In Iowa, Nikki Haley Has the Attention of Democrats and Independents

With temperatures threatening to dip below zero in Iowa on Monday, some of the voters preparing to caucus for Nikki Haley have already overcome a different hurdle: a long history of voting for Democrats.

At recent campaign events across Iowa, a number of Democrats and left-leaning independents said they saw Ms. Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, as a reasonable Republican who could move the country away from bitter partisanship and restore civility in national discourse. Many were drawn to her pledges to unite the country, and to work across the aisle on thorny issues such as abortion. Others are simply motivated by a fear of former President Donald J. Trump’s candidacy and the possibility that he will beat President Biden and regain the White House.

Joseph E. Brown Sr., who served two terms as an Iowa state senator in the 1970s and ’80s, said he was a registered Democrat for 50 years until he switched parties last month so that he could caucus for Ms. Haley.

“Now that I have my Republican card, I have to go visit my father’s gravesite here in town and apologize,” said Mr. Brown, who lives in Clinton, Iowa. He added that his father, a staunch Democrat and World War II veteran, always voted a straight party ticket.

Mr. Brown’s one complaint about Ms. Haley is that she tends to echo misleading claims from Republican lawmakers on the number of agents from the Internal Revenue Service auditing middle-class families. But he said he appreciated her stalwart support for aiding both Ukraine and Israel, and her promises to lower the national debt and make the federal government more efficient. He praised her measured approach toward Mr. Trump — calling out the “chaos” that trails him without attacking him on specifics — and even agreed with her support for pardoning the former president if he is found guilty of crimes.

“I’m not opposed to Joe Biden,” he said. “But out of all the Republican candidates, she is the one that strikes me as someone who can rebuild the office of the presidency.”

On the stump, Ms. Haley can sound the notes of a traditional conservative with appeal to voters left of center. She has said she believes in climate change, pledges to tangle with both Democrats and Republicans in Washington and has criticized members of her own party over their embrace of strict isolationism. She frequently takes her fellow Republicans to task for the high national debt and spending.

Heather Wilcoxson, 47, a Des Moines resident who works in the hotel industry, has been a registered Democrat for nearly her entire adult life — until December, when she switched her party affiliation to Republican. She plans to caucus for Ms. Haley on Monday, and said she had convinced several friends and members of her family to do the same.

She said she was drawn to Ms. Haley because of similarities in their upbringings and her stance on mental health.

To be sure, the number of non-Republicans who will show up for Ms. Haley on Monday night is most likely small. (Unlike past years, there is no Democratic presidential caucus on Monday — Mr. Biden moved his party’s first primary contest to South Carolina, where he is more popular.)

Iowa residents can switch their party registrations in advance or in person on the night of the caucus, but caucusing takes time and deliberate effort. Those interested have to go to their local voter precinct and discuss the candidates before casting a vote, and the foreboding weather forecast has prompted concerns about turnout more broadly.

And then there’s the political forecast: Mr. Trump has a commanding lead in most polls, with Ms. Haley and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida vying for second place.

Still, the existence of a Haley-curious left illustrates the concern, disaffection and estrangement that polls suggest Americans across the political spectrum feel about the two most likely presidential nominees, Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump.

While some independents and Democrats have gravitated to third-party and unaffiliated candidates, others appear to be drawn to Ms. Haley because they see her as a more moderate Republican candidate. In Iowa, some Democratic voters said they preferred her even over Mr. Biden.

Regina Alt, a 68-year-old from northwest Iowa, says she has always voted for the Democratic ticket in presidential elections with two exceptions: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. She decided to switch her party registration and caucus for Ms. Haley after seeing her in person.

“After I heard her rally, I was 110 percent it would be her,” Ms. Alt said, adding, “Biden is too old for me.”

It is not unusual for Iowa caucusgoers to switch parties. And the move — crossing the aisle in the name of a cause — is a familiar strategy for Democrats in Republican-controlled states like Texas. It has become part of a broader trend in recent cycles to beat back what some voters see as the extremes of the Republican Party in Georgia, North Carolina, Colorado, Utah and elsewhere.

An NBC News analysis of Iowa voter registration statistics found that up to 11 percent of Iowans who participated in the 2012 Republican caucuses were independents or Democrats who changed their party affiliation on Caucus Day. The 2012 election cycle was the last time that only a Republican caucus, and not a Democratic one, was held in Iowa.

“We need new Republican blood,” said Nancy Wauters, 67, a retired medical office assistant and registered Democrat from Grundy County who plans to back Ms. Haley on caucus night because she admires her “proactive ideas” and scrappiness.

In 2020, Kent Nichols, 21, caucused for Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. In late December, he protested Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida at an appearance in Davenport, Iowa, holding handwritten signs that said “Go home, Ron!” and “No fascist. No hate. Get out of our state!” up to the window of the veterans’ outreach center where Mr. DeSantis was speaking.

Although he might sound like a progressive, Mr. Nichols is an independent who describes himself as politically moderate and an evangelical Christian. He dislikes Mr. DeSantis’s policies targeting L.G.B.T.Q. people and called Mr. Trump “not good for our country,” but he also believes in tightening security at the border, worries about the “outrageous” cost of groceries and thinks the United States is spending too much money on the war in Ukraine.

On Jan. 15, he plans to caucus for Ms. Haley.

“I think it’s important that people unite in our country,” he said outside the DeSantis event. “She doesn’t tear people down.”

The support that Ms. Haley is receiving from outside the conservative spectrum has prompted criticism from her Republican rivals. Mr. DeSantis has tried to paint Ms. Haley as a liberal, pointing to support she has received from at least one major Democratic donor and Wall Street executives. “She may be more liberal than Gavin Newsom is,” he said at a CNN debate in Des Moines this week, referring to the Democratic governor of California.

Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokeswoman for the Haley campaign, said Ms. Haley was drawing in Democrats and independents not because her campaign was actively courting them, but because she was “working to earn every vote” and her message for “new generational leadership” and stability over “drama and chaos” had broad appeal.

“We need the Republican Party to be a story of addition not subtraction,” Ms. Perez-Cubas said, adding that surveys clearly show that voters in both parties do not want to see another Trump-Biden matchup.

Will Rogers, a Republican strategist and lobbyist based in Des Moines, said he had spoken with more than 30 Democrats and independents who were planning to switch parties and vote in the Republican caucus. One of them intended to support Mr. DeSantis. One planned to support Asa Hutchinson. The rest, he said, were going to Ms. Haley.

Ms. Wilcoxson, the voter from Des Moines, plans to switch her affiliation back to the Democratic ticket before the November election. “I most likely will vote for Joe, assuming he can keep it together during the political process,” Ms. Wilcoxson said.

She has heard concerns from Democrats that Ms. Haley would beat Mr. Biden in a general election, and says she would be just fine with that outcome.

“I’d much rather have that than Donald Trump as president again,” Ms. Wilcoxson said. “I just have to vote my conscience.”

Nicholas Nehamas and Kellen Browning contributed reporting.

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