Haley says fractured GOP primary proves Trump will lose to Biden. History suggests otherwise

Written by on March 6, 2024

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(WASHINGTON) — Any voter who listened to a stump speech from former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley during her primary campaign against Donald Trump — which she just ended — was likely to hear a variation of one message: The former president can’t win in November because he’s been losing a notable minority of Republican voters.

“He lost 40% of the primary vote in all of the early states,” she said last week at a campaign rally in Minnesota. “You can’t win the general election if you can’t win that 40% [back].”

Haley was exaggerating. For example, in the 15 GOP states that voted on Super Tuesday, she has gotten less than 20% in six of them, with some ballots still being counted.

But while Trump has beaten Haley in all but two contests by double digits, he has lost approximately a third of the GOP vote — or more — in big states like Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia.

What’s more, in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont and Washington, D.C., Haley got at least 40% of the vote. She won Vermont and in Washington, D.C.

Overall, she’s received more than 30% of the Republican ballots.

Trump’s failure to win over those voters was at the heart of Haley’s rationale behind extending her campaign through Super Tuesday.

“If states like Colorado and Michigan and Minnesota want to start winning again, you have to have someone on the ticket who can win a general election,” she said last week outside Denver. “Donald Trump cannot win.”

However, extrapolating a Trump defeat in November solely based on his primary performances so far may not quite be an apples-to-apples comparison, past election cycles show.

Though Trump has other potential weaknesses, according to polls, like low favorability ratings and issues with suburban and college-educated voters, a messy primary doesn’t guarantee his general election defeat, according to historical examples and strategists who spoke with ABC News.

Both indicate that many Republican primary voters who backed someone other than Trump in the 2024 nomination race will find their way back to the Republican ballot line in November and that a third of the GOP is not forever lost to the former president, especially if Biden’s own approval ratings stay in the gutter.

“No matter what some of these voters are saying today, when the time comes and the choice becomes Donald Trump or Joe Biden, our belief is that the vast majority of Nikki Haley’s voters will end up voting for Donald Trump,” one Trump ally, who asked not to be quoted by name to speak more candidly, told ABC News after the Iowa caucuses in January.

“[It’s] very similar to how, if you recall, there were many Ted Cruz voters who in the middle of that primary claim they would never vote for Donald Trump, yet, when the time came, the vast majority of them all came home,” this person said.

Indeed, similar dynamics have played out in primaries past.

Biden famously struggled in some early states in the 2020 primary race against Sen. Bernie Sanders and others, winning only 16% in the Iowa caucuses, 8% in the New Hampshire primary and 20% in the Nevada primary before winning the South Carolina primary with still under 50% of the vote.

In November 2020, however, 94% of self-identified Democrats backed the now-president over Trump, according to exit polling.

Four years before that, Trump lost the Iowa caucuses to Texas Sen. Cruz, winning 24% of the vote to Cruz’s 28%. Trump only netted 35% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, 46% of the vote in Nevada and a third of the vote in South Carolina.

Cruz repeatedly hammered Trump over the results, saying at the time that 65% of Republicans “don’t think Donald can beat Hillary” Clinton. And he was later booed at the Republican National Convention in 2016 for failing to explicitly endorse Trump in his speech, only telling voters to “vote your conscience,” a position he later changed.

In the end, 88% of self-identified Republicans pulled the lever for Trump, the exit polling showed.

The trend is not strictly a recent one.

In the 2008 nominating race against Clinton, former President Barack Obama only won about 38% of the vote in the Iowa caucuses, 37% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, 45% in Nevada and only first broke the 50% mark in South Carolina, where he scored 55%.

Clinton at the time called for unity but also hesitated to drop out once Obama began pulling away with the nomination, saying in 2008, “I want what I have always fought for: I want the nearly 18 million people who voted for me to be respected and heard” — a line that echoes Haley’s argument today.

Obama went on to win 89% of liberals in the 2008 general election, per the exit polls.

Former President George W. Bush faced similar hurdles in some states in his 2000 nomination fight, failing to break 60% in any of the earliest GOP states before winning 81% of conservatives in the general election against Vice President Al Gore, according to exit polling.

And former President Bill Clinton barely broke a quarter of the vote in the earliest Democratic primary states in 1992 before winning 68% of liberals that November, exit polls found, with independent Ross Perot taking 18% of liberals but enough Republicans as well to help Clinton ascend to the White House.

Looking ahead to the 2024 race, observers cautioned that the past doesn’t predict the future, but the well-established pattern suggests that while a party’s voters may fracture between candidates in a primary, many of them eventually decide to rally behind the nominee.

Whether enough will do so in November to return Trump to the White House remains an open question that will only be answered on Election Day.

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