Podcast: President Joe Biden Courts Nikki Haley Voters : The NPR Politics Podcast The Biden campaign has hired a former Republican congressional chief-of-staff to lead its outreach to Republican voters, but interviews and polling suggest that, even despite Donald Trump's felony convictions, Nikki Haley's supporters are likely to back the former president come November.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, national political correspondent Sarah McCammon, and senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

The podcast is produced by Jeongyoon Han, Casey Morell and Kelli Wessinger. Our intern is Bria Suggs. Our editor is Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi.

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Nikki Haley has backed Donald Trump, but Biden is making a play for her voters

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EMILY: Hi. This is Emily from Omaha, Neb. I am currently walking with my 4-month-old daughter, Cora (ph), to pick up her big brother Henry from his last day of kindergarten. This podcast was recorded at...

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

12:36 p.m. Eastern time on Monday, June 10 of 2024.

EMILY: Things may change by the time you hear it. OK, here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KHALID: I'm so nostalgic when I hear these stories of little babies.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Yeah. They get big real fast.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: It is that time of year, though, with my daughter is going to middle school and my son...

KHALID: Oh, wow.

MONTANARO: ...Is starting high school, so...

KHALID: Wait, your son is starting high school, Domenico?

MONTANARO: Yeah.

KHALID: That's like a time warp.

MCCAMMON: Wow.

MONTANARO: Yeah, well, I had him in eighth grade myself, so.

KHALID: (Laughter) Well, hey, there, it's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

MCCAMMON: I'm Sarah McCammon. I cover the campaign.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KHALID: And today on the show, we're going to explore what Nikki Haley voters are thinking now about the presidential election. Will they stick with Trump? Will they break for Biden? Or will they just stay home? And, Sarah, you have been speaking specifically to these kinds of voters. So tell us what you've heard.

MCCAMMON: Right. So Haley voters have gotten a lot of attention, mostly because they appear to be a potential swing voter group to some extent. A lot of these voters told us on the campaign trail that they really didn't like their choices if it was between former President Trump and President Biden. And even after Haley dropped out - you probably remember she dropped out in early March, but she kept getting double digits in some Republican primaries where she was still on the ballot. So that kind of signaled an appetite for something else. So, you know, in a close election like this one appears to be, these votes could really matter, and both campaigns are interested in them, as are we.

So I tracked down several voters that we had met along the way during the primary. And bottom line, a lot of them still tell me they're not thrilled with their choices. Some are still making up their minds, but most seem to at least be leaning one way or the other. Of course, these are anecdotal conversations I had with about a half a dozen voters who voted or were planning to vote in Republican primaries. And I can tell you bottom line, Asma, most of them seem to be leaning toward Trump, but not all, and some are still trying to decide.

KHALID: Sarah, in these anecdotal conversations, is there anybody who has stuck with you or that you just think is kind of emblematic of a bigger theme?

MCCAMMON: Yeah, it was kind of fun to go back and listen to what people said during the primary and what they're saying now. So one of those people was Emily Roberson. She's from North Carolina. And earlier this year, she actually talked to our colleague Elena Moore about why she hoped Haley would be the Republican nominee.

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EMILY ROBERSON: I just think she represents best what a lot of us are feeling - kind of left out of both sides of the equation. Whether you are more liberal or more conservative, I just think she speaks to the missing middle.

MCCAMMON: And, you know, that was really in line with what I had also heard from a lot of Haley voters during the campaign. So I called Roberson up not long ago and asked her, OK, where are you at? And here's what she had to say.

ROBERSON: Neither excite me. If I vote for one over the other, it's not a vote for them. It would be against the other. And that's a terrible place to be.

MCCAMMON: So she had voted for Trump before in the past two general elections. She really didn't want to again. She thinks he's too divisive. She said she's tired of what she describes as his antics. But she's also unhappy with President Biden's job performance on several issues, including the economy and immigration. And she told me she really hasn't totally decided. She might abstain. She might write someone in. But she did say that if Trump were to pick Nikki Haley as his VP, she'd be more inclined to vote for Trump, although she acknowledged that doesn't appear likely.

KHALID: I'm curious what you hear are their main issues or policy priorities.

MCCAMMON: Yeah. Again, inflation, the economy, the border, immigration, you know, those are big ones. Just last week, the Biden campaign hired a full-time staffer to focus on Republican engagement, you know, reaching out to former Haley voters and other Republicans who might be persuadable. His name is Austin Weatherford, and he's a former chief of staff to former Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, who, of course, was a high-profile critic of former President Trump. I talked to Weatherford last week, and, you know, one of the things he said he would be focusing on is issues like reproductive rights, as well as foreign policy.

MONTANARO: I do think, though, for these Haley voters, it is about policy quite a bit, actually. I think, you know, foreign policy in particular and character as well is a big thing. But, you know, it's harder for Biden to try to win them over because they also just don't align with him on a lot of other...

KHALID: Yeah.

MONTANARO: ...Things, not just how the United States is perceived around the world. It may not likely be enough to win them over, and frankly, they're not even that big of a universe of voters.

KHALID: How big of a universe are they?

MONTANARO: Well, what we found in our survey when we asked, trying to drill down on where Haley voters would go, was that only about 14% of the Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who we surveyed in the entire poll said that they would still vote for Nikki Haley over Donald Trump. Trump wins something like 90% of Republicans or more in our survey. And that universe is so small, the 14%, that that margin of error is way too high to even draw a lot of conclusions about them. Roughly, though, they broke 60/40 for Trump still.

KHALID: OK.

MONTANARO: So, you know, it's a small-ish group. But when you have what the Biden campaign is expecting to be a different election, a lower turnout election, a different kind of coalition they need, they're looking for any advantage they can get in growth areas when they're likely to lose voters who were with them in 2020.

MCCAMMON: I think it's about both personality and policy. And what I mean by that is, when I talked to a lot of these Haley voters, you know, almost to a person, they don't like Trump's personality. Even if they voted for him before, they just would rather that was not the temperament of the person that they vote for this time. You know, Dave Wardlaw was someone that our colleague, Jeongyoon Han, met earlier this year in South Carolina. He's from Georgia, but he at that point, was not happy about that statement Trump had made that you may remember. He said anybody who supports Nikki Haley's campaign will be permanently barred from MAGA. So Wardlaw told Jeongyoon that he had actually donated to Haley's campaign in response to that.

DAVE WARDLAW: I'm going to vote for Trump. Even though he barred me, I'm going to vote for him.

MCCAMMON: You know, he said that's just how Trump is, and he's come around to deciding to support Trump because fundamentally, he's a Republican, and he agrees with Trump on policy.

KHALID: On that note, folks, let's take a quick break, and we'll be back in a moment.

And we're back. And before we took a break, we were talking a little bit about whether some of these Haley voters are focused more on policy or on personality. So I guess that leads me to the big question. Does the recent guilty conviction that former President Trump faced with this hush money case in New York - does it matter to voters?

MCCAMMON: You know, this is something we've been asking for a long time. Would it matter, right? And I think we've got some polling that suggests it doesn't matter that much. Anecdotally, the voters I've talked to - it really doesn't seem to persuade them one way or another. You know, I talked to one woman who was already strongly leaning toward voting for Biden and a former Haley supporter, and she was so happy with the verdict against Trump. She said he was finally being held accountable. But a lot of the Haley voters I've talked to who are leaning towards Trump tell me they don't really take this all that seriously. Here's what Emily Roberson, who we heard earlier, had to say.

ROBERSON: While I agree there's some unsavory things that Trump has done and he kind of brings it on himself - and, I mean, you know, you can't really avoid that - but this just seems silly, and like I said - I'll go back to it - a distraction.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, she said this first case she didn't take that seriously. You know, she'll kind of wait and see what happens with the other cases that are still out there.

KHALID: That likely won't materialize anyhow, though, before the election.

MCCAMMON: Right, not before the election. It probably goes without saying, but, you know, I'm in Las Vegas right now. I was at a Trump rally over the weekend, and I asked several - you know, these are ardent Trump supporters who come out in the heat for him. And, you know, big surprise - their minds are not changed by the verdict.

MONTANARO: Yeah. And what we saw with polling going into the verdict was that a small percentage of people said that they might be less likely to vote for Trump if he were found guilty. I was looking at, in particular, were younger voters who have been sort of not that thrilled with Biden. About 1 in 4, 1 in 5 of them said that they would be less likely to vote for Trump if he were found guilty. So I'm looking for, you know, in the next couple of weeks to see if there's been any real change in that. Doesn't look like there will be. There's been several polls since the verdict, and it's - we've - I think we can say it's been a net negative for Trump overall but only by a point or two.

A point or two may matter, obviously at the margins, but we'll see if that even lasts, right? I mean, you know, President Biden has gotten bumps for good State of the Union speeches, and then that polling bump has sort of receded, which is why I always say people have to wait a few weeks to see if something is actually lasting. The fact is, people are very locked in on their views on both of these men.

MCCAMMON: Very true.

KHALID: Though there is that very small percentage of people, you say, Domenico, who potentially are persuadable. And when we talk about that small group, are those voters - I guess we would describe them as both Republican-leaning, independent voters, some of these Nikki Haley primary voters - are they essential to Trump's path to victory? I mean, in other words, can he win without some of these, you know, let's say, college-educated white voters who traditionally voted Republican in years past?

MONTANARO: He can. Especially with third parties that are happening this year, I think it's a big factor. Remember, Trump didn't get more than 47% in 2016 or 2020. He's probably not going to get close to that even this time in 2024 and still has a very realistic path to the White House because you'll have third-party votes that sort of siphon some votes away from Biden when you think about Cornel West, the professor who's running as an independent, Jill Stein, a Green Party candidate. You know, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. seems to poll evenly, it seems, from Trump and Biden. But when you have more votes for a bunch of different people, then Trump has the ability to be able to win because his base is just core and sticks with him pretty foundationally.

And I think that Biden is needing to keep together this coalition that was pretty shaky, that was mostly anti-Trump in 2020. He won 51% of the vote, but he's got to try anything he possibly can, even if that means trying to chip off some Haley voters who maybe wouldn't have considered voting for Biden but just really can't see themselves having Trump back in the White House. But it's a lot of different avenues that the Biden campaign has to try to go down and knock on those doors to see if any of those folks would actually cast a ballot for Biden.

KHALID: So, Domenico, are you suggesting that this tiny group of voters are more essential for Joe Biden's path to victory?

MONTANARO: I think they are. I mean, I think that Biden needs more persuadable voters, you know, than Trump does in this election. And he's got to try to win them over in any sort of way that he can because he has a lot of different coalitions, a lot of different factions where he's, you know, losing some of those voters, whereas Trump's traditional voters are sticking with him.

KHALID: Yeah. I mean, to that point, Domenico, it seems like the campaign knows that it has some weaknesses with some of the - you could say the, like, traditional Democratic base, whether we're talking about young voters, Black voters. And so it seems like, therefore, they are trying to build a very broad tent, knowing that they might lose some of the voters they had in 2020.

MONTANARO: Well, yeah. And I don't think that just because they try for Haley voters that it's going to mean that they ignore some of these other voters. It's just that they're looking for any avenue possible to have addition rather than subtraction.

MCCAMMON: And, you know, that was a point that Austin Weatherford, you know, who's in charge of Republican engagement for the Biden campaign, made when we talked last week. He said it's imperative that they have a huge tent, as he put it, to support their campaign effort, and he said Republicans are part of that.

MONTANARO: And let's not lose focus of the real thing here. And that's the issues in this election - the economy, prices, even foreign policy. Biden is down double digits to Trump in trust when you look at swing state polls across the board on some of those things. So it makes it more difficult because he's having to sort of almost push a boulder uphill to convince people who already are looking a bit sideways at his handling of his job so far.

KHALID: All right, well, let's leave it there for today. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

MCCAMMON: I'm Sarah McCammon. I cover the presidential campaign.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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