Jan 31, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Haley's Hail Mary strategy depends on open primaries

Photo illustration of Nikki Haley against three squares in the background

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Allison Joyce/Getty Images

Nikki Haley is seeking a complex — and unlikely — path to the GOP presidential nomination by relying on independent and Democratic voters in 13 states with primaries that are open to non-Republicans.

Why it matters: It's a long shot, but Haley's Hail Mary strategy might help her chip away at GOP front-runner Donald Trump as he faces legal challenges that could complicate his campaign.

  • Haley's team is pinning its hopes on the primary formats in South Carolina, Michigan and 11 of the 16 Super Tuesday states whose March 5 primaries aren't limited to registered Republicans.

Zoom in: The former UN ambassador also is bashing Trump in a flurry of media appearances, daring him to debate her and embarking on a fundraising frenzy this week.

  • It's a tough sell: The GOP's base continues to rally around Trump, who won the season's first two contests, in Iowa and New Hampshire.
  • Haley trails Trump by 15 delegates, 32-17. That might suggest that the race to the 1,215 delegates needed to seal the GOP nomination is close — but Trump has overwhelming support in the party's base.

Haley's campaign manager, Betsy Ankney, said in a recent memo that Haley's team sees the upcoming open primaries as "significant fertile ground for Nikki."

  • Of the 874 delegates available on Super Tuesday, roughly two-thirds are in states with open or semi-open primaries, Ankney notes.
  • Open primaries allow any voter to vote in either party's primary; semi-open primaries allow undeclared voters to choose either primary.

Zoom out: In South Carolina (Feb. 24) and Michigan (Feb. 27) — the primaries after next week's contest in Nevada, where Haley is not campaigning — any registered voter can participate.

  • In Texas, Virginia, and Vermont — Super Tuesday states that don't require prior party registration — voters can cast ballots in the Republican or Democratic primary, just not both.
  • But states including Maine, Massachusetts and North Carolina allow undeclared voters to cast ballots in either party's primary.

Between the lines: Haley's strategy is annoying Trump and some state GOP leaders, who bristle at the idea of Democrats influencing Republican contests.

  • "We need closed primaries," Texas GOP chair Matt Rinaldi posted on X, with a screenshot of an Axios story about Democrats' potential to give Haley a boost in Iowa's caucuses. (She finished third.)
  • The primary ballot in Texas — where Haley hopes to attract non-GOP voters — also includes a ballot proposition measuring support for closing the state's Republican primaries to non-Republicans.

What they're saying: "They have to show a pathway, not just for voters but for their donors," Republican strategist Alex Conant said of Haley's team.

Catch up quick: Haley gave four interviews before 10 a.m. Tuesday, appearing on "CBS This Morning," conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt's radio show, "Fox & Friends" and "The Breakfast Club" radio show with Charlemagne tha God.

  • Haley's campaign also engaged in a snipe-fest with Trump's team, responding to Trump advisers' criticism of her decision to stay in the race with a meme-memo asking: "Why are you so obsessed with us?"

Reality check: Open primaries are Haley's "only conceivable path. However, that path was tested in New Hampshire," where Trump beat Haley by 11 points, Justin Sayfie, a former spokesperson for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told Axios.

  • Trump won 74% of all Republican voters who participated in the New Hampshire primary; 60% of independents chose Haley.

The bottom line: "Her challenge is that most people who vote in Republican primaries are Republican voters, even in open primaries," Conant said. "And most Republicans are choosing Trump."

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