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Nikki Haley doesn't endorse Trump as she suspends her presidential campaign

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Nikki Haley's announcement that she is suspending her campaign for president did not come as a surprise. She has trailed front-runner Donald Trump in all but two Republican primary contests so far. But Haley did manage to sway some Republican voters away from Trump and recruit some independents and Democrats, too. As she ended her campaign on a stage in South Carolina today, Haley did not endorse Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: I have always been a conservative Republican and always supported the Republican nominee. But on this question, as she did on so many others, Margaret Thatcher provided some good advice when she said, quote, "never just follow the crowd. Always make up your own mind."

SHAPIRO: So with Haley out of the race, her supporters will have to make up their minds. Will they support the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump? Joining me now is NPR political correspondent Sarah McCammon and NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Good to have you both here.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: Sarah, you've been following the Haley campaign from the earliest days. As she announced its suspension, what did she say today?

MCCAMMON: Well, as we heard, Ari, you know, Haley is out of the race, and she's not promising to back the presumptive nominee, Donald Trump. She and other candidates who participated in Republican National Committee debates had promised that they would do so, but she's indicating she may not feel bound to that pledge. She said that more than once now. And today, Haley had a warning for Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

MCCAMMON: And this idea of widening the tent, bringing people together, that's been a big part of Haley's argument throughout the campaign.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about who those Haley voters are.

MCCAMMON: Yeah. You know, they're often Republicans, as you might imagine, who want an alternative to Trump. When I was here in South Carolina, where I am today, but when I was here a couple of weeks ago, ahead of their primary, I met Lynn Ward and her husband. They're from New Jersey. They were here vacationing in South Carolina and had decided to come see Haley campaign in a city called Beaufort along the South Carolina coast. Ward says they've supported Trump in the past, but they don't like the idea of voting for him again.

LYNN WARD: We're kind of sick of Donald Trump. We've had enough of his antics. We will vote for Donald Trump if he's the only other choice, but we don't want that to happen.

MCCAMMON: And then there are independents like Josie Schmidt, who I met last weekend at a Haley rally in Richmond, Va. She's not a fan of Trump, but she's kind of a fiscal conservative. She says she wrote in a third-party candidate in 2016. And in 2020, she voted for Biden, but she hasn't felt good about it.

JOSIE SCHMIDT: In my opinion, Biden is way, way out on the outer edge of what makes sense fiscally, you know, all this money he wants to forgive. I have a son that owes $40,000, I think, in student loans. I'd love for that to be forgiven, but does that make sense when we're $34 trillion in debt?

MCCAMMON: And Schmidt told me that if she had to choose again between President Biden and former President Trump, she'd probably write in Nikki Haley.

SHAPIRO: Well, Franco, let's bring you in here. Speaking to Sarah's point, what will Trump have to do to appeal to Haley voters? What are his challenges?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, he's got a number of challenges. I mean, Trump's long done better with the more conservative wing of the party while, you know, struggling with the more moderate faction, you know, especially among college-educated and suburban Republicans. And for months, Trump has been, you know, attacking Haley, calling her supporters essentially Democrats, radical Democrats and globalists.

And if you look at the exit polls from yesterday, from Super Tuesday, these are voters who largely believe Biden legitimately won the election in 2020. And they're also concerned about Trump's legal troubles. And in key states, those findings show that in North Carolina and Virginia, the majority of Haley's supporters, when asked, would not even commit to supporting the Republican nominee. That's got to be eye-opening for the Trump campaign.

SHAPIRO: So what does this divide in the GOP tell us about the state of the party today?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, it shows the very real vulnerabilities that Trump has as he tries to pivot to the general election and unite the party. I mean, he's going to need those voters. In states like Arizona and Georgia, the difference four years ago was only around 12,000 votes. In Wisconsin it was 20,000 votes. I mean, these are extremely thin margins in the battleground states. And I do want to be clear, many of these voters are going to return home to the party, but it doesn't make much to, you know, make a difference. And, you know, I spoke with Jon McHenry. He's a Republican pollster. He said some of these disaffected voters may look even elsewhere.

JON MCHENRY: I've been pretty dismissive of the third-party movement in past races, but this is a contest where 70% of the voters say that they don't like the matchup that we have and that they would prefer for neither of these two to be president.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, Biden, of course, has his own challenges. But again, it really just speaks to how every vote is going to count.

SHAPIRO: Sarah, how does that fit with what you have heard from voters?

MCCAMMON: It's right in line with what I've heard. I've also heard a lot of voters, Haley supporters, talk about third parties or write-in candidates. You know, people say, especially those inclined to support Haley, that they feel like they have no political home. Just one example - I met Rob Stommel at his polling station in Virginia Beach, where I was yesterday. He's a longtime Republican, but said he voted for Haley because he's feeling desperate. And he doesn't want to vote for Trump again, so he's struggling with the idea of another Trump-Biden matchup.

ROB STOMMEL: I don't know. It's very hard to say. I vowed myself not to vote for Trump, so that puts me in a bad situation. And I consider myself relatively conservative, and I feel like the Republican Party is just going way too far.

MCCAMMON: At the same time, he worries about what he sees on the left. He says he's 81 years old. He's also concerned about the candidates' ages, another issue that Haley's often highlighted. Not a fan of President Biden, says he disagrees with him on immigration, for example. But overall, this campaign and the way it's shaping up seems to be motivating voters to vote against the candidate they dislike at least as much as for the one they do like.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Sarah McCammon and Franco Ordoñez with just 243 days to go until Election Day. Thank you both.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

MCCAMMON: 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.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.