Exclusive: Nikki Haley surges past DeSantis in New Hampshire as Trump maintains lead

Donald Trump has maintained a formidable lead in the influential New Hampshire primary, an exclusive poll shows, but a new challenger is emerging there as his top competitor: former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley.

The USA TODAY/Boston Globe/Suffolk University survey of likely voters in the first-in-the-nation Republican primary finds Trump at 49% and Haley at 19%. Though that gap of 30 percentage points is daunting, she has surged ahead of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has lost the standing he once held as the dominant alternative to Trump.

DeSantis has dropped to 10% in the poll.

"I'm not 100% with Nikki; just with what I've followed so far, she's the one that's closest to what I would like to see in the president," said David Paquette, 72, a retired engineer from Atkinson, N.H., who was among those surveyed. A political independent, he likes DeSantis' record in Florida and is considering him, too. "He has a lot of great programs that he's actually implemented."


The poll of 500 likely Republican primary voters by landline and cellphone Thursday through Monday has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 points. Independents, who are permitted to vote in New Hampshire primaries, made up 40% of the sample; 60% were Republicans.

These voters split almost evenly over whether the most important thing was for Republicans to nominate a candidate who reflected their priorities and values (49%) or to nominate a candidate who could defeat President Joe Biden's bid for a second term (47%).

Former South Carolina Gov.ÊNikki Haley (center) speaks while former New Jersey Gov.ÊChris Christie (left) and Florida Gov.ÊRon DeSantis listen during the FOX Business Republican presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.
Former South Carolina Gov.ÊNikki Haley (center) speaks while former New Jersey Gov.ÊChris Christie (left) and Florida Gov.ÊRon DeSantis listen during the FOX Business Republican presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.

Even with Trump's strong standing, there were some signs the race is fluid.

Those surveyed split 48%-44% when asked whether Trump's nomination was inevitable or whether some other candidate could win the nomination. Nearly 4 in 10, 39%, said they might change their minds before the primary.

But Trump's supporters were more loyal than those for any other contender. An overwhelming 84% said their minds were made up to back him; just 15% said they might switch to someone else.

"I trusted Trump last time he was out there. He did good for us and I don't care what anybody else says," said Joyce Briand, 62, a registered Republican from Newport, N.H. Briand, a retired licensed nursing assistant, added, "Trump might do some bad things; everybody does. I don't like some of the things he says. He should keep his mouth shut sometimes. But when he says he's going to do something, he does it."

In single digits: Everybody else

None of the other candidates reached double digits in the poll. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was at 6%; tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott were at 4%; and former Vice President Mike Pence and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum stood at 1%.

Haley has been boosted by strong performances in the two Republican debates so far. In the six months before the first debate in August, she had never scored above 6% in the 11 public polls taken in New Hampshire. The USA TODAY poll marks a new high for her.

"This likely means more money, credibility and interviews will find their way to Haley," said David Paleologos, director of Suffolk's Political Research Center. "More importantly, a case will be made for others to drop out now and back Haley's challenge to former President Trump."

But Paleologos cautioned that even that unlikely development wouldn't necessarily enable Haley to prevail because some of the other candidates' supporters would switch to Trump. "Add in second-choice votes from all the other major candidates − even if they all endorsed Haley − and Trump sits above 55%," he said.

Asked what their second choice would be, DeSantis fared best at 24%. Haley was at 13%, Ramaswamy at 11% and Scott at 10%.

Nine percent named Trump as their second choice.

The former president's legal troubles, with 91 criminal counts filed in four jurisdictions, don't seem to raise serious concerns among most of these voters.

Close to half, 46%, agreed with a statement that the investigations were politically motivated and Trump had done nothing wrong. Another 27% said he had made "questionable choices at times" but hadn't broken the law.

Only 21% said there was "credible evidence to suggest that Donald Trump committed crimes when he was in office."

"It's a sham, just like his impeachment when he was in office was a sham," said Jacob Brouillard, 39, of Nottingham, N.H., manager at a chemical manufacturer who is also a member of the state Legislature. "I think they're just kind of making up these charges as they go along hoping that something sticks to the wall, pretty much."

Federal prosecutors have accused Trump with trying to overturn the 2020 presidential election and with mishandling sensitive national security papers after he left office. He also has been charged in Georgia with trying to overturn the election and in New York with violating finance laws by allegedly paying hush money to a porn star.

A $250 million civil fraud trial is now underway in New York alleging wrongdoing by Trump, his two older sons and other Trump organization executives.

What does matter? Inflation and the border

Two issues are at the top of voters' minds.

More than a third, 37%, said immigration and border security are the most important issues affecting their vote. Nearly as many, 32%, identified the economy and jobs. No other issue was cited by more than 5%.

"It would be the border," Ronald Sassi, 76, of Chichester, N.H., replied when asked to name the most important issue for him. Then the economy, the Republican retiree said, "because I have a feeling everything is going to crash coming very soon."

By 58%-36%, those surveyed supported ending so-called birthright citizenship for the children of immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally. The idea has been endorsed by Trump, Ramaswamy, Scott and others, although most legal scholars say such a move would violate the Constitution's 14th Amendment.

Nearly half of those surveyed, 49%, said their personal financial situation was worse than before the coronavirus pandemic. And inflation continues to bite. One in 4, or 27%, called inflation "the worst I've ever seen." Another 9% said they couldn't pay their bills.

There was nearly universal agreement, however, on two factors that wouldn't affect their vote.

One was the endorsement promised by New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu; 86% said it wouldn't make a difference to their decision. Even more dismissed the results of the Iowa caucuses: 90% said Iowa's results wouldn't affect their choice.

The Iowa contest is set for Jan. 15. The New Hampshire primary is expected to be Jan. 23.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Haley surges past DeSantis in New Hampshire as Trump maintains lead