PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Dawn Hartnett, 56, a registered independent who voted for Joe Biden in 2020, crammed into a country store this week to catch a glimpse of Nikki Haley. She has never voted for a Republican in a presidential election, but said she will do so for the first time if Haley is the GOP nominee.
Hartnett believes Biden has done a good job as president, but she expresses concerns about his age and former president Donald Trump’s. In an interview in Hooksett this past week, she described Haley as a candidate who can “bring us in to the next presidency, someone younger with some great ideas.”
Caroline Gagan, 60, is an independent voter with a very different view. A onetime Democratic supporter of Barack Obama, she plans to support Trump. The Hampton Beach resident who attended a Trump campaign event Saturday with Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) lamented that Democrats have “left us behind.”
Independent voters, who can cast a ballot in either party’s primary, are seen as key to the outcome in Tuesday’s GOP contest. Those who don’t identify with a party now make up 39 percent of the overall electorate in New Hampshire — a bloc long viewed as key to Haley’s chances of springing an upset. But their political leanings are complex, ranging from Democratic-leaning anti-Trump voters to hard-right conservatives, and polling shows Haley’s edge among them narrowing in the final stage of the race, complicating her path to a competitive finish.
According to the latest Suffolk University/NBC-10/Boston Globe tracking poll of likely primary voters released Saturday, Haley was pulling 45 percent support among unaffiliated voters, with Trump at 44 percent support — a change from an earlier poll on Jan. 18 when Haley was receiving the support of 53 percent of unaffiliated voters, compared to 32 percent for Trump. Trump, meanwhile, trounced Haley in the latest poll among registered Republicans, receiving 59 percent of their support, compared to Haley’s 29 percent, propelling him to a 17-point lead overall.
Some Haley allies have hoped to leverage the lack of a competitive Democratic primary by persuading independents who might otherwise vote in that race to join Haley’s cause in the GOP contest. This week on the trail, Haley has stepped up her criticisms of Trump, arguing that the vast majority of American voters don’t want to see a Trump-Biden rematch, that it is time for a new generation to lead the Republican Party and, in contrast to Trump, that she would offer a steadier, less chaotic style of leadership.
Independents don’t vote as a monolith, and interviews with more than two dozen underscore the complexity of their views and how difficult it may be for Haley to draw out enough of them to win. Some share Trump’s isolationist tendencies, his hard-line views on immigration and his antipathy toward the GOP establishment. Others are repelled by Trump’s harsh tone, his election denialism and the chaotic way he ran his administration.
Trump’s hard-line position on border security has appealed to some independents, and the state of the economy during his presidency has also drawn praise, interviews show. Haley’s calls for a new generation of leadership and moving past the chaos of Trump’s first presidency have enticed many others.
Trump aides argue that Haley would have to drive record turnout among independents to make up the gap, and they note that their analyses show that as many as 40 percent of the state’s undeclared voters don’t typically turn out in primaries, making the path to a victory even more difficult for Haley.
And some longtime operatives here say Haley has not gone far enough in her criticisms of Trump to fire up the number of liberal-leaning independents who could help her build a winning coalition.
“She has to be unequivocal. Clear. Direct,” said the state’s former attorney general, Tom Rath, who is a Republican. “You can’t pussyfoot on this one. You have to say, ‘This guy cannot be our nominee; this guy cannot win.’ If she says that, if there’s a clear, unambiguous repudiation of Trump — that opens the door for her.”
“You’re not going to beat him among hardcore Republicans,” added Rath, who has advised the presidential campaigns of Robert Dole, Lamar Alexander, Mitt Romney and George W. Bush. “He’s locked it in a way a lot of Republican presidents haven’t been able to do.”
For many independents, Haley is a welcome alternative to Trump and Biden.
Jeff Dorow, an independent who lives in Portsmouth, said “there’s not a chance” he can vote for Trump or Biden, and that he is leaning toward Haley because he is impressed with her international experience.
Dorow previously backed Trump and has voted for more Republicans than Democrats in the past. But this time around, he said he wants to move beyond Trump’s “baggage” and says he doesn’t “like the drama.”
Others such as Sally Roberts, a 72-year-old independent from Whitefield, N.H., were appalled by Trump’s caustic tone throughout his presidency, and she believes Haley can help stop “the hatred in this country.” Roberts, who voted for Republican John Kasich in the 2016 primary but is increasingly leaning toward Democrats, wore a “Make America Kind Again” pin to an event Haley held this week at the Mount Washington Hotel in northern New Hampshire.
If the election turns into a likely rematch between Biden and Trump, Roberts will vote for Biden, she said.
“Biden, I feel, is too old for the job, and I think Trump is also,” said Roberts, who added that she would love to see a woman in the Oval Office. “Biden is a good person, but I think he comes across as a little feeble. I just feel that he doesn’t send a strong leadership image that I would like to see, and I think Haley could do that.”
Since launching her campaign in April, Haley has homed in on the issue of transgender athletes in women’s sports and called for a national consensus on an abortion ban — a compromising position compared to her rivals, and one that has drawn praise from her supporters. She has also gone further than other candidates on the issue of age for elected officials and drawn attention to the fact that Haley, 51, is the only woman in the GOP race, and that the Republican Party needs younger leaders.
These contrasts have landed with voters such as Stephanie Martinonis, an independent from North Conway who works at a small grocery. She praised Haley’s “more respectful” tone when describing the contrast with Trump. Her biggest fear about another Trump presidency, she said, is that “he would be a dictator.”
But she believes that Biden is “really too old, and I don’t want to see Kamala Harris as president.” Martinonis added that Haley “doesn’t seem like she’s into bullying people, unlike Trump.”
Outside groups allied with Haley’s bid are spending millions to target independent voters, and smaller groups, such as Independents Moving the Needle, are targeting those voters in this final week, running ads in New Hampshire in which independent voters share their support for Haley. New Hampshire Republican operatives also note that independent voters have historically participated at higher levels in the party primary that is most exciting. There is very little interest in the Democratic ballot now that Biden will not appear on the ticket after the Democratic Party opted to launch its nominating season in South Carolina.
Because of New Hampshire’s more moderate constituency and the potentially outsize influence of independents on the results, the Granite State has loomed as the least favorable state for Trump among the early contests. But even here, weakness for Trump is a relative term. His support has hovered in the mid-40s over the past year; and some more recent polls have shown him breaking 50 percent, as he draws some of the voters who were backing tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who left the race and endorsed the former president.
Meanwhile, Haley’s appeal to some Democratic-leaning independents here has renewed attacks from GOP rivals who seek to portray her as a moderate who is not conservative enough.
On Friday, Haley pushed back: “I passed tort reform. I passed voter ID. I passed the toughest illegal immigration law in the country,” Haley said to supporters at a Mary Ann’s Diner in Amherst, N.H. “Show me where I’m moderate, because I’m not.”
Haley’s balancing act has become even more difficult in these final days as Trump has misleadingly argued at his rallies that the former South Carolina governor is trying to win by encouraging “Democrats and liberals to infiltrate your Republican primary.”
Laying the groundwork for his supporters to doubt the outcome of a closer-than-expected race next Tuesday — just as he did in 2020 when he claimed without evidence that Democrats were going to “cheat” to help Biden — he inaccurately asserted this week that New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R), who has endorsed Haley, is “allowing Democrats to come in and vote” in the New Hampshire primary.
The state’s laws have long allowed independent voters in New Hampshire to cast a ballot in either party’s primary. To participate in New Hampshire’s GOP primary, Democrats had to change their party registration to Republican or independent by the secretary of state’s Oct. 6 deadline last year. Fewer than 4,000 voters overall ended up changing their party registration.
At his rally in Portsmouth, the former president also took issue with laws that allow New Hampshire voters who have not registered to vote before to register on Election Day at their polling place if they show proof of residency.
No one knows exactly how high the turnout of independent voters will be, but interest in the contest is high.
Mike Dennehy, who ran John McCain’s 2000 and 2008 campaigns in New Hampshire, noted that McCain won New Hampshire in 2008 in large part because of his support among independents — after his campaign was written off as dead. He argued that Haley needs to focus all of her energy in the final days turning out independent voters.
“There’s just — nothing left. She has no other option,” he said, noting that many Republicans have made up their minds about Trump. “She’s not going to magically get Republicans to vote. You have to run with your strengths, and the only opportunity for movement is independent voters,” he said.
But the common theme among many independents here flocking to Haley is exhaustion with Trump’s bombastic style and his legal dramas.
Jim Tollner, a 65-year-old independent from Nashua who works in the health-care industry, sat in the front row of Haley’s Wednesday morning event and said he is leaning toward the former United Nations ambassador. He is deeply opposed to both Trump and Biden, whom he does not believe is “up to the job.”
“I just want to find someone who can find some middle ground and has the ability to work with people and not make a scene every day,” Tollner said. “Every day you’ve got to buckle up to see what he’s going to say,” he said of Trump. “He’s not presidential, and I’m looking for someone who can carry themselves as a leader of the country and not embarrass us.”
Emily Guskin and Scott Clement contributed to this report.