By Gram Slattery and James Oliphant
PORTSMOUTH/KEENE, New Hampshire (Reuters) – Tom Mita, a 45-year-old non-profit worker in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is not registered with a political party. That makes him the perfect target for Nikki Haley, who needs independent voters for a chance to prevail in this pivotal primary state.
Mita is thinking about voting for Haley, he told a pair of door knockers who were canvassing on behalf of the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations outside his suburban home on Saturday, but he isn’t completely sold on her candidacy.
He wants Haley, who has so far spared Donald Trump from some lines of attack, to go after him more aggressively. He considers Trump a threat to democracy for trying to overturn his 2020 election loss to Democratic President Joe Biden. If Haley pulls her punches, he may vote in the Democratic primary instead.
“It’s really about stopping Trump,” said Mita, standing outside his door, hands stuffed in his pockets, on a 19-degree Fahrenheit day. “Best scenario would be if she comes out and says that she won’t endorse Trump for president.”
Voters like Mita, who are unaffiliated with either major party, will be crucial to Haley if she is to pull off an upset and beat Trump in New Hampshire, which holds its primary on Tuesday. She likely needs a victory here or a very close second to survive, following her third place finish behind Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis last week in Iowa.
Voters untied to either party are the state’s most important bloc. They account for 343,000 of all registered voters, eclipsing both the number of registered Republicans and Democrats, according to data from the secretary of state.
Unaffiliated voters are allowed to participate in the primary of their choice. About 30% are effectively Republicans, 35% align with Democrats, and 35% are truly independent, estimates Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center and a political science professor.
Given Trump’s stranglehold on the Republican base, Haley will need to secure the support of 70% to 75% of unaffiliated voters in order to win the state, he said.
“That’s never happened before,” said Smith. “That’s a really tall order.”
While Haley has closed the gap with Trump in New Hampshire, the former president retains a comfortable lead of 14 percentage points according to an average of polls compiled by website FiveThirtyEight.
SUPER PAC BOOST
Trump has in recent days sought to portray Haley’s gains in state polls as improper because they reflect growing support among independents. He has also falsely claimed registered Democrats would be allowed to vote in the Republican primary.
Chris Ager, chair of the state Republican party, noted that Trump himself benefited from the backing of independent voters when he won New Hampshire in 2016, reviving his campaign after a loss in Iowa. Ager thinks Trump will win but gives Haley an outside shot.
“Nikki Haley could win New Hampshire,” he told a media roundtable hosted by Bloomberg in Manchester on Saturday. “The undecideds can break very late.”
Haley’s bid could be boosted by a super PAC formed to persuade right-leaning independents in New Hampshire to support her. The group, Independents Moving the Needle, has been airing a number of supportive ads on local television.
One of the committee’s founders, Jonathan Bush, told Reuters the group is trying to appeal to “rational Americans” who want to move on from Trump and Biden.
“We’re excited at the traction,” said Bush, a cousin of former President George W. Bush who helped launch the effort after seeing Haley speak in person. Bush e-mailed his contact list and set up an online fundraiser for Haley that netted more than $1 million, he said.
Independent voters, Bush said, are the fastest way for Haley to “get in the ring” against Trump and make it a two-candidate race.
At campaign stops on Saturday, Haley spoke of her appeal to a wide swath of voters, referring to a new Marist College poll that showed her beating Biden in New Hampshire by three percentage points while Trump would lose by seven points.
Angelika Fretzen, 54, an independent voter from Peterborough, New Hampshire, was sold on the pitch. “She’s a great alternative to Donald Trump,” Fretzen said after attending a rally on Saturday. “I think it’s time for a new generation, and I think a lot of independents of my age group feel that way.”
Carrying out the door knocking was Americans for Prosperity Action, a super PAC mainly funded by billionaire Charles Koch. Of the eight interactions with voters observed by Reuters on Saturday, the canvassers engaged with four Republicans, three independents and one person who did not disclose his affiliation.
Mita and another independent said they were leaning toward Haley while the third plans to vote for Trump. The Republicans were split between Trump and Haley, two to two.
One Republican, Chris Jay, gave a reason for considering Haley that meshed with Mita’s rationale. Jay, a 57-year-old lumber broker, said he wanted Haley to go after Trump more.
“I think Trump needs to be put in his place a little bit,” he said.
(Reporting by Gram Slattery and Nathan Frandino in Portsmouth, James Oliphant in Keene and Nathan Layne in Manchester, New Hampshire; Editing by Daniel Wallis)