How Donald Trump’s shadow could eclipse Nikki Haley’s Super Tuesday efforts

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When Peter McClary casts his ballot in Massachusetts' Republican presidential primary on Super Tuesday, his decision will hinge on one factor: Whether former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has notched a victory against former President Donald Trump.

McClary, a 62-year-old voter from the seaside town of Cohasset, is planning to vote for Haley, but only if the results of the primary in her home state just a week earlier show that she has a shot at beating Trump for the GOP nomination.

“If it’s hopeless, then I’ll throw my support around Trump again,” McClary, who backed the real estate mogul in 2016 and 2020 said. “I’m fine with anybody other than Biden, as long as they're breathing.”

Haley’s hopes of upending Trump’s dominant frontrunner status depend on voters just like McClary. Their intensifying apathy about her chances could be the death knell for her fast-sinking campaign.

Trump’s string of early victories in Iowa, New Hampshire and now Nevada, have cemented the narrative that the ex-president is the inevitable Republican nominee. In South Carolina, the next contest up for grabs, a Real Clear Politics average of polling shows Trump leading Haley by 30 points.

Trump's one-time United Nations ambassador has tried to push ahead by highlighting her success among independent voters in New Hampshire, suggesting there is “fertile ground” for an upset on the date known as "Super Tuesday." Eleven of the 16 states that vote on that date have primary contests that are open to non-GOP voters.

Even so, Trump’s shadow appears increasingly likely to obstruct any chance of victory Haley may have in the states that once appeared ripe for the taking. A new USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll of likely Republican primary voters in Massachusetts, for instance, shows Trump handily defeating Haley 55% to 38%.

“We potentially are the canary in the coal mine,” David Paleologos, director of Suffolk's Political Research Center, said of the state. “If she can't win in Massachusetts, where independents can vote and the ratio is six to one registered independents to Republicans, where does she win?”

A Super Tuesday harbinger

Massachusetts should be prime territory for Haley, not least because of its location as New Hampshire’s southern neighbor. The two New England states share a similar DNA – both have large populations of highly educated, affluent voters with whom Haley performs best.

While Massachusetts is a Democratic-leaning state, it also boasts a larger percentage of the independent voters who backed Haley in the New Hampshire primary. More than 60% of the state’s electorate is comprised of independents, compared to 40% of New Hampshire’s voting base.

Haley’s team is banking on a massive influx of these voters, who may not typically participate in Republican primaries, entering the party’s March 5 election to support her.

Republican presidential candidate and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign event in Mauldin, S.C., Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024.
Republican presidential candidate and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign event in Mauldin, S.C., Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024.

The USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll, however, draws into question whether such a feat is possible. While Haley garnered support among 54% of independent voters in the survey, Trump saw enough support among the group (40%) to maintain an over 15-point lead overall.

Among Republican voters in Massachusetts, Haley only found 5% support, compared to a whopping 87% for Trump.

Jennifer Nassour, who’s leading Haley’s Massachusetts campaign, brushed off concerns about the former South Carolina governor’s dismal backing among Republican voters. She argued that they make up only about 8% of the state’s electorate, and “you don't win elections with 8%.”

While that’s true for general elections, research has long found that independent voters are less likely than those affiliated with a party to turn out to vote in primary elections.

The independents who make up the majority of registered voters in Massachusetts are often a minority of primary voters, Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University, said. The ones who do head to the polls are often the most passionate.

“Part of turnout comes from whether or not you care, or whether you think your vote is going to make a difference,” Berry explained. He argued that Trump’s lead in the race could dissuade “those that are not as involved in Republican Party politics or don't care as much or, even those that think they're going to vote, but on election day, they get busy, and it just isn't a priority.”

Trump's dampening effect

Bonnie Pumelty, 76, is among the group of independent voters contemplating whether to support Haley this year. A retired school social worker, who lives just outside of Boston in Brookline, Pumelty typically votes for more progressive Democrats.

While she wouldn’t support Haley in a general election, she said she’s contemplating whether to vote for the former governor in the Republican primary instead of for President Joe Biden in the Democratic race.

“I'm not sure whether sending the message that I don't want Trump to be president is more important,” Pumelty said, before questioning the value of her vote. “The truth of the matter is that Massachusetts is such a blue state, that all of this is probably not that significant.”

McClary, the hesitant Haley supporter from Cohasset, echoed a similar sentiment. He argued that his vote was “not going to make a difference” given the primary’s timing in the nomination calendar and Massachusetts' deep blue reputation.

Their attitudes highlight Haley’s central dilemma on Super Tuesday: The independent voters she’s counting on to turn out in droves across the country may not view their participation in the election as significant, and therefore, may not participate.

While independents helped push Haley within 11 points of Trump in New Hampshire, there's no guarantee they'll be motivated to turn out in states across the country, especially if Trump clinches more victories against Haley in the coming months.

"The situation gets tougher for her as these later states tend to have primaries that make it difficult for people who are not registered Republicans to vote or they might simply not have a tradition of crossover voting the way New Hampshire has," John Cluverius, associate director of the Center for Public Opinion at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, explained.

Republican presidential hopeful and former US President Donald Trump gestures during an Election Night Party in Nashua, New Hampshire, on January 23, 2024. Donald Trump won the key New Hampshire primary Tuesday, moving him ever closer to locking in the Republican presidential nomination and securing an extraordinary White House rematch with Joe Biden.

In an election year with a clear frontrunner, passionate and more conservative leaning voters like Piva are the ones more likely to turn out, Cluverius said.

Steve Piva, 55, is usually among the less active independent voters. He didn't vote in 2016 or 2020. This year, concerns about inflation, his shrinking buying power at the grocery store and the crisis at the southern border, have driven him to support Trump.

"I'm just very disappointed in the Democratic Party and where they've gone the past decade or so. They don't represent any of my values," Piva, a salesman in the automotive aftermarket from Swansea, Massachusetts, said. "I'm highly motivated to turn things around."

He's among the demographic of voters Cluverius predicted will come out to vote on March 5.

"If you are already planning on voting in the Republican primary and you like all of the candidates, at least somewhat, you will probably vote for Donald Trump because Donald Trump looks like a winner," Cluverius said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Donald Trump’s shadow could eclipse Nikki Haley’s efforts with Super Tuesday voters