A key swing group is up for grabs in battleground Pennsylvania: Nikki Haley’s voters (2024)

ERIE, Pa. — Richard Speicher and Mary Gensheimer are lifelong Republicans and lifelong residents of Erie County. A yard sign that was, until recently, on their front lawn in their suburban home displayed the political homelessness they feel in their party and their community.

The couple had put up a “Republican voters against Trump” sign, only to find it missing one evening when they returned from dinner. Speicher and Gensheimer say they aren’t sure if it was a prank or a neighbor sending a message about their political views. Regardless, they decided to send a message of their own in Pennsylvania’s primary this spring, voting for Nikki Haley — even though she had dropped out of the race weeks prior.

“Trump is not a representative candidate of the Republican Party. He might be what they represent now, but as lifelong Republicans, we both come from a much different tradition,” Speicher said. “The only choice available was Nikki Haley.”

“I think the hope was that there’d be enough people that at least indicated their dissatisfaction with a candidate to send some kind of message even though she wasn’t in the race,” Gensheimer added.

The couple represents a critical bloc of voters — in this key county in a battleground state and across the country — who are up for grabs heading into what’s expected to be an extremely competitive general election. While many of these voters will ultimately come home and support the GOP ticket, others are weighing backing President Joe Biden — or casting another protest vote in November.

Haley garnered almost 20% of the vote in Erie County in Pennsylvania’s April presidential primary, six weeks after she ended her candidacy. That’s a warning sign for former President Donald Trump, given Erie’s bellwether status: the county voted for the winner of the state, and the presidency overall, the last four elections.

Statewide, Haley captured 16.4% of the vote, almost 159,000 votes in all in a state that Trump won by 44,000 votes in 2016 and Biden won by 80,000 votes in 2020.

Since then, Haley has said she will vote for Trump in November. But not all of her supporters are ready to go that far.

“I was disappointed. I was kind of hoping she would stand firm,” said an Erie voter named Kurt, who voted for Haley in the primary and asked that NBC News not use his last name to avoid backlash from his neighbors.

“I can’t envision a scenario where I would vote for President Trump,” he said. “For me, it’s really the character issues. I think it’s his erratic decision-making style, leadership style. And I think in many policy cases, he’s really not representing what would be traditional Republican or conservative values. It’s really more about him versus really traditional principles.”

“Right now, my vote would probably be between Biden and a protest vote,” Kurt, who voted for Biden in 2020, said.

Opportunity for Biden

The Biden campaign is ramping up its outreach to voters like Kurt in key battleground states. It has poured money into ads in which Trump is quoted as saying that he isn’t “sure we need too many” Haley supporters to come back into the fold.

“The folks who are Republicans that voted for Haley, they’re curious about voting for Biden. We have a lot of substantive stuff to have a conversation about,” a Biden Pennsylvania campaign adviser told NBC News. “We’re going to have honest, robust organizing efforts and earnest conversations with voters who may not agree with us on every issue, but agree with us on the fact that America is a democracy, and we can continue to hold on to values that unite us, not let some wannabe dictator throw it all away.”

According to a Biden official, the campaign is also building off its recent hire of Austin Weatherford, who was chief of staff to former Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., as its national Republican engagement director, planning an outreach program targeting GOP voters as the general election campaign heats up.

In addition to paid staffers, the campaign also points to grassroots efforts to swing Republican voters to Biden, enlisting help from groups like the “Haley Voters Working Group,” a group of Republicans who backed Haley in the primary.

“We’re going to communicate with these voters directly, ‘early and often,’ as they say, and we’re going to provide them with the messages that we think bring them over that last hurdle,” a Haley Voters Working Group official tells NBC News. “We’re not trying to make them Democrats. As far as we need to take it is for them to say, the things I don’t like about Donald Trump and things that cause me to cast a protest vote against in the Republican primary, are really important enough for me to take a hard look at the vote for the only practical alternative route.”

Searching for a third option

But for Dave Langdon, an Erie County voter who supported Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020, “nothing” could get him to vote for either candidate again in 2024. As of now, he plans to write in Haley on the November ballot.

“I assumed that Biden was going to be much more moderate than he is. But when he got into office, he became far left,” Langdon said. “And actually I was happy with what Trump did. I was happy with his policies. It’s just the excess crap that went along with it.”

Langdon said he believed many of his neighbors who are skeptical of Trump will eventually vote for him, citing inflation and immigration as the reasons.

“There are a lot of people that don’t like Trump, but they’re right wing, and they have to vote for him because they will not vote for Biden,” he said.

Dan, who spoke with NBC News at an Erie diner and similarly declined to provide his last name for fear of backlash, is one of those voters. He supported Haley in the primary, but is already resigned to casting a ballot for Trump this fall, saying he can’t convince himself to vote for a Democrat.

“I voted for Haley because I’m sick of the chaos. But as a Republican, I just can’t vote for Biden. I trust Trump’s policies more,” he said.

The Trump campaign is counting on there being more voters like him.

“The Biden team is focused on process because Crooked Joe is weak, failed, and dishonest. The American people are begging him to focus on strengthening the economy, lowering costs, closing the border, and unleashing American energy. It is why they will ultimately elect President Donald J. Trump in November,” a campaign official said in a statement to NBC News.

Still, local political scientist Jeffrey Bloodworth of Gannon University said there is a broader shift occurring among voters, both in Pennsylvania and other key states. While Democrats have won over white suburban and college-educated voters during the Trump era, the GOP has made inroads with white working-class voters, as well as Black and Latino voters.

“What Donald Trump has bequeathed in the Republican Party is a rethinking of what it means to be a conservative, what it means to be Republican. And people are having to shed a long lived personal identity,” he adds. “This is not your mother or father’s Republican Party, and some people don’t feel at home anymore.”

That coalition shift is evident among voters like Gensheimer, who said women in her social group are “silent Biden voters.”

“We don’t want to talk about it, but we’re all going to vote for Joe Biden,” she said. “I don’t think women like to be grabbed by their p------. And that’s what we talk about, if one of our husbands went up and did that to one of us, there’d be hell to pay. And we had a president who was joking about all those things. And so there are a lot of women that might not, might not say it so overtly or discuss it because it might get heated, but they’re going to vote for Joe Biden.”

“​​The Republican Party I knew is dead,” Speicher said. “I’m just not sure where I go next.”

They do know what they’ll do about their missing sign, though.

“We’re going to get a Biden sign,” Speicher said.

Abigail Brooks

Abigail Brooks is a producer for NBC News.

Dasha Burns

Dasha Burns is a correspondent for NBC News.

A key swing group is up for grabs in battleground Pennsylvania: Nikki Haley’s voters (2024)
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