‘We Only Care About Damaging Donald Trump’

‘We Only Care About Damaging Donald Trump’

CONCORD, New Hampshire — At a rally in New Hampshire this week, Donald Trump railed against liberal efforts to “infiltrate” the state’s upcoming Republican primary, accusing Democrats and Never Trump conservatives of conspiring to elect Nikki Haley.

On its surface, it sounded a lot like another of Trump’s conspiracy-laden tirades — but in reality, the former president wasn’t entirely off the mark. In recent months, a handful of left-leaning groups have popped up across New Hampshire with the goal of persuading the state’s “undeclared” voters — who make up 42 percent of the voting population and are eligible to vote in either party’s primary — to back Haley.

One of those groups, Primary Pivot, is run by Robert Schwartz, a liberal activist who has spent his career countering democratic backsliding in countries across Latin America. The organization’s rationale is simple, Schwartz told me when I spoke to him this week: If Trump poses an extraordinary threat to American democracy — as many liberals and left-leaning independents believe — then those same voters should embrace extraordinary methods to stop him. And in New Hampshire, Schwartz believes, the most effective tactic to stop Trump is for liberal and independents to vote for Haley.

“We only care about damaging Donald Trump,” said Schwartz. “For better or for worse, the only thing you can do if you really want to stop Trump is to vote for Haley.”

By his own admission, Schwartz’s crusade is a long shot. As of October, when New Hampshire requires voters to select their party affiliation, just 3,500 people had switched their registration from Democratic to undeclared — it will take many, many more undeclared voters to cast a ballot for Haley next week to make a noticeable dent in Trump’s polling lead. History, moreover, is not on Schwartz’ side: Similar efforts to mobilize New Hampshire’s undeclared voters in 2020 and 2016 came up notably short. (Similarly, in 2008 Rush Limbaugh launched “Operation Chaos” to delay the Democrats settling on a nominee.)

But in our conversation, Schwartz explained why he thinks 2024 might be different.

The following has been edited for clarity and concision.

Is there any indication that your strategy is working? 

I think the fact that over 3,500 Democrats became undeclared before the October deadline was one initial indicator. The other indicator is that we’ve heard in surveys that the top issue for over 90 percent of left-leaning undeclared voters is stopping Donald Trump. And then the third is that, anecdotally, I have been in so many conversations with people who say, ‘Oh, I’m a Democrat and I missed the registration deadline, but I wish I could have changed over to vote in the Republican primary.’ Almost all the undeclared voters that I have talked to — and I talked to a lot of Democratic-leaning voters — are considering voting in the Republican primary. Not all of them will get there, but we can bring a horse to water. We can’t make them drink.

How much of your efforts were directed toward getting Democratic voters to switch their party affiliation to undeclared, and how much has been dedicated to persuading already undeclared voters to vote in the Republican primary for Haley? 

I would say we made a very limited effort focused on Democrats, because everyone told us that the process was too complicated, and we weren’t going to get Democrats to become undeclared. We spent about $2,000 to send text messages to 38,000 people, and 3,500 Democrats switched to undeclared. Our focus has been on the 130,000 undeclared voters who voted in the 2020 Democratic primary, because they’re high-propensity voters in the primaries, and they can easily switch to vote in the Republican primary. We’ve already spent over $500,000 on the undeclared voters.

What sort of messaging are you finding to be most effective with those voters?

You have to mention who people should vote for — and at this point, that’s Nikki Haley. You have to say that she’s actually viable in the polls, because left-leaning undeclared voters will not vote in the Republican primary unless they think she’s within a few points — meaning they can make a difference and stop Trump.

Another very effective message from our testing is a comparison chart between Donald Trump and Nikki Haley — on how they handled Jan. 6, how they approach racism and hatred in this country, and how they deal with military service and military veterans. Most left-leaning people have been barraged by the media to think that Trump and Haley are the same and they’re both MAGA — one is just MAGA lite. What we are trying to explain is that if you think about the issues most important to our democracy, Haley and Trump are night and day.

And then the final message we’ve found effective is a more emotional message — along the lines of “Imagine how you will feel on January 23 if Trump loses, if he rages and sends angry tweets.” People already know how angry they are at Trump, but everyone else is just complaining about it. We’re actually giving people something concrete to do about it.

Are you finding that left-leaning undeclared voters have an instinctual opposition to voting for a Republican like Haley? Can you overcome that knee-jerk reaction?

When you first have the conversation with them, most people are disgusted by Nikki Haley’s positions on abortion or climate change. I can’t tell you how many times they say, “Well, I won’t vote for somebody who will pardon Donald Trump.” My response to that is, “So you would rather let the criminal win than help select the person who’s going to pardon the criminal?”

We’re just trying to get people to see that if you write in Biden, you’re throwing away your vote. If you write in Dean Phillips, you’re not only throwing away your vote — you’re actually hurting Trump’s competitors and therefore helping Trump win. For better or for worse, the only thing you can do if you really want to stop Trump is to vote for Haley.

The Democratic Party in New Hampshire has come out against your strategy. What do you make of their opposition?

They were opposed to Democrats becoming undeclared, which I understand — although almost all those undeclared voters will go back to being Democrats after this primary. When I have said that Donald Trump is an existential and unique threat to our democracy, they have repeatedly said that Chris Christie and Nikki Haley are also existential threats to the planet and to our democracy, because of their positions on abortion and climate change. They have attacked me for taking a photo with the popular governor, Chris Sununu. So if you want extreme partisanship, I think they’re doing a good job of showing that.

Can you expect anything different, though? Is it reasonable to expect the Democratic Party of New Hampshire to get behind an effort to get people to vote for their opposition? 

I would say that if you’ve spent 10 years saying that Donald Trump is a unique, existential threat to democracy, and then six months before the primary, you start saying that every Republican is a unique and existential threat, you have lost all of your credibility.

Trump has started alluding to efforts like yours in his stump speeches and citing them as examples of election interference. At a recent rally, he even called for Sununu to change the rules in New Hampshire to prevent Democrats and independents from voting in the Republican primary. Do you worry at all that you’re playing into his efforts to discredit the outcome of the primary?

It’s rich coming from Donald Trump, given that in 2020 he called upon Republicans to vote in the Democratic primary for the weakest candidate. I would also say that past attempts to change the rules have failed, and it is insulting to undeclared voters who have always voted and will continue to vote in the Republican primary. It shows a fear of undeclared voters and the power that they have, given that they are the largest voting bloc in New Hampshire.

It is a tactical mistake for him to say he doesn’t want any undeclared voter to vote in the Republican primary. That may play well in other states, but it will not play well here in New Hampshire.

Trump is suggesting in his speeches that these efforts are being backed by shadowy Democratic interests. Can you say who’s funding your efforts?

We raised $20,000 among family and friends when we launched this organization, and we have invested all of that money into voter data files and messaging campaigns. A couple of people who wanted to stop Trump saw our efforts, and they have given us $650,000.

I will say that, around November and December, we saw some very prominent businesspeople — like Jamie Dimon and Reid Hoffman — come out with a similar strategy of encouraging people to vote for Haley in the primary and Biden in the general. So this idea has caught on. It’s not just taking hold among a fringe group.

After the primary, how will you know if your efforts have succeeded?

We only care about damaging Donald Trump. So even though we have very limited control of the results and how Nikki Haley performs, if she is able to close this race to within single digits, that shows it’s a competition. That’s one metric of success. We are also very data-driven, and we are doing a large randomized-control trial so we will be able to study if our efforts had any impact from a more academic perspective.

But is there a topline number of voters in the Republican primary that would indicate that left-leaning undeclared voters turned out in large numbers? 

In 2012 and 2016, there were almost exactly 100,000 undeclared voters who voted in the Republican primary. In 2020, there were 130,000 undeclared voters who voted in the Democratic primary. So we’ll view it as successful if approximately 130,000 undeclared voters vote in the Republican primary. We anticipate there will be about 160,000 registered Republicans.

So the turnout is superimportant. The only way you can beat Trump is with a large turnout, because he’s going to get his core supporters, which will be somewhere between 100,000 and 130,000 voters. If the turnout is above 300,000 people, then an opponent has a chance to make it close.

If it’s successful, can this strategy travel to other states, or is it only viable in New Hampshire?

We envision this effort as a national effort — but we also understand that if Trump wins by double digits in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the race is over and we will likely fold up. If, however, Nikki Haley can get this to a single-digit race — well, South Carolina is a totally open primary, and the Democrats will have already voted on February 3. Michigan is a totally open primary.

If Nikki Haley can survive South Carolina — which is a ruby-red Trump state — then what we are most excited about is Super Tuesday. Virginia is a totally open primary with lots of voters who don’t like Trump. Massachusetts is 61 percent independent and 30 percent Democratic. Colorado is a semi-open primary. Minnesota is semi-open primary. Vermont is an open primary. We think Nikki Haley, if she survived South Carolina, can win in all six of those states.

How likely do you think that is? 

Some people will say that is a fantastical scenario. We know that it is an extremely narrow path, and we are realistic that Trump will likely be the nominee. But if Nikki Haley is going to win or have even a small chance of winning, this is what we think her narrow path will look like.

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