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In a Joe Biden-Donald Trump rematch, who gets the Nikki Haley voters?

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

It did not go unnoticed that Nikki Haley did not endorse former President Donald Trump when she suspended her campaign yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: It is now up to Donald Trump to earn the votes of those in our party and beyond it who did not support him, and I hope he does that. At its best, politics is about bringing people into your cause, not turning them away. And our conservative cause badly needs more people.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so what does Trump need to do to win over Haley's supporters? Joining us now is GOP strategist Alex Conant. Alex, so, in a Biden-Trump rematch, who gets those leftover Haley voters?

ALEX CONANT: I think that's the biggest question in American politics right now. I think, look, those voters in 2016 - I'm very familiar with those voters because a lot of those voters - they voted for the guy I supported in 2016, who was Marco Rubio. And in 2016, they ended up going out and voting against Hillary Clinton, voting for Trump. And I think that was decisive in that election. But those voters don't like Donald Trump very much, and they sat out in 2018, 2020, which is why Trump lost and again in 2022, which is why Republicans underperformed. I think if they go out and vote against Joe Biden, if they vote for Trump this fall, Trump's going to win. But if they sit out again or vote for Trump, that's going to be decisive.

MARTÍNEZ: So if they don't like Trump, how does Trump persuade them to like him enough to vote for him?

CONANT: You know, I talked to a lot of Nikki Haley voters yesterday, and every one of them said that they were planning on sitting out the election right now. And I asked them, well, what could get you to the polls? What could get you to go out and vote Republican or vote for Donald Trump? And it came down to Joe Biden. You know, if they thought that Joe Biden was more dangerous than Donald Trump, they would sort of grit their teeth and go out and vote. But they're not convinced right now. Right now, they don't like either of the candidates. And they said that they were either planning to write in somebody or not vote at all.

MARTÍNEZ: Does Trump need those Haley voters to win?

CONANT: Yeah, absolutely. Look, I think this is going to be a very close election. It's likely to come down to tens of thousands of votes across five or six states. It's literally true in this case. I think every vote counts. And if you have these soft Republicans - these are Republicans that live in the suburbs, independent voters - they're the ones that decide presidential races in America. And yeah, Trump absolutely needs them to turn out or Biden is going to win again.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Well, I guess the question is, like, does he need them to vote for him as much as he needs them not to vote for Joe Biden?

CONANT: No, is the answer. I think a vote against Joe Biden...

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

CONANT: I think a vote against Joe Biden is going to be the same as a vote for Donald Trump. I don't think anybody in America is going out to vote for - I don't think I should say anybody, but I don't think a lot of people are going out to vote for their candidate this time around. You look at these...

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

CONANT: ...Candidates' approval ratings, people are going to go vote against Joe Biden, or they're going to go vote against Donald Trump. And I expect in the State of the Union tonight, I think Joe Biden's going to do everything he can to paint a picture of what America would look like under a Donald Trump presidency, trying to scare his base, trying to scare independent voters. And every time Donald Trump opens up his mouth, he's going to be attacking Joe Biden, making the case for why you got to go out there and vote against Joe Biden.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, that's what it feels like, Alex, that people aren't voting for people as much as they're voting against someone. I'm wondering, though, there's some U.S. Senate races where Trump-supporting GOP candidates could court Haley supporters. Kari Lake in Arizona has openly said that she is going after Haley voters. Could it work the same way for these down-ballot races?

CONANT: Yeah, absolutely. Look, those same Nikki Haley voters that I was talking to yesterday, they said they don't want to vote in the presidential race, but they definitely want to vote in the down-ballot races. They see the importance of the Senate, they see the importance of the House, both of which are going to be up for grabs this fall. So even if they don't want to vote in the presidential race, they're very open to voting in the Senate races. And so I'm not at all surprised that that somebody like Kari Lake, who's going to be in a very competitive race in Arizona, is doing everything she can to reach out to Nikki Haley voters.

MARTÍNEZ: So now that she's suspended her campaign, what was the point of Nikki Haley staying in the race as long as she did, when all the signs seemed to point that eventually we were going to get exactly where we're at?

CONANT: I think she wanted to make a point that the party isn't as united as Donald Trump says it is, that there are still limited government traditional conservatives in the party. About 30 to 40% of the party is still limited government conservatives. And I think she made that point. Now the onus is on Trump to win those votes if he wants to be elected president again.

MARTÍNEZ: Alex Conant is a founding partner of the political consulting firm Firehouse Strategies. Alex, thanks.

CONANT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.