Dec 10, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Nikki Haley's New Hampshire bank shot

Photo: Christian Monterrosa/AFP via Getty Images

The soft money flowing into New Hampshire on behalf of Nikki Haley has a hard target: independent voters.

Why it matters: Winning the support of the state's "undeclared" voters — which make up 40% of the electorate — has always been the key to winning the first-in-the-nation primary.

  • With the Democratic National Committee essentially boycotting the primary, that's even more true this year. All the action is on the GOP side.
  • That means the number of independent voters (399,395) can exceed the number of registered Republicans (298,470) on election day.

Driving the news: The former South Carolina governor's supporters — many of whom are donating "soft money" to super PACs, which don't have limits on campaign contributions — are planning to leverage Haley's broad anti-Trump appeal and relatively moderate views to win over independents.

  • A new PAC started by wealthy business executives launched an "Independents for Nikki" initiative shortly after Thanksgiving, pouring millions into efforts to boost her standing with undeclared voters.
  • The plan is to take "a very targeted surgical approach" to juicing independent turnout, starting in New Hampshire, said Bonnie Anderson, one of the PAC's founders.
  • "Nikki is the most electable candidate in this election," Anderson said.

The intrigue: As he did in 2016, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has made New Hampshire the linchpin of his campaign.

  • "There is no Democratic primary to speak of, so if you want to have an impact, you have to vote in our primary," Christie told college students Friday.
  • He's currently in third in New Hampshire, behind Haley and former President Trump.

How it works: New Hampshire is one of a handful of states that allows unaffiliated voters to participate in a primary of their choice.

  • Independent voters just request a ballot — either Democratic or Republicans — on election day.

Flashback: In 2012, the last time there wasn't a competitive Democratic contest, independent voters made up roughly half the GOP primary, notes GOP pollster Patrick Ruffini.

  • "Undeclared" voters were at 47%, just a tick below actual Republicans, who were at 49%.

In 2020, with Trump the clear GOP nominee, the picture was flipped.

  • Independents decided to participate in the primary in which they could make a difference, ultimately comprising 44% of the electorate in the Democratic primary.

What we're hearing: In 2020, that 44% translated into 130,000 independent voters, according to Robert Schwartz, whose group, Primary Pivot, plans to spend $600,000 to target independents.

  • "That's a huge amount of voters," he said. "We ... can encourage them to vote strategically in the Republican primary for a candidate that supports democracy," Schwartz said.

Between the lines: New Hampshire's independents aren't necessarily moderates. And they don't always vote as a bloc.

  • In the 2012 GOP primary, Rand Paul — a self-identified libertarian — won 31% of the unaffiliated vote.

The bottom line: Trump holds a dominant lead over the rest of the Republican field both nationally and in New Hampshire, raising the stakes for a strong showing by Haley in the Granite State.

  • A win there could be her only shot to stop Trump.
  • "We believe that if Trump romps in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the nomination is effectively over, so you have to at least have a competitive race in one of those two states," Schwartz said.

Go deeper: Christie unleashed, knives out for Haley: 4 takeaways from the GOP debate

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