How Trump’s Crushing Primary Triumph Masked Quiet Weaknesses


Donald J. Trump’s daunting level of Republican support helped him vanquish a field of presidential primary rivals in under two months.

But he still hasn’t won over one small but crucial group of voters — the men and women who cost him a second term in 2020.

His overwhelming primary victories, including more than a dozen on Tuesday that pushed Nikki Haley from the race, have masked his long-term problems with voters who live in the suburbs, those who view themselves as moderates or independents, and Republicans who backed Joseph R. Biden Jr. in 2020.

On Tuesday, Mr. Trump lost suburban precincts in Virginia despite carrying the state by a staggering 28 percentage points. In North Carolina, his 51-point victory was tempered by much narrower margins in the highly educated and affluent suburbs around Charlotte and Raleigh.

While many Republican strategists anticipate that most Haley voters will eventually support the party’s nominee, Mr. Trump’s failure to bring these voters into the fold less than four years after they helped block him from a second term in the White House raises pressing questions about what he can do in the next eight months to win them over.

He has not seemed especially concerned about this challenge, recently threatening to excommunicate his rival’s donors from his political movement. On Wednesday, he posted on social media that Ms. Haley “got TROUNCED last night, in record setting fashion,” even as he invited “all of the Haley supporters to join the greatest movement in the history of our Nation.”

Mr. Trump’s inability to broaden his support stands among the biggest threats to his party’s efforts to reclaim the presidency. Notably, Ms. Haley appeared to be a stronger November candidate: Polls including a recent New York Times/Siena College survey suggested that she would have had an easier time unseating Mr. Biden.

But Republican voters aren’t resisting Mr. Trump’s electoral risks. They’re running toward them.

Throughout the Republican primary race and in this week’s Super Tuesday contests, Mr. Trump amassed blowout winning margins. Voters rallied around him even as he accumulated 91 felony charges in four criminal cases, and looked past their party’s disappointing elections under his leadership in 2018, 2020 and 2022.

His victory last month in Iowa, the first nominating contest, was declared before many caucusgoers had even weighed in, a fitting metaphor for the air of inevitability he proudly carried into the race. The Republican primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina drew record turnout, thanks mostly to Trump voters, and he swept every Super Tuesday state except Vermont, where Ms. Haley won thanks to the tiny state’s large percentage of college-educated voters.

“That’s the big lesson from the primary states so far: There are a significant number of Republican voters who wanted a choice in this primary process, and they are people the former president has to win over by the time November comes around,” said Rob Godfrey, who served as a top aide to Ms. Haley when she was governor of South Carolina and as a senior adviser to Gov. Henry McMaster’s re-election campaign in 2022. “He can do it if he runs a disciplined campaign on policy and not personality, and one that focuses on the perceived failures of his opponent.”

Mr. Trump’s campaign expects to focus heavily on turning out supporters, but will look for ways to reach out to disaffected Republicans. The former president has been looking to again calibrate his position on abortion rights, with Republicans still feeling the backlash of the overturning of Roe v. Wade by a conservative Supreme Court majority he helped usher in.

Mr. Biden, for his part, is struggling to hold his winning 2020 coalition together. He is significantly less popular than he was four years ago, and polls show that Democrats are skeptical of his second campaign.

Just 83 percent of voters who backed Mr. Biden in 2020 said they would do so again this year, a stark contrast from the 97 percent of Trump voters planning to stick with the former president, according to the Times/Siena poll released last week.

Mr. Biden’s age, his support for Israel in its war in Gaza and lingering economic unease have chipped away at his support among young Democrats, Black voters and progressives.

“We can learn a little bit from these primaries — for one, Trump has re-energized his base,” said Adam Geller, a longtime Republican pollster who has worked for past Trump campaigns and super PACs. “But beyond that it remains to be seen, because all the public polls show that moderate general-election voters aren’t ready to give a bouquet of roses to either Trump or Biden quite yet.”

But while many of Mr. Biden’s challenges revolve around policy, Mr. Trump faces more persistent doubts about his personality and temperament that have trailed him for years.

Cory Barnett, 48, a physician in Nashville, Tenn., who usually backs Republicans, said he would rather see a second term for Mr. Biden than for Mr. Trump. He voted on Tuesday for Ms. Haley even though he knew the former president was on a clear path to the nomination.

“I actually feel like I’m throwing away my vote today,” he said. “It’s just a personal statement, I guess.”

Mr. Trump has repelled suburban moderates since his takeover of the Republican Party in 2016. He has yet to draw them back.

In the suburbs, Mr. Trump split the vote with Ms. Haley in Iowa and New Hampshire, even though he won both states with ease. He carried the suburbs in South Carolina, but by a smaller margin than his overall victory in the state.

Those trends continued on Tuesday in Virginia, where Ms. Haley won suburban precincts by 1.8 percentage points despite losing the state by 28 points.

In North Carolina, where Mr. Trump scored an easy victory by 74 percent to 23 percent, he finished only seven points ahead in Mecklenburg County, home to Charlotte and its suburbs. Ms. Haley also cut heavily into his edge in Durham, Orange and Wake counties, highly educated, affluent suburban areas where Democrats see an opportunity to compete in the state.

“Trump can’t expand his reach beyond the MAGA base,” two of Mr. Biden’s top campaign aides, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon and Julie Chávez Rodríguez, wrote in a memo on Wednesday. “In exit poll after exit poll, he has consolidated support only among the most conservative voters.”

In Minnesota, where Mr. Trump won by 40 points, Ms. Haley finished within 10 points of him in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, which include Minneapolis, St. Paul and the first ring of the cities’ suburbs.

Mr. Trump’s loss in 2020 was driven in part by independent voters, who soured on him after helping him win his 2016 campaign. The most recent Times/Siena poll showed independent voters split, 42 percent to 42 percent, in a rematch between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, but primary results signal persistent struggles for the former president with these voters.

In New Hampshire in January, Ms. Haley won independents by 58 percent to 39 percent, according to exit polls. On Tuesday, she narrowly won independents in Virginia by 49 percent to 48 percent.

Lillard Teasley, 60, a small-business owner in Nashville who calls himself a conservative, said he was not supporting Mr. Trump on Tuesday but suggested that could change in November.

“I’m anybody but Biden,” he said.

A small yet significant share of Republicans continue to express concerns about Mr. Trump’s criminal cases, which remain pending after several financially damaging setbacks for him in civil suits.

CNN exit polls on Tuesday found that one in five Republican primary voters in California and nearly one in three in North Carolina said Mr. Trump would not be fit for the presidency if he were convicted of a crime. An overwhelming majority of these voters backed Ms. Haley on Tuesday.

“There are a lot of Republicans and independents voting against Trump, even though they know he’s going to win,” said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican pollster. “That tells me there is a real weakness in the party for Trump.”

The Super Tuesday results highlighted other softness for Mr. Trump. He lost to Ms. Haley among Republican primary voters in Virginia who oppose a nationwide abortion ban, an issue that has driven independents and even some moderate Republicans to Democrats, exit polls show.

The same polls found that she also won Republican primary voters in California, North Carolina and Virginia who said Mr. Biden had fairly won the 2020 election and those who said undocumented immigrants should be give a chance to apply for legal status. A majority of the party disagreed that Mr. Biden’s victory was legitimate and preferred deportation as an immigration solution. Mr. Trump carried both groups by overwhelming margins.

Republican strategists expect most of the party’s primary voters to support Mr. Trump in the general election, pointing to exit polls that found that 4 in 10 of Ms. Haley’s voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina had backed Mr. Biden in 2020.

That data point, however, could also underscore Mr. Trump’s weaknesses.

In 2020, roughly 9 percent of Republicans said they had voted for someone other than Mr. Trump for president. That was about double the share of Democrats who said they had backed someone other than Mr. Biden in that election.

On Tuesday, roughly one in three Republican primary voters in California, North Carolina and Virginia told pollsters they would not commit to supporting the party’s nominee in November.

Roughly three-fourths of those voters backed Ms. Haley.

Jamie McGee contributed reporting.

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