Haley’s Pennsylvania voters aren’t all ready to fall in line behind Trump

Joan London is carrying a 40-year-old newspaper, its edges frayed and turning yellow. She beams as she unfolds it to show a black and white photograph of her earliest political activism — holding a 1984 Reagan-Bush campaign sign.

On her phone, more GOP pride: photos of London at a rally for a Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor and in Washington, DC, for a Tea Party event during the Obama presidency.

“When I was 18, I registered as a Republican,” London said. “I’ve been a Republican for many years until a month ago when I changed by registration from Republican to Independent.”

Just before the switch, one last ballot cast as a Republican: a vote for Nikki Haley in Pennsylvania’s April presidential primary, even though the former South Carolina governor had bowed out of the race seven weeks earlier.

“It’s time to pass the baton to a new generation in the Republican Party, and I felt that she was it,” London told CNN in an interview. She cast her Haley protest vote, then left Donald Trump’s GOP.

“I have a different vision of what conservatism is,” London said. “I came up in the 80s under (Ronald) Reagan. I’ve always had a very positive vision of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility. … I’m seeing a change more toward populism which carries some unpleasant baggage, which I didn’t see myself as part of. Didn’t see it reflecting my values.”

London is hardly alone. Haley garnered nearly 17% of the primary vote statewide this year — approaching 25% in the suburban collar counties around Philadelphia. More than 155,000 votes in all — a potentially decisive bloc in a presidential battleground that Trump carried by 44,292 votes in 2016 and Joe Biden won by 81,660 in 2020.

Our conversation with London is part of a CNN project designed to follow the 2024 campaign through the eyes and experiences of voters who live in the battleground states and are critical to deciding the outcome.

London is an attorney in Berks County. The shift as you drive northwest from the Philly suburbs is unmistakable. First the farms and silos, then the Trump flags. He carried Berks County by 10 points in 2016 and 8 points in 2020. But even here, Haley received nearly 16% in the primary — votes Trump can ill afford to lose come November.

London’s is all but certainly lost.

“I don’t see myself voting for Trump,” she said. “I don’t see myself voting for Biden.”

For now, her plan is to either skip the presidential line on the ballot or write in a conservative.

She knows the math: any subtraction hurts Trump.

“I believe we have to send a message that the Republican Party needs to go in a different direction,” she said. “It’s a principled position I need to take.”

Irma Fralic, too, cast her primary vote for Haley as a protest.

“I want a country that is normal,” Fralic said. “I want a country that functions and I want people to be together.”

She is the daughter of Cuban immigrants, a staunch supporter of Israel and a Reagan Republican who saw Haley as tough and principled on foreign policy.

Now?

“I’m not happy with the options, no,” Fralic said. “One is in court. And the other one is – I feel bad for him. If he was my father, I’d say, ‘You might want to reconsider your life.’ I don’t know. And the other one, I would say, ‘You might want to prioritize your personal problems.’”

Our visit to Pennsylvania coincided with Haley announcing she will vote for Trump in November despite significant differences with the presumptive GOP nominee. Haley also said in her announcement last week she wished Trump would make a direct effort to court her supporters.

Fralic said Haley’s decision to vote for Trump would not automatically sway her.

But she offered this: “The best way for Trump to reach out to me and the millions who voted for Nikki Haley is to choose her as VP. If that’s the ticket, they have my vote.”

London was more muted in her response. “My respect for Ambassador Haley has not changed whether or not I agree with her choice,” London said in a text exchange.

Linda Rooney cast her Haley vote in the primary as a question as much as a protest.

“Who are the people in the Republican Party that keep shoving this down our throats right now?” Rooney said. “Why can’t we elect someone normal? You know, someone who is diplomatic.”

Rooney is a registered Republican who voted Trump in 2016 then Biden in 2020.

But she has ruled out voting for Biden again.

“I don’t trust him with the economy,” said Rooney, who runs a digital communications business from her home in Media, in suburban Delaware County. Rooney’s son serves in the Army. “I’m angry about Afghanistan, about that withdrawal. So, honestly, I can’t vote for him.”

Rooney framed her 2024 debate this way: “I can write someone in, or I can just hold my nose and vote for Trump and know that’s only going to be four more years.”

John King speaks with Pennsylvania voter Linda Rooney in Media, Pennsylvania.

Later, in a text exchange, Rooney said, “Haley would be a good VP and possibly keep him in check.” Her reaction to the former governor saying she’d vote for Trump was perhaps revealing of where Rooney will end up.

“I think Haley is in the same boat as the rest of us who don’t want Trump as our nominee,” Rooney texted. “She’s just holding her nose earlier than the rest of us.”

That Rooney would even consider Trump speaks volumes about her disappointment in Biden.

She called Trump’s conduct on January 6, 2021, appalling.

“I was angry that Trump didn’t say something,” she said. “That Trump didn’t stop it. … So, you know, I just can’t forgive him for that.”

She also works as a borough elections monitor and rolled her eyes when told that Trump again recently insisted he won Pennsylvania in 2020.

“No,” Rooney said. “No.”

Michael Pesce lives in Bucks County and works in a meat processing plant.

He has been a registered Republican for 40 years.

“My first election, presidential election, was 1984,” Pesce said in an interview at his Doylestown home. “I became a Republican when I turned 18 because of Ronald Reagan.”

His parents were Democrats.

“At the time, they were, like, ‘We’re Democrats. We’re not Republicans.’ I was like, ‘No, no, no, I’m a Reagan Republican.”

Pesce is a Coast Guard veteran who voted Trump in 2016 but Biden in 2020.

This year?

“If I had my choice, I wouldn’t vote for either,” said Pesce, who backed Haley in the April primary. “But I will vote for Biden. I will vote for anyone but Trump.”

Why?

“So, he tried to overthrow our government, and that’s a problem with me,” Pesce said. “Served in the US military. I just have very strong feelings about what it means to be an American.”

Pesce has little patience for those who believe Trump can do no wrong.

“They don’t want to hear that, Ok, he could be a convicted criminal in a couple of days,” he said. “They don’t want to hear that he did all these things.”

Pesce said he was “greatly disappointed” to hear of Haley’s decision to support Trump. “I think she is looking ahead four years,” he said.

But it won’t sway him.

“I’m a Republican. I’m a conservative,” Pesce said. “I think we spend a lot of money on stuff we don’t need to spend money on.”

Yet he will vote Biden and hopes many others among the more than 150,000 Pennsylvania Republicans who cast votes for Haley in the primary will do the same.

“If enough of us Republicans can do the right thing, keep Trump out of office, the next four years aren’t going to be perfect,” Pesce said. “But I think they are going to be better than the alternative.”

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