World·Analysis

Here's a wild way for Democrats to try to stop Trump: Vote in Republican primaries

Some Democrats are weighing a desperate gambit for stopping Donald Trump: Voting in the Republican primaries, for Nikki Haley, or another candidate. With Trump dominating primary polls, and leading most general-election polls, they're worried about their democracy and desperately seeking a plot twist.

In many states, rules allow them to cast ballots for an alternative — like Nikki Haley

Haley and Trump seated next to each other in the Oval Office
Nikki Haley was Donald Trump's ambassador to the United Nations. Now she's running against him for president. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Troy Denning has made a living imagining fantastical plots as a prolific writer of science fiction with numerous Star Wars tomes under his belt.

He's now envisioning a real-life storyline about a disturbance in the electoral force, in which millions of Democrats vote in Republican primary contests in a mission to stop Donald Trump.

Denning is himself grappling with whether to drift to the other side. To join a rebel alliance, if you will, with non-Trump Republicans to help one of the other candidates win the primary in his home state of Wisconsin.

"Nikki Haley is somebody I would never vote for in the general," Denning said in an interview, referring to the former UN ambassador and South Carolina governor. "But if I have to end up having her as my president, I would feel a lot safer than I would if Donald Trump is my president."

Denning is a political moderate who voted decades ago for Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. He's now keen on seeing the Republicans nominate either Haley or Chris Christie, former governor of New Jersey. 

But his literary vocation is appropriate for this moment. The idea of stopping Trump — at this point, especially in the primaries — is beginning to resemble science-fiction.

Trump dominating in polls

Trump is currently enjoying the strongest polls of his career.

He is dominating the Republican primary field, where it seems hard to imagine anyone catching him. More troubling for Democrats, he's performing much better against President Joe Biden in general-election surveys than at any point of the 2020 cycle.

It just so happens that a more palatable alternative may be emerging for those Democrats desperately seeking ways to block him early on.

Haley, the former UN ambassador and governor, has leapfrogged past Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in New Hampshire primary polling and is closing in on second place in surveys of Republicans nationally and in Iowa.

The idea of non-Republicans rallying around her got a high-profile boost this week from the business world. 

"Even if you're a very liberal Democrat, I urge you, help Nikki Haley," said Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, at a New York Times event.

"Get a choice on the Republican side that might be better than Trump."

Haley speaking to audience seated across two floors in a town hall meeting
Haley has jumped into second place in New Hampshire, where she's seen campaigning this week. But she's still about two-dozen points behind Trump, and any chance of narrowing that gap likely rests on independent voters and Democrats participating in that state's open primary. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

'It's extraordinarily feasible'

It sounds far-fetched. Haley lags about two dozen points behind Trump in New Hampshire surveys, is further behind nationally, and is no rival to Trump when it comes to the hearts of the party grassroots.

But one Democratic Party official didn't flinch when asked whether it's a feasible gambit.

"It's extraordinarily feasible," said Elaine Kamarck, a member of the Democratic National Committee, Brookings Institution fellow, Harvard lecturer and author of a book on presidential primaries.

"The press has absolutely made Trump the winner. … [But] if Trump gets knocked off that even the slightest bit, it will be interpreted as, 'Oh my God, blood in the water,'" she said.

The plausible scenario she sees goes like this: Haley finishes in the top three in Iowa in January; non-Republicans elevate her to a win in New Hampshire's open primary; that gives her a timely boost as the race shifts to the historical kingmaking state of South Carolina — her home.

In Kamarck's view, the most important bloc of voters in this scenario are independents, not Democrats.

Though rules for primary voting vary wildly from state to state, more than half of U.S. states offer varying degrees of opportunity for voters to participate in the primaries of a party they're not registered with.

Trump surrounded by happy supporters
South Carolina is traditionally the state that decides the winner of the Republican presidential nomination. Seen here: Trump surrounded by jubilant supporters after his victory in the 2016 South Carolina primary. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

What the rules say

The rules range from wide-open primaries in about a dozen states to other processes open to unaffiliated or cross-over voters.

The key date is March 5. It's Super Tuesday, after Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. At least half the 15 states voting that day have open or partially-open primaries.

Some states are stricter. In Tennessee, you could be charged with a misdemeanor for voting improperly, something a state official there compared to jumping on a football field and demanding to be allowed in the game.

But the basic mathematical fact is that there are enough voters in this country who oppose Trump and a critical mass of states that let them vote in Republican primaries.

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Possible but still unlikely

Uniting them is another story.

Barbara Norrander, emeritus professor at the University of Arizona, agreed that non-Republicans could — in theory —decide the outcome.

But she's seen this idea proposed and fail before. And she's deeply skeptical it will happen now.

"It's called raiding the other party," Norrander said.

"It's unlikely that any kind of effort like that would be successful. … Voters probably are just voting for the party that they prefer and the candidates that they prefer. There's not a lot of evidence that American voters are sort of strategic voters."

In the 2008 Democratic primaries, conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh urged listeners to wreak havoc by voting for Hillary Clinton, in the hope of sowing discord until the summer convention.

Limbaugh called it Operation Chaos. And while Clinton indeed won some later primaries, the gambit ultimately failed. Barack Obama won the nomination and the general election. 

Online forums like Reddit are buzzing as Democrats debate pros and cons, with some saying they're planning or considering this strategy. But there are real drawbacks.

You can't vote in two parties' primaries. Voters need to pick one. And by picking the Republican primary, it means Democrats relinquish any say in choosing their party's nominees in other 2024 races, from the U.S. Congress to state and local levels.

Another fear being voiced is that Haley would be harder to beat in a general election, and Democrats would harm their own chances by elevating her.

Mob at Capitol
Many Democrats fear for democracy if Trump returns to office, four years after this mob of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

'The end of our democracy'

This isn't Denning's main concern. His concern is the belief of many Democrats — and some non-Democrats — that Trump is an unprecedented threat to U.S. democracy.

Trump's supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. He's described his political opponents as vermin who must be rooted out, and called for terminating the constitution to undo an election result. He's said he will have to jail political opponents. He's urged an investigation into a news outlet for the crime of treason. He proposes a mass firing of career civil servants and punishment for other political opponents.

"I'm terrified," said Denning, who plans to use his vote "efficiently" to decrease Trump's odds of becoming president. "I think if he becomes president again, it will be the end of our democracy."

Denning has time to make his decision. His state, Wisconsin, isn't one of the first to vote – its primary is on April 2.

He'll watch what Republican voters decide on Super Tuesday and if it looks like there's a chance to stop Trump, he'll vote in the Republican primary. If the race seems over, he will participate in nominating Democrats — he has no intention of wasting his vote.

He won't be alone wrestling with that dilemma, Kamarck said.

"If your primary concern is getting rid of Donald Trump once and for all because you feel he is a threat to democracy, which a lot of people do, then yes," she said, "it would make sense to do whatever you can to vote in the Republican primary against him."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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