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Once underdogs in the presidential race, Haley voters could now be kingmakers

A supporter holds a sign during a rally for former Republican presidential candidate and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley on Feb. 16 in San Antonio.
Eric Gay
A supporter holds a sign during a rally for former Republican presidential candidate and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley on Feb. 16 in San Antonio.

Earlier this year, David Wardlaw was annoyed when former President Trump denounced Nikki Haley, his then-rival, on his Truth Social account, warning that anyone who supported her campaign would be “permanently barred from the MAGA camp.”

“That’s when I went ahead and wrote her a check,” Wardlaw told NPR’s Jeongyoon Han in February. “The thing is, he needs our vote and here he is cutting us off.”

Wardlaw had traveled from his home in Georgia to attend a rally in Haley’s home state of South Carolina along with some family members.

He’s voted for Trump in the past two general elections. But this year, he says he was beginning to tire of Trump’s divisive personality and hoped to cast a ballot for Haley in November.

Speaking by phone recently, Wardlaw says he’s come around to voting for the presumptive Republican nominee once again.

 David Wardlaw and family at the rally in February 2024.
Terry Honeycutt /
David Wardlaw and family at the rally in February 2024.

“I’m gonna vote for Trump even though he barred me. I’m gonna vote for him,” Wardlaw says now. “That’s how Trump is. He says stuff and it’s like, 'Dude, put a filter on it!' But we’re down to who you’re gonna vote for.”

With the presidential race looking tight, one of the most-watched groups of potential swing voters is former Haley supporters like Wardlaw.

They turned out in large numbers in Republican primaries — in some cases, even after Haley suspended her campaign in early March. Many said they were seeking an alternative to Trump or President Joe Biden. In recent conversations, some say they are still searching, though others are resigned to the Biden-Trump rematch.

For some, a ‘hopeless’ choice

Faced with the choice of voting for Trump or Biden, Josie Schmidt, a Haley supporter from Richmond, Virginia, says she's “right on the edge of hopeless,” but adds with a laugh, “that’s a little bit of an exaggeration.”

At a Haley event in Richmond, ahead of Super Tuesday, Schmidt said she had voted for Biden in 2020, but was reluctant to do so again. Schmidt, who describes herself as an independent, explained she was disappointed with some of Biden’s decisions, including his student loan forgiveness program, which she sees as unfair and expensive. But she won’t vote for Trump.

“I’d probably write in Nikki Haley if she wasn’t on the ballot. I just, I just can’t,” Schmidt said during an interview in late February.

Lately, she’s been rethinking her plans to write in Haley.

Schmidt says she was delighted with Trump’s recent conviction on felony charges of falsifying business records in New York. It gave her hope, she said, that Trump was “finally” being “held accountable.”

“I’m leaning towards voting for Biden just out of fear of President Trump winning the election,” Schmidt now says.

She thinks many voters are unhappy with their choices.

“I also think it’s much easier for people to vote out of anger than out of dread,” she says. “And most people that I talk to are feeling one or the other.”

The missing middle

Just before Super Tuesday, Emily Roberson of Raleigh, North Carolina, said she believed Haley was speaking to the feelings of many Americans.

“I think she represents best what a lot of us are feeling, kind of left out of both sides of the equation, whether you are more liberal or more conservative,” Roberson told NPR’s Elena Moore. “I just think she speaks to the ‘missing middle.’”

At the time, Roberson, who describes herself as an independent with conservative leanings, said she was thinking of abstaining from voting for president or writing Haley in if faced with a Biden-Trump matchup.

Speaking by phone in recent days, Roberson said she’s voted for Trump twice before, but she’s tired of his personality and what she calls his “antics.” She’s also unhappy with Biden — especially on the economy and immigration.

“Neither excites me. If I vote for one over the other it’s not a vote for them, it’s a vote against the other,” she says now. “And that’s a terrible place to be.”

Roberson says her thinking isn’t significantly affected by Trump’s recent convictions; she sees the New York case, which focused on falsification of records related to hush money payments to an adult film star ahead of the 2016 election, as a “distraction.” But Roberson says she will wait and see what happens with some of the other charges Trump is facing in multiple jurisdictions.

She did say she’d be open to voting for Trump again if he were to choose Haley as his running mate.

‘Anger or dread’

In a new Emerson College poll, former Haley supporters were more likely to say they’d support Biden in the general election — by a 9-point margin.

The Biden campaign is making a play for those voters, and others who backed alternatives to Trump in Republican primaries, says Austin Weatherford, the Biden campaign’s new national Republican engagement director.

“They didn’t get their candidate and they’re still upset,” he explained.

Weatherford is a former top staffer to Trump critic and former Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, who is well known for his criticism of Trump.

“That’s why we’re gonna do the work and convince them to come support the president,” Weatherford explained.

So far, campaign officials say they’ve met with Haley supporters and invested in a seven-figure ad buy focused on those voters.

The Trump campaign, meanwhile, is hoping those voters will take their cues from Haley, says spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt.

“Nikki Haley herself said that she will be voting for President Trump in November, and President Trump has said he is grateful for that comment and welcomes her support,” Leavitt said.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.