2020 election was stolen. Trump faces 91 criminal indictments across four different legal cases and has embraced leaders with autocratic tendencies around the world. Primary Pivot is urging even those who plan to vote for President Biden in November to support Haley in the primary.

Not everyone agrees that's the best strategy to defeat Trump.

"Nikki Haley is not the person to stop Donald Trump," said Kathy Sullivan, a former chair of the New Hampshire Democratic party. "The only person who's going to be able to stop Donald Trump is Joe Biden in the November election."

Signs for presidential candidates and a local festival stand on a snowy roadside outside a CVS pharmacy.
Anthony Brooks / WBUR
Decision time in New Hampshire.

Sullivan is leading a write-in campaign for Biden, because his name won't appear on the New Hampshire primary ballot next week. That's the result of the Democratic National Committee picking South Carolina to hold the first Democratic Primary, instead of New Hampshire, bucking years of tradition. Sullivan predicts that even if Haley prevails in New Hampshire, Trump will go on to be the Republican nominee. The former president holds big leads in scores of states that vote after New Hampshire, including Haley's home state of South Carolina, where she is a former governor.

"If you want to beat Donald Trump in November, the best thing you can do is write in Joe Biden on the primary ballot to give Joe Biden a boost of energy and momentum going forward into the campaign," she said.

A man with white hair, a navy jacket and red tie, President Joe Biden, stands behind a sign that reads Biden New Hampshire
Anthony Brooks / WBUR
Joe Biden in Concord, N.H., just after he registered for the 2020 New Hampshire Primary. He is not on the ballot this year.

Sullivan said it makes no sense for Democrats to vote for Haley, a staunch conservative who signed some of the most restrictive abortion measures ever passed in South Carolina, and who has refused to rule out becoming Trump's running mate.

When Haley talks about Trump, she picks her words carefully, saying he was "the right president at the right time," while acknowledging that "chaos follows him." She was a little more critical of him during her last debate with Ron DeSantis in Iowa, when she called out Trump for his behavior after the 2020 election."That election — Trump lost it. Biden won that election," Haley said. "I think what happened on January 6th was a terrible day and I think President Trump will have to answer for it."

The New Hampshire primary has a long history of delivering surprises, and that could happen again on Jan. 23. If Haley beats Trump in the Granite State, it could leave a bit of bruise on the former president, but if the national polls are right, it won't be a knock-out punch.

This story was originally published by WBUR. It was shared as part of the New England News Collaborative.

Anthony Brooks has more than twenty five years of experience in public radio, working as a producer, editor, reporter, and most recently, as a fill-in host for NPR. For years, Brooks has worked as a Boston-based reporter for NPR, covering regional issues across New England, including politics, criminal justice, and urban affairs. He has also covered higher education for NPR, and during the 2000 presidential election he was one of NPR's lead political reporters, covering the campaign from the early primaries through the Supreme Court's Bush V. Gore ruling. His reports have been heard for many years on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.