To beat Trump, Nikki Haley tries to expand coalition, and fast
Republican presidential contender Nikki Haley has risen in opinion polls in recent months largely on the back of college-educated, affluent, suburban professionals, many of whom have tired of Donald Trump's caustic rhetoric and legal troubles.
If the former South Carolina governor is to ascend any further and have a real shot at beating Trump in the 2024 Republican nominating contest, supporters and opponents say, she must expand that coalition - and quickly.
That means pulling in more voters who live in rural areas, are middle- or working-class, or lack college degrees, according to eight pollsters and strategists interviewed by Reuters. Some are affiliated with the Haley nomination effort and some are independent.
Ahead of the Republican nominating kick-off in Iowa on Jan. 15, Haley has been traveling to Trump-friendly territory in the state, including a December campaign swing that took her through a deeply conservative area along its northern border.
She also launched a "Farmers for Nikki" coalition in November, while her campaign and its allies have blanketed the airwaves with ads in rural areas in an effort to build her name recognition and broaden her appeal.
In a barn with hand-hewn wooden beams in Spirit Lake and at a Clear Lake restaurant where a mounted bison head loomed large, Haley spoke this month about the small South Carolina town where she grew up that had only two traffic lights.
"The area I grew up in was much like Iowa," Haley told an audience in the town of Sioux Center. "I grew up playing in a cotton field and in a dairy farm."
She talked at length about shortcomings in the public healthcare system for America's veterans, which caters disproportionately to rural Americans. While she has stepped up her criticisms of Trump in recent months, saying that his management style is too chaotic and divisive to be effective, she did not bring up the former president much on the trail.
Trump leads his Republican rivals in Iowa with about 50% support, polls show. Haley, who was U.N. ambassador under Trump, is in a close third place behind Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Her numbers have moved up in recent weeks while DeSantis, once seen as a serious threat to Trump, has faltered.
Les Hardy, a truck driver at a local chick hatchery, braved bone-cold conditions to attend Haley's town hall in Clear Lake. He arrived undecided about which candidate to back, but said he was considering Trump.
After the event, Hardy said he was leaning toward Haley thanks to her straightforward answers to audience questions and what he described as her "down home" manner.
Most of his co-workers, however, stood behind the former president. "Trump is definitely number 1 in the majority of their eyes," Hardy said. "But number 2, it's anybody's race."