Nikki Haley and the W-Word

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at a rally on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Back in 2012, long before Nikki Haley hit the presidential campaign trail — and years before Hillary Clinton faced off against Donald Trump — Haley, then the governor of South Carolina, told The New York Times, “The reason I actually ran for office is because of Hillary Clinton.”

“Everybody was telling me why I shouldn’t run,” she elaborated. “I was too young, I had small children, I should start at the school board level. I went to Birmingham University, and Hillary Clinton was the keynote speaker on a leadership institute, and she said that when it comes to women running for office, there will be everybody that tells you why you shouldn’t, but that’s all the reasons why we need you to do it, and I walked out of there thinking, ‘That’s it. I’m running for office.’”

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Haley hasn’t been keen on sharing her political origin story of late: Just this month she denied ever saying that Clinton was an inspiration, as her male primary opponents were trying to weaponize her words against her. But there is a fresh poignancy to her anecdote and her experience these days as her candidacy has struggled to catch fire, especially in light of what I saw and heard at her events in the closing days of the New Hampshire primary this week.

At every stop, Haley supporters expressed their longing for a younger, fresher face in the White House. Several of them specifically noted how great it would be to have the first woman president come from the Republican Party. (These folks really, really hated the idea of Kamala Harris claiming the honor of being the first female president.) At the same time, there was often an equivocal or even embarrassed tinge to any talk of Haley breaking that glass ceiling — an ambivalence about emphasizing gender that the candidate herself seems to share.

This is why, coming out of New Hampshire, the conversation that stuck in my head was with Lee Dunn, who had come up from the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., to volunteer for Team Haley. Waiting for a rally to begin on the eve of the primary, I asked Dunn why she had committed to “pick Nikki,” as the campaign swag implores. She didn’t hit the darker notes I had been hearing so often: The panicked, Trump is a disaster. Or the disgusted, I cannot bear a November rematch between two old geezers. Instead, she gushed about how amazing it was to see an impressive, accomplished woman in this position — someone she saw herself in. Sure, Clinton had walked this path before, but Haley is younger, she noted, and more relatable. (And, of course, more conservative.)

“She’s the kind of person you can see driving car pool. She seems like one of your mom friends who, if you were sick, would show up at your house with food,” said Dunn, a lawyer and mother of three.

Many of her mom friends felt the same, she said, even some of the Democrats. “And you know, women vote more than men!” she said. Dunn, an erstwhile player in Republican politics, said Haley is the first candidate that has inspired her to get involved at the presidential level in well over a decade. For her, this is true political love, not some tepid relationship of convenience.

It wasn’t until the next day, talking with voters heading to and from the polls, that it struck me how infrequently I had heard this kind of extended gender-based pitch for Haley — or this kind of passion — not just among her supporters, but even from her campaign. Sure, now and then the candidate or her people nod at her history-making potential. She’ll joke about her high heels. And at one of her meet-and-greets, I found myself bopping along to the Sheryl Crow tune “Woman in the White House.” But Haley’s campaign has been notably devoid of the full-throated go-girl energy we witnessed during Clinton’s presidential runs, or even the second-tier “first ever” talk that accompanied Harris’ election as vice president.

Once again, I am reminded of how complicated, and potentially frustrating, the terrain can be for hard-charging women in high-level Republican politics.

The GOP has long struggled with how to celebrate and advance the women in its ranks. It’s not that the party fails to grasp the downsides of its reputation as a bastion of angry white men. But the idea of giving any candidate, or group of voters, special attention because of gender is antithetical to Republicans’ professed distaste for any sort of identity politics. (Unless we’re talking about pandering to aggrieved white traditionalists, of course.)

How many times have I heard a Republican insist: “I don’t vote for a candidate because of their gender; I vote for the most qualified person”?

Answer: Too many to count.

Now, I can see how the issue of representation is tricky for a party dominated by white men. But this position disregards a gut-level reality of human nature, the emotional resonance of seeing someone who looks or sounds like you on the public stage. And this failure often puts Republican women candidates at a disadvantage when trying to gin up movement-style enthusiasm — and money.

I have been poking into the GOP’s troubles with women for at least a decade, and I can tell you that many Republican women — from strategists to elected officials to grassroots voters — find it vexing. On occasion, a few will try to shake things up by forming a super PAC or outreach group targeting women voters, donors or potential candidates. But these moves often face headwinds from within the party. During the Trump presidency, for instance, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York announced she wanted to “play big” in congressional primaries to advance women candidates. Her effort — which cut against party norms — was not overwhelmingly embraced by her male colleagues. The then-chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, called it “a mistake” for her to preference certain players because of “gender, race, religion.”

You see this tension at play on the Haley campaign trail. Even some of those into the idea of her being the first woman president feel compelled to stress they aren’t backing her because she is a woman but — all together now! — because she is the most qualified candidate. Some seem loath to acknowledge her history-making potential at all. Haley isn’t leaning into it. She prefers to call herself a “new generational leader,” emphasizing age rather than gender. And it’s not as though women themselves are overwhelmingly embracing her. Trump edged out Haley among women voters in New Hampshire, according to exit polls, and clobbered her with that group in Iowa.

This ostensible gender-blindness may make the Republican Party feel righteous in its philosophical consistency, but it threatens to suck some of the excitement out of candidacies looking to break barriers and blaze a new trail. And Lord knows, politics today needs all the fun and excitement it can get.

There are, of course, a slew of reasons Haley has had trouble infusing her run with energy and passion. Certainly, she is a cooler customer than Trump, whose political style is part cult leader, part carnival barker. But whatever her specific foibles, Haley has also been hamstrung by her party’s enduring position that the entire concept of political sisterhood is something to be ashamed of.

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