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The number Haley, Trump need to worry about heading into Super Tuesday

Can the former president’s lone remaining primary foe hang around 40 percent?

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s ability to attract independents could spell trouble for Donald Trump in November.
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s ability to attract independents could spell trouble for Donald Trump in November. (David Berding/Getty Images)

Unless something unexpected happens, Donald Trump’s win in South Carolina last Saturday all but ensures his nomination to head the Republican ticket this November. With Super Tuesday just one week away, there are a few states that could give former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley a possible opening. Massachusetts and Maine come to mind, but the challenge ahead of her now is turning any state into an actual win. That’s unlikely.

What South Carolina seems to have established is the fact that, among the Republican base, the Trump-Haley contest has not been a close one. In New Hampshire, Trump won Republicans by a margin of 74 percent to 25 percent, so it was no surprise to see the former president enjoy a lopsided victory margin of 70 percent to 30 percent among Republicans in South Carolina despite Haley’s home-state advantage.

It was also not a surprise to see Trump easily win immigration voters. But, more importantly, Trump also prevailed in both states with voters who said the economy was their top issue, a group that will be critical in the fall. Among those voters, Trump’s margin in New Hampshire was 55 percent to 43 percent; in South Carolina, his lead was even bigger, at 62 percent to 38 percent.

In both primaries, Haley has been able to attract about 40 percent of the primary vote or more, which should concern Team Trump. The key question for Haley going into Super Tuesday, beyond whether she can win a state, is can she sustain something close to the 40 percent in the weeks to come. If she can, her argument that getting 40 percent against what is, in effect, an incumbent president has some standing — but likely won’t be enough to win the nomination.

The wrinkle for the Trump campaign is how she has gotten to 40 percent of the vote: by attracting large numbers of independents who are participating in the Republican primaries. Bringing new voters into the GOP process is a good thing and could help to grow the party, but failing to significantly cut into Trump’s strength with the Republican base makes the primary schedule ahead pretty bleak for the former governor.

While the Trump team clearly wants Haley out of the race, it also needs to focus on the fact that she is getting votes that will be key to a Trump victory in November. Trump must do better with independents, college-educated voters and moderates than he did four years ago, when Biden won by 7 million votes although by small margins in key battleground states.

In 2020, Trump lost independents 41 percent to 54 percent, college-educated voters 43 percent to 55 percent and moderates by an even larger margin: 34 percent to 64 percent. In that election, moderates made up the same portion of the electorate as conservatives: 38 percent, with liberals at 24 percent.

To win this time, Trump has to attract more centrist voters or risk a similar outcome.

But 2020 was a different environment from the one in which the election will take place today. While the economy remains the overriding issue, especially with independents, immigration is now a close second, with the issue of age also in the mix.

Four years ago, Biden presented himself as a centrist, a moderate promising to bring the country together and “build back better” a stronger economy, the first of Biden’s many attempts at an economic message.

Since his election, however, Biden has done just the opposite, and his poll numbers show it. While both candidates’ favorable/unfavorables are about even, both being negative, Biden’s overall job approval ratings on the economy and inflation are near historic lows — and therein lies the opening for Trump to gain traction with the “Haley voters” he has lost in the primaries and needs in the general.

The Biden campaign understands the importance of winning the economic argument, as evidenced by their constant attempts to reinvent their economic messaging. But no matter how many times Biden tries to tell voters “how good the economy really is,” his message is falling on deaf ears. People simply don’t find him credible.

Last week’s new consumer price index showing inflation remains above 3 percent is a prime example of the challenge he faces.

While hourly and weekly wages have recently begun to outpace inflation, weekly wages fell behind inflation in this latest report. Overall, consumers have seen their purchasing power (based on either hourly or weekly wages) fail to keep up. The Winston Group’s cumulative “Presidential Inflation Rate,” going back to January 2021, now stands at 17.9 percent — almost an 18 percent increase in prices since Biden has been in office.

The weekly wage increase, also cumulative, is 12.8 percent, meaning that weekly wages have lagged 5.1 percent behind the increases in inflation. Key household items like food (20.8 percent) and electricity (28.6 percent) have seen even larger price increases than the overall inflation rate.

The White House tried to claim that last “report shows that wage growth has been the strongest of any economic recovery in 50 years.” But when we asked voters in The Winston Group’s new “Winning the Issues” survey (conducted Feb. 24-25) whether they believed wages are now increasing at a greater rate than inflation, they told us that they didn’t believe that statement, by a 61 percent to 23 percent margin.

There are only eight more inflation reports between now and the November election. That is a very short period of time for the Biden campaign to change voters’ economic perceptions about his handling of inflation, especially if the Trump campaign can contrast his economic success with Biden’s failures and put forward plans for a new economic direction.

After South Carolina, where does the presidential race go next? Even with Haley still in the race, Trump needs to look forward, not backward. If Team Trump wants to win in November, it’s time to put the 2020 election in the rearview mirror and put aside personal grievances, contrast the former president’s economic record with Biden’s and reach out to independent voters on their top issue with clear-cut policies to turn the country around.

The key to a second Trump presidency lies in his ability to offer a positive vision for America and rein in his penchant for personal attacks. They may delight his supporters today in the heat of the primary season but may prove costly with independents in the fall.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

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