January 24, 2024 - 6:00pm

Nikki Haley has reason to celebrate. Despite losing the New Hampshire primary by 11 points, she became the first woman to win a county during a Republican presidential primary. She outperformed polls, which said she would lose by nearly 20 points.

Yet, most notably for Haley, she won big among critical demographics that Donald Trump and Joe Biden require to capture the White House in November.

Exit polls showed Haley won among college graduates, non-religious voters, independents, retirees, voters opposed to a nationwide abortion ban, and voters who think Biden legitimately won in 2020. She also won a third of voters who call themselves MAGA Republicans.

While critics correctly point out that those aren’t voters who make up the Republican Party’s base, they’re also not the current base of the Democratic Party. Those demographics helped hand Trump the presidency in 2016, only to push against him four years later.

A study of the 2020 election from Pew Research found that Trump lost ground from 2016 to 2020 with many of the same people who make up the Haley coalition. During that period, Trump lost 10 points with independents, five points with voters over the age of 65, three points with college graduates, and two with non-religious voters.

And for all the issues in which the Republican base is out of step with the average voter — such as abortion and the legitimacy of the 2020 election — Haley appeals to those who live outside of the conservative bubble. These were the kinds of voters who refused to support Trump-aligned candidates in the 2022 midterms throughout the country. They’re also the same kind of voters who aren’t all that excited to support Biden for another four years.

That’s not a big enough coalition to win the Republican nomination, but it is big enough to flip tight races in key swing states.

Many of these kinds of voters who cast their ballots for Haley in New Hampshire can be found in more affluent, secular, and college-educated parts of this country, including the collar counties outside of Philadelphia, the WOW counties in Wisconsin outside of Milwaukee, and the suburbs of Charlotte, Dallas, and Detroit.

Democrats are already seeing this much faster than Republicans. Rep. Chris Pappas from New Hampshire was on MSNBC the night of the election, reiterating the importance of Democrats reaching out to Haley voters. Meanwhile, Trump continued to call Haley “bird brain” and attacked his own former Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Truth Social for telling him to act like the presumptive nominee and reach out to Haley voters.

Despite all the crowing from Team Trump about how these voters shouldn’t count in the Republican primary, they count when it comes to the general election, and there are millions of them. A majority of them voted for Mitt Romney and Donald Trump in 2016 — in part because of their intense dislike for Hillary Clinton.

Fox News Voter Analysis showed that 46% of New Hampshire residents who voted in the Republican primary would be dissatisfied if Trump were the nominee, with 35% saying they would refuse to vote for him in the general election.

Trump cannot afford to come out of the primary with a third of the electorate refusing to vote for him in the general. And yet, if Biden bleeds youth, black, and Muslim voters as some polls suggest, he cannot afford not to make efforts to win over Haley voters, even if it costs him some of his more progressive base.

Who’s afraid of Nikki Haley? Not many people, but her voters may have the ultimate say in electing our next president.

Ryan James Girdusky is a writer and political consultant based in New York City. He’s the author of “They’re Not Listening: How the Elites Created the Nationalist Populist Revolution.”