College-educated voters aren't saving Nikki Haley — yet

Despite her surge in the primary polls, she is still well behind Trump.

January 10, 2024, 4:40 PM

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley is having a moment. At 11 percent nationally and 30 percent in New Hampshire, she is polling higher than ever in the Republican presidential primary and has arguably eclipsed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as the main alternative to former President Donald Trump. And, not surprisingly, it looks like the group of Republicans who were slowest to accept Trumpism are driving Haley's rise: college-educated voters.

We dove into the crosstabs of Republican primary polls to identify what demographic groups are leading the Haley coalition. At the top of the list are college-educated Republicans, a fifth of whom would choose Haley for president, according to a basic national polling average.* Haley's next-strongest group of supporters are men, who — perhaps contrary to conventional wisdom — are more likely than women to support Haley.

Not only are college-educated voters the most likely of the groups we analyzed to support Haley, but their support also seems to be growing at the fastest pace. Haley's support among college-educated Republicans has doubled since October. Her support among voters without a college degree has grown, but the size of the increase is so small, and we have such a small sample size of polls, that it's hard to know if the increase is statistically significant.**

It's not exactly surprising that college-educated voters are driving Haley's rise in the polls. "I imagine her candidacy is for people who've ever had to sit through, like, a chamber of commerce meeting or a realtors conference," said conservative columnist Scott Jennings, laughing. Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist at Rutgers University and the director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics, expressed a similar sentiment. "Just kind of objectively, you can step back and say, 'That makes sense,'" Dittmar said. On abortion, for instance, Haley has called for "compassion" and has deflected questions about a federal ban. And when it comes to foreign policy, Haley's positions are closer to those of the traditional Republican Party — including supporting Ukrainewhile other candidates preach isolationism.

But what's harder to explain is Haley's sharp increase in support among men. To be clear, the idea that women support female candidates just because of their gender is pretty much bunk. Haley has explicitly said that she doesn't believe in "glass ceilings" or "identity politics." While she's occasionally leaned into the fact that she's the lone woman in the Republican field to draw comparisons with her competitors, she isn't gearing her campaign toward women specifically or highlighting the historic nature of a woman potentially winning the GOP presidential nomination. But it's also possible that the gender gap in Haley's support is just statistical noise. The difference between her male and female support is a couple of percentage points, and it's hard to accurately measure such small subgroups of voters.

However, even as Haley's support has grown among these types of Republicans, she's still far from Trump's levels of support. Instead, Haley has found herself on par with DeSantis, who started the cycle in a much stronger position but has steadily declined. Even among college-educated voters, where Haley has experienced the greatest growth, she's trailing Trump by about 30 points nationally and is only ahead of DeSantis by about 5.

While Haley's support grew among all of the demographic groups we analyzed, her support remains low among evangelicals.*** At the outset of their campaigns, Trump and DeSantis were garnering roughly similar support from evangelicals (39 percent and 33 percent, respectively), with Haley barely even a footnote. But since then, Trump has claimed an iron grip on the demographic: His support among evangelicals reached about 70 percent, while DeSantis has fallen to around 10 percent. While Haley has made small inroads with these voters, she has certainly not captured much of DeSantis's falloff.

That's in large part because the nature of evangelicals has changed. Since 2016, newly identifying evangelicals are more likely than not to be Trump supporters. This has pushed the group as a whole further to the right: In the 2020 general election, white evangelicals voted for Trump at an even higher rate than in 2016. That's less due to Trump's personal piety and more because he speaks to the growing share of the population for whom "evangelical" is more of a cultural label than a religious one.

Many who now identify as evangelical are less interested in a president who follows the tenets of their faith than they are in one who will stand up for their chosen interests. In a November poll from HarrisX for the Deseret News, 67 percent of Republicans who agreed that Trump was religious said it was because he "defends people of faith in the U.S." Less than half said it was because he had a "strong moral compass."

That could be an issue for Haley when it comes to attracting more evangelicals to her camp. She's faced questions about her stance on abortion and accusations of pandering by converting to Christianity before running for governor of South Carolina. If evangelicals don't see her as sufficiently loyal to their cause, she could struggle to win over a critical mass of them.

Haley's relative weakness with evangelicals is especially problematic because they're so overrepresented among Iowa caucusgoers. In a Beacon Research/Shaw & Co. poll for Fox News conducted Dec. 14-18, nearly three in five Republicans who said that they'd "definitely'' participate in the caucus identified as white evangelicals.

However, in New Hampshire, Haley's numbers among college-educated voters are particularly high; in fact, she recently surpassed Trump among this demographic.

If Haley falls short of DeSantis in Iowa, she could still keep her momentum going with a strong performance in New Hampshire. And for both DeSantis and Haley, for now, "the goal is to keep the ball bouncing," Jennings said, even as Trump maintains a strong lead. But even if Haley and DeSantis can register some support in the early states, it's going to get much harder afterward, especially in the more heavily evangelical, less college-educated Southern and Midwestern states that follow.

"So even if you kept the ball bouncing," Jennings said, "now you're getting ready to bounce it on a bunch of spikes."


*We're not using our usual Republican primary polling averages here; instead, we've calculated the line of best fit as a loess curve for each candidate and crosstab. In cases where pollsters split college-educated voters into those with a bachelor's degree and those with a postgraduate degree, we include only those with a bachelor's degree.

**This includes crosstabs of Republicans with a high-school-level, a "high school or less"-level education or without a college degree, depending on how each pollster presents its data. Only one crosstab from each survey question is included. If a survey includes multiple possible subgroups that meet our definitions, we always include the largest available group.

***We include crosstabs of evangelical Republicans as well as white evangelical Republicans, as the population of nonwhite evangelical Republicans is quite small.