Nikki Haley can't win the Republican primary with 40%. But she can expose some of Trump's weaknesses

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FILE - Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during a campaign event Feb. 28, 2024, in Orem, Utah. Haley is making the case that roughly 40% of GOP voters support her over their party's dominant figure, suggesting Trump is especially vulnerable in a November rematch against President Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.Donald Trump's campaign has vowed not to talk about her anymore. Many pundits have written her off entirely. But Nikki Haley is still campaigning across the country — and plenty of Republican voters are coming to hear what she has to say.

Before packed audiences in states that will vote on Super Tuesday next week, Haley is making the case she laid out after losing the primary in her home state of South Carolina: Roughly 40% of GOP voters support her over Trump, suggesting their party's dominant figure is especially vulnerable in a November rematch against President Joe Biden.

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“He lost 40% of the primary vote in all of the early states,” she told more than 500 people at a campaign event in the politically mixed suburb of Bloomington, Minnesota, on Monday. “You can’t win the general election if you can’t win that 40%.”

Trump is on the verge of winning several hundred more delegates for the GOP nomination on Super Tuesday and could eliminate Haley by clinching the nomination a few weeks later. But by staying in the race longer than any other major candidate, Haley has highlighted Trump's political problems with key constituencies in their party and suggested that he is a “sinking ship.”

Trump won about 51% of voters in the Iowa caucuses, 54% in New Hampshire's primaries and 60% in South Carolina. Haley didn't come close to winning 40% in Michigan's primary this week and instead lost to Trump by more than 40 points, 68% to 27%.

But just as she has throughout the primary, Haley did better in suburban areas like Oakland County near Detroit and Ottawa County near Grand Rapids. She also did better in Kent County, where Grand Rapids and a large suburban population is located.

Biden flipped Kent County and improved on Democrats’ 2016 performance in Oakland County on the way to winning Michigan in 2020 and beating Trump in the election.

Richard Czuba, a pollster who has long tracked Michigan politics, said Haley's results were more significant for understanding a critical swing state in the general election than the campaign to vote “uncommitted” against Biden to protest his handling of the Israel-Hamas war, which drew about 100,000 votes and collected two Democratic delegates.

“This is by far, to me, the one narrative we saw (Tuesday) that will have major implications in November," Czuba said.

Trump declined to mention Haley, his former U.N. ambassador, after beating her in South Carolina, and his campaign has accused her of deluding voters about her chances.

“She can’t name one state she can win, let alone be competitive in,” spokesperson Steven Cheung said in a recent statement.

Haley indeed resisted naming a state she could win when questioned by The Associated Press and other media. But interviews with three dozen voters at her rallies and AP VoteCast data from the Republican primary suggest several vulnerabilities for Trump heading into a Biden rematch.

About half of Republican voters in South Carolina — including about a quarter of his supporters — are concerned that Trump is too extreme to win the general election, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 2,400 voters taking part in the Republican primary in South Carolina, conducted for AP by NORC at the University of Chicago.

Trump allies have accused Haley of appealing to the left to vote in open Republican primaries. Some 19% of Haley voters in South Carolina identified themselves as Democrats or people who lean Democratic, according to AP VoteCast. But 72% were Republicans or lean toward the GOP.

About 3 in 10 South Carolina primary voters believe he acted illegally in at least one of the criminal cases against him, even though about three-quarters believe the investigations are political attempts to undermine him.

“We've been tightening the belt as much as we can, but can't think about having kids until we can afford it," said Jonathan Paquette, a 27-year-old contractor from Minnetonka, Minnesota, a suburb of the Twin Cities. ”That's the kind of discussion this campaign should be about, not about lawsuits and criminal indictments. That doesn't solve any of our problems."

Lori Jacobson, a 64-year-old retired lab technician from Monticello, a small town northwest of the Twin Cities, said Trump “repulses me.” She voted for Trump in 2016 but not 2020.

“It's all about revenge with him,” Jacobson said. Haley, she said, "has a calm that stands in such contrast to him, though she is a very strong woman.”

Across the states where Haley’s post-South Carolina campaign has gone, some voters have picked up on that messaging.

“Forty percent is better than no percent,” said Alyssa Prevo, an Uber driver from Williamston, Michigan, as she waited for Haley ahead of a Monday event in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Prevo, a military veteran, described herself as a longtime Republican, although she said she had voted for Democratic candidates in the past.

“Forty percent is a lot, it’s not a little, even though she lost her home state,” Prevo said. “People focus on the losing, I don’t. She has integrity. And for me, the umbrella, integrity, is everything she has under that.”

Nearly 9 in 10 Haley voters in South Carolina said they would not be satisfied with Trump as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, about 7 in 10 say he does not have the mental capability to serve effectively as president, and about 6 in 10 say they would not ultimately vote for him.

Given the primary race’s current trajectory, the Trump campaign may not have to address Haley again — and they expect that many disaffected Republicans will return to the former president's side in a Biden-Trump rematch.

Haley could lose any mathematical chance of becoming the nominee in the next few weeks as more states hold “winner-take-all” primaries that would let Trump sweep their delegates even if Haley closes the gap with him.

For now, Haley and her aides say they aren't planning beyond Super Tuesday. Indeed, Haley has not said where she'll campaign after those contests. And her campaign has yet to book any television or digital advertising beyond Super Tuesday, according to media tracking firm AdImpact.

“That's as far as we’ve thought so far,” Haley said Saturday. “We’ve taken it one state, one month at a time, and focused on that — that’s what’s gotten us to this moment is discipline, hard work, being smarter than everybody else and making sure that we do whatever it takes to scrappy as we need, to get to the finish line.”


Thomson-DeVeaux reported from Washington. Associated Press reporters Joey Cappelletti in Lansing, Michigan, and Thomas Beaumont in Bloomington, Minnesota, contributed to this report.


Meg Kinnard can be reached at and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux can be reached at

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