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Trump’s next test: Go beyond the base

With Haley withdrawing from race, former president faces task in reaching out to her supporters

An aide takes down a sign after a rally by Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley during the District of Columbia's Republican presidential primary at the Madison Hotel in Washington, D.C., on March 1. Haley won the D.C. primary, but ultimately fell short and suspended her campaign on Wednesday. Where her supporters go will be a key question in the general election, David Winston writes.
An aide takes down a sign after a rally by Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley during the District of Columbia's Republican presidential primary at the Madison Hotel in Washington, D.C., on March 1. Haley won the D.C. primary, but ultimately fell short and suspended her campaign on Wednesday. Where her supporters go will be a key question in the general election, David Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Noted federal judge and civil rights leader William Hastie once described the essence of democracy as an “eternal struggle.”

This week, the struggle continued as the Supreme Court waded into the volatile waters of the 2024 election and voters went to the polls to exercise their right to choose those who will lead their party in November. Regardless of whether you are cheering the outcome or grieving defeat, analyzing the results for insight into the future or simply moving on, one clear winner on Tuesday was American democracy and voters’ ability to have their voices heard.

The top court’s decision to overrule the Colorado Supreme Court’s effort to take former President Donald Trump off the state’s primary ballot protected the democratic process, one of its constitutional responsibilities. But the media focus on Trump’s eligibility missed the more important question facing the court. Can citizens be denied the ability to vote for the candidate of their choice? The high court unanimously said, “No.”  

Other blue states considering similar action to disenfranchise voters by removing Trump from primary ballots have now been sidelined and the democratic election process can move forward without this particular brand of political interference.  Tuesday’s exercise in democracy served both voters and candidates, and with President Joe Biden facing only nominal primary opposition, produced one clear winner — Trump.

Looking at the 15 GOP primaries and caucuses on Tuesday, the former president got more than 70 percent of the vote in nine of the contests, while, overall, winning 14.  Trump is now positioned to possibly secure the nomination on March 12.  While Haley won her first state, Vermont, the results gave her little choice but to suspend her campaign, which she did Wednesday morning with a gracious but serious speech to her supporters.

While Trump may have wanted to avoid more primaries, the primary process has clearly demonstrated that he has the support to easily win the nomination, and that his win goes beyond just MAGA supporters. Moreover, exit poll data shows Trump may be improving his position with independents, who are crucial to a win in November. Haley maintained her advantage with independents in Virginia, winning them 49-48 percent, but she underperformed in North Carolina, losing independents to Trump by 39-57 percent.

Looking at the preliminary Edison Research exit polls, 34 percent of the Republican electorate in Virginia said they were part of the “MAGA movement.” Trump’s vote among those voters was 96 percent.

In North Carolina, 42 percent of Republican primary voters said they were MAGA voters, and Trump won them with an overwhelming 98 percent. Those who said they were not part of the MAGA movement in North Carolina still voted for Trump by a 54-42 percent margin. In Virginia, Haley carried them by 17 percent, 56-39.  But while she was competitive among these voters, it was not nearly enough to get a win.

She also showed some strength among moderate and liberal voters, but Trump’s strength among “somewhat conservative” voters was decisive. In Virginia, he carried this key group by 40 percent; in North Carolina it was by 54 percent. 

In Republican primaries, you need “somewhat conservative” voters to win and Trump did just that. 

The issue mix played a role in Trump’s victory Tuesday as well.  While Trump was expected to do well with voters who said immigration was their top issue and he did, he also won 68 percent of voters in Virginia and 70 percent in North Carolina who said the economy was their top issue. Haley’s inability to do better with economic voters was a significant problem for her campaign.

So was her focus on the polls showing her with a larger margin over Biden than Trump. That message simply did not effectively reach voters. Among those voters who said the most important candidate quality to them was the ability to defeat Biden, Trump won them with 77-21 percent margin in Virginia, and by 75-23 percent margin in North Carolina. 

The exit polls also raised some important challenges for the Trump campaign going forward. The most obvious is the potential impact of the indictments. Voters were asked whether they would consider Trump fit to be president if convicted.

In North Carolina, 30 percent said no; in Virginia, it was worse, at 37 percent. This is not a new dynamic. We saw a similar response from South Carolina primary voters at 36 percent. Not surprisingly, in these three states, these voters overwhelmingly voted for Haley.

To assess Trump’s ability to bring in these voters, the exit polls asked voters whether they would support the Republican nominee regardless of who it is. In North Carolina, 32 percent said no and voted for Haley by a 58-37 percent margin. In Virginia, 31 percent said no, and voted for Haley by a 76-20 percent margin. These means that about 20 percent of the Republican primary electorate in North Carolina and Virginia at this point might not support Trump in the general.

With Haley suspending her campaign Wednesday morning, the Trump Team finds itself where most nominees arrive after a bruising primary process, needing to consolidate the party and bring in their opponents’ supporters to win the general.

One thing Haley has been able to do is to attract new voters and expand the Republican coalition, particularly among independents. It was obviously not enough to win the nomination, but her voters would be a valuable addition for Trump as he looks to build a majority coalition in the fall.

Biden reached out to Haley voters minutes after her withdrawal, telling them, “Donald Trump made it clear he doesn’t want Nikki Haley’s supporters. I want to be clear: There is a place for them in my campaign.” Trump took to Truth Social saying that he wanted “to invite all of the Haley supporters to join the greatest movement in the history of our Nation.”

The test for Trump is whether he will put aside his unhappiness with Haley, abandon his earlier negative comments about her and her supporters and embrace the kind of broad-based campaign that creates a majority coalition. He must bring these voters home to win.

Super Tuesday is over. Haley is out. The rematch is set. Most important for the country, democracy has prevailed. But the “eternal struggle,” as William Hastie put it so perfectly, goes on.

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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