Nikki Haley Looks to New Hampshire Primary With a Focus on Independents

Former President Donald J. Trump’s resounding victory in Iowa significantly raises the stakes of next week’s New Hampshire primary for Nikki Haley and the increasingly desperate contingent of Republicans who want to move on from Mr. Trump.

While Iowa was largely a foregone conclusion at the top, with a spirited battle only for second place, a small but ever narrowing path still exists for Ms. Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, to beat Mr. Trump in New Hampshire. It relies heavily on tens of thousands of independent voters expected to participate in the Republican primary.

Ms. Haley, who got a late start in Iowa, has from the beginning banked her campaign on a strong showing in New Hampshire, and has recently been buoyed by an influx of cash from the super PAC supporting her. The demographic makeup of the state is also much more favorable to her than the more rural and conservative Iowa. She has invested significant money and time here — holding 80 events in the state — and has the support of some its top Republicans, including the popular governor, Chris Sununu.

“She’s on the ground, she’s in the diner, she’s doing the town halls,” Mr. Sununu said. “She’s answering anybody’s questions. Trump’s not doing that. You’re lucky to get him to fly in once a week to do a rally and then get the heck out of there.”

That will change this week: Mr. Trump was in New Hampshire on Tuesday, fresh off his Iowa win, and will hold a series of rallies there between now and Tuesday’s primary. He retains a firm grip on the party and many of the advantages of an incumbent.

New Hampshire is known to balance out the results in Iowa: No Republican in an open primary has won both elections since the states claimed their spots as the first two nominating contests in 1976. Ms. Haley is hoping that remains the case this year, but she faces an uphill climb to dislodge Mr. Trump from the top spot, with the Iowa results doing little to help her cause.

To do so, she will need to win a significant share of independents, including those who had planned to back former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who dropped out of the race this month.

And though Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida held off Ms. Haley’s late surge in Iowa, he is unlikely to be much of a factor in New Hampshire. He and his allies canceled all of their advertisements in the state in early November, more than two and a half months before voters would head to the polls. The result has been low single-digit polling for Mr. DeSantis in the state for months. Ms. Haley, however, has been climbing, with one CNN poll this month finding her at 32 percent, trailing Mr. Trump by just seven points.

“I do think it’s going to be a two-person race,” said Juliana Bergeron, a national party committee member from New Hampshire, in an interview on Friday. She added: “We’ll see a lot more independents taking Republican ballots. So I think that will make a change, too, because neither party can live by themselves here in New Hampshire. We always need the independents to come with one of us.”

Ms. Haley has been aggressively courting those voters, who account for more than 343,000 of all registered voters (there are about 268,000 registered Republican voters in New Hampshire), according to data from the secretary of state’s office.

Ms. Haley has been slowly building a base in New Hampshire, buttressed by more than $22 million in broadcast advertising as well as the endorsement of Americans for Prosperity Action, the well-funded super PAC backed by the billionaires Charles and David Koch. The organization has contributed hundreds of hours of door knocking, phone banking and other contacts with voters on behalf of Ms. Haley.

Greg Moore, the New Hampshire director for Americans for Prosperity Action, said he saw an opportunity for Ms. Haley in the numerous “white-collar suburbs” throughout the state, where Mr. Trump underperformed in the last two general elections. Indeed, in Mr. Moore’s town of Bedford, Mr. Trump lost to Mr. Biden in 2020, but Mr. Sununu carried the town with 72 percent of the vote.

“The overall demographic of New Hampshire” is very favorable to Ms. Haley, said Mr. Moore in an interview last week. “If you look at a lot of the seacoast region as well as a lot of the suburbs around greater Manchester and Nashua, they are very much white-collar suburban towns. And those are areas where I would suspect that Nikki Haley would do really well.”

Mr. Christie’s departure from the race only deepened the resolve of the Haley campaign, which pointed to numerous polls, including one by CNN, showing that she was the top choice of a majority of Christie supporters in New Hampshire.

Internal polling from the Christie campaign also found that a majority of his supporters would likely go to Ms. Haley. Somewhat surprisingly, a small subset would likely switch to Mr. Trump. But it’s unlikely to be a one-to-one switch.

“It’s a fallacy to believe you could just, like, stack the Christie voters on top of the Haley voters, and that’s the new number,” said Mike DuHaime, a senior adviser to Mr. Christie. “There’s a large chunk that is looking for where to go.”

Mr. DuHaime, Mr. Christie and other Republican strategists in New Hampshire have indicated that there could be some Christie voters who were so fervently anti-Trump that they are unlikely to vote at all in the New Hampshire primary, seeing both Ms. Haley and Mr. DeSantis as not strident enough in their criticisms of the Republican front-runner and former president.

“The way this race is shaping up is something I have never seen,” said Mike Dennehy, a veteran New Hampshire Republican who worked on Senator John McCain’s winning primary campaign in the state in 2000. “It is developing into a Republican versus independent voter. Republicans are solidly behind Trump, but the independents appear to be breaking solid for Nikki Haley.”

Though Ms. Haley has been especially cautious in criticizing Mr. Trump on the campaign trail, the super PAC allied with her, SFA Fund Inc., has suddenly turned its deep-pocketed cannons on the former president. Over the past week, the organization has been spending about $95,000 a day on ads targeting Mr. Trump in New Hampshire, according to data from AdImpact, a media tracking firm.

While there was only one ad attacking Mr. Trump in the last 30 days of the Iowa caucuses, there have been 11 in New Hampshire.

Such a change in tone in advertising, some Republican veterans say, could have an impact on the outcome in New Hampshire, where voters have been inundated with roughly $57 million in ads this year, according to AdImpact.

“At the very least, it will blunt the attacks from Donald Trump on her Republican credentials, which has been damaging to her,” Mr. Dennehy said, referring to Ms. Haley. “It’s a smart move. But it can be too much.”

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