March 30, 2024 - 5:00pm

As he turns to the general election, Joe Biden has a message for Nikki Haley’s voters: “there is a place for you in my campaign.” Biden’s statement kicks off an advertising campaign that is due to hit suburban zip codes in key swing states.

Suburbanites have been a crucial swing bloc in recent elections. In many of the states that flipped from Trump in 2016 to Biden to 2020, suburban voters made the difference. In Waukesha County (part of the Milwaukee suburbs), Trump’s victory margin slipped from 63,000 votes in 2016 to 56,000 votes in 2020. He ended up losing the state as a whole by 20,000 votes, so simply matching his 2016 performance in that single suburban county could erase a portion of that deficit. Michigan, Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania tell a similar story: suburban counties either drifted less Republican or outright flipped Democratic.

Weak Republican performance in the suburbs also played a role in the 2022 midterms, particularly because highly-degreed voters have an outsized impact in non-presidential years. Republican candidates who did well in the suburbs (such as Glenn Youngkin in the 2021 Virginia governor’s race) instead outperformed expectations.

While Trump’s brash persona and promises of retribution may pack his rallies, they also repel many suburbanites. As the primary season wore on, Haley increasingly pitched her campaign toward those disaffected Republicans and independents — as well as the “resistance”-aligned Democrats who relish yet another opportunity to vote against Donald Trump. Her successive defeats indicate that this was not a strategy to gain traction in a one-on-one race against the Republican.

However, Haley’s strong performance in many suburban and urban areas may indicate a potential soft spot for Trump in the general election. Contrary to the spin of Trump allies, not all of Haley’s voters were simply Democrats seeking to sow turmoil in the primary. Haley got 23% of the vote in the North Carolina primary, and the exit poll found that 89% of primary voters there had voted in a Republican presidential primary before.

It wasn’t just Democratic-aligned voters pulling the lever for Haley, then; 20% of those polled said they would be dissatisfied with Trump as the nominee. The many months from now to November will give time for some of those primary wounds to heal, and no doubt many of those Haley voters will eventually come around to Trump. But Trump also won the Tar Heel State by under 1.5 points in 2020, so even a small defection of suburban voters could tip it toward Biden.

The concerted effort to brand the GOP as the “Party of Trump” seems likely to add to challenges facing Republicans in the suburbs. However, Biden’s attempt to court Haley voters may exacerbate certain tensions in his own coalition too. Some press reports indicate that Biden’s campaign may try to reach out to Haley voters on foreign policy.

While Haley’s position of maximal support for Ukraine is popular with much of the Democratic base, she is also a major proponent of supporting Israel in its war against Hamas. It is precisely this conflict in the Middle East that has divided the Democratic Party, and Biden’s efforts to appease an increasingly Israel-sceptical Democratic base might turn many Haley voters off from him. Conversely, doubling down on support for Israel might enrage some progressive activists.

On economics, Haley broke from Trump in trumpeting the need for entitlement reform. But Biden has positioned his whole campaign against entitlement reform. The current president will therefore struggle to bring in Haley voters for whom her Reagan-style economics were appealing.

This policy mismatch partly explains why Biden’s overture to Haley voters has focused on vibes so far — stringing together clips of Trump criticising Haley and boasting that he does not need her voters. His message to these voters is also likely to highlight culture-war issues (particularly abortion) and threats to “our democracy.” But there’s also a risk that, if he focuses only on elite anti-Trump sentiment, Biden could be repeating the mistakes of the Hillary Clinton campaign.

In some ways, Biden’s strategy is the inverse of Trump’s. While many Republicans have focused on trying to peel away working-class voters from the Democratic coalition, Biden is instead targeting the upscale suburbanites who had formerly leaned Republican. If a working-class realignment has at times been a challenge for Republicans, trying to capture an ever-larger slice of the affluent might pose its own headaches for Democrats.

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.