Donald Trump’s prohibitive lead in the GOP presidential primary is undeniable, and he continues to dominate the headlines. But there is another conversation Granite State Republicans are having: “What are you hearing about Nikki Haley?”
The former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador has been generating buzz among GOP activists and insiders, and the volume ticked up this week — along with her numbers in two new polls.
In the CNN/UNH Survey Center poll that dropped on Wednesday, Trump had 39 percent support, but that was down from the 42 percent he had a few months ago. Meanwhile, Haley surged over the summer from five to 12 percent in the Granite State, enough for third place behind Vivek Ramaswamy (13 percent). Ron DeSantis had fallen to fifth place.
On Thursday came the InsiderAdvantage poll with Trump at 42 percent and Haley in second place at 14 percent among local primary voters. Chris Christie was in third, while DeSantis was in fourth with just eight percent support.
Many political observers credit Haley’s “exceeds expectations” debate performance with her growing support. Others say underwhelmed DeSantis supporters are drifting toward Haley. Still others say she is being rewarded for her on-the-ground campaign style, holding more than 40 town halls across New Hampshire.
And Haley, 51, will be at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics Friday morning giving what her campaign is calling a major speech on economic policy. She is expected to call for lower taxes, spending cuts, and regulatory reform — all traditionally popular policies with Granite State Republicans in the pre-Trump era.
“Nikki Haley is running hard in New Hampshire,” said longtime New Hampshire GOP strategist Jim Merrill. “She has embraced the intimacy that a Granite State campaign demands, and voters are starting to respond. Her gains in recent weeks are a testament to the time she has put in here, earning votes with sweat equity and southern charm.”
Veteran GOP communications expert Alicia Xanthopoulos says Granite Staters are “definitely” giving Haley a look. “She’s on the rise in the polls, with the chattering class and, most importantly, the average voters.”
Whatever the reason, Haley is trying to take advantage of the moment. She sent an email to supporters (and potential small-dollar donors) touting her recent successes.
“The polls speak for themselves on how much ground we’ve gained since the first debate,” Haley wrote. “I doubled my support in Iowa. I placed second in a New Hampshire poll I rose to second in South Carolina. And nationally, I’m proving I’m the only candidate who can defeat Biden and Harris.”
Trump supporters are quick to note that while Haley may be on the upswing, she is at least 20 points behind the former president in every poll. And she has yet to face anything close to the barrage of political attacks DeSantis has endured, both from Trump and the left-leaning national media.
In February, Haley was the first candidate to announce her candidacy and challenge Trump in the GOP primary.
“You should know this about me. I don’t put up with bullies. And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels,” Haley said at the time. “I’m Nikki Haley, and I’m running for president.”
Matthew Bartlett is a Nashua, N.H. native and GOP operative who divides his time between New Hampshire and D.C. says Haley “has earned her moment, and she’s done it the hard way — more than 80 events, including 50 in New Hampshire.”
“You don’t start at the top of the mountain, but she’s climbing, and voters are taking notice,” Bartlett added. “In presidential politics, nothing is a given, but if you work at it like she has, nothing is impossible, either.”
Xanthopoulos said Haley’s potential appeal for Granite Staters comes from “her ability to stay out of the nonsense while simultaneously having the chops from being a former governor and U.N. ambassador. Her resume shows she’s well qualified, her demeanor and style are admirable, and she demonstrates true leadership qualities.
“And, again, she’s not crazy,” Xanthopoulos added.