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Nikki Haley walks fine line on race, gender in appeal to GOP base

As she campaigns for the White House, Haley is at once seeking to accentuate her differences as a woman of color and offer reassurances that they are not impediments to achieving success

Republican candidate for president Nikki Haley speaks on March 3 at the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
13 min

DES MOINES — As a Republican candidate for president, Nikki Haley introduces herself as the proud daughter of Indian immigrants. She says that it’s time for a new generation of leaders and that the best way to accomplish that is to put a “badass woman” in the White House.

At the same time, Haley has underscored that she does not believe there are “glass ceilings” limiting women. She rejects identity politics as a form of divisiveness and “woke self-loathing.” And in a speech kicking off her campaign last month, she said that “America is not a racist country.”

With her underdog 2024 bid, Haley, 51, a former governor of South Carolina and ambassador to the United Nations, is the first prominent woman of color to seek the GOP nomination for the White House. As she campaigns nationwide, she is at once seeking to accentuate her differences from White male candidates and offer reassurances that they are not impediments to achieving success.

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Her pitch is directed at a Republican primary electorate that largely rejects the idea that institutions are plagued by systemic racism and other forms of discrimination, as well as the suggestion that the country ought to reckon more openly with past injustices.

“I think a lot of times for the past few years, we’ve been told how bad we are,” said Erick Myles, a retiree from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who is White and was attending Haley’s town hall in nearby Marion. “That just isn’t the way to build a country.”

Outside of those GOP circles, however, Haley’s words have drawn criticism that she is diminishing the bigotry and other barriers women and minorities — like herself — have experienced and that she is selectively using her identity in the campaign.

“I have news for her: You cannot have it both ways,” said Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, a group aligned with Democrats that works to elect women of color.

Haley declined a request to be interviewed for this story. In a recent interview on the podcast “Honestly with Bari Weiss,” Haley said what she is doing is not “identity politics; it’s just loving who you are. I love being a woman. I love my heritage. I love how I was raised, and I love how it has made me who I am today.”

In interviews with more than two dozen attendees across three states at Haley’s early campaign events, where the crowds were predominantly White, many expressed positive views about her pitch, adding that while they personally denounce identity politics, they see Haley’s identity as key to expanding the GOP coalition. Some of the small number of people of color in attendance said they interpret her view of racial relations in America as aspirational, not reality.

In some ways, Haley’s points of emphasis mark a turn for the longtime politician. As governor of South Carolina in 2015, she repeatedly told the story of seeing the police racially profile her turban-wearing Sikh father at a fruit stand. She shared the anecdote as she explained her decision to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state Capitol that year.

In her first month as a presidential candidate, she has not told the story unless asked about it. Also absent from her prepared stump speech is discussion of her decision to take down the flag, which she made after a white supremacist killed nine people attending Bible study at a historically Black church in Charleston.

Asked why Haley doesn’t talk at events about removing the flag, a person close to her who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal campaign decisions said that it is out of respect for the families of the victims of the Charleston shooting and that she doesn’t want to use the incident as a political tool. But Haley referenced the shooting in her campaign launch video and has mentioned it briefly on the trail as an example of a crisis she dealt with as governor.

Some see her strategy as reflecting a desire to not alienate Republican primary voters.

“I think her role in forging a coalition behind taking down the Confederate flag was one of her finest moments, and it showed her leadership chops,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “I understand why she might be reticent to talk about it, but you’ve got to sell your strengths.”

Ayres said he was reminded of Vice President Harris’s decision not to play up her crime-fighting efforts as a prosecutor when she ran for president in a 2020 Democratic primary in which many voters had grown skeptical of law enforcement. “And yet, that was her stock in trade,” Ayres said.

While Ayres and other Republicans praised Haley’s avowed rejection of identity politics, some liberal activists said they see Haley as trying to cater to a conservative base that has not only hardened its positions on gender and race but has elevated figures such as former president Donald Trump. Trump, who in 2016 appointed Haley to her U.N. ambassadorial post and is now a 2024 rival, has used sexist and racist language to criticize women and some immigrants.

“She both wants to identify her race and gender as what makes her unique and what qualifies her for leadership, and, in the same breath, she wants to dismiss identity politics,” Allison said. She added that Haley is “arguing for enough space in the political culture for her to walk through the door, while slamming the door behind her.”

‘I am in my prime’

Haley recently faced comments about her physical appearance, as well as a widely panned remark from CNN’s Don Lemon that she “isn’t in her prime.” Such judgments have sparked a renewed debate about sexism in politics, and Haley responded to Lemon’s remark by accusing liberals of being the most sexist. Lemon has since apologized.

“By the way, I am in my prime. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise,” Haley said at a recent town hall in Nevada, Iowa, referencing the comment. Her campaign sold drink koozies to fundraise off the remark.

Haley has also drawn a new round of unfounded accusations from some social media users from across the political spectrum that she changed her name for political reasons. She was born Nimarata Nikki Randhawa and has gone by her middle name, a Punjabi word that means “little one,” since she was born.

The Haley campaign declined to comment on the accusations, but Haley tweeted in 2018 that “Nikki is my name on my birth certificate.”

It’s not the first time Haley has faced sexism or racism in her political career. In her 2010 bid for governor, a GOP lawmaker in the state called her a “raghead.” Asked by Weiss about facing racist and sexist remarks, Haley said, “Those that are going to be haters are going to hate no matter what I say, what I do.”

Myles, the Cedar Rapids voter, said he appreciates Haley’s statement that America is not racist and thinks it’s helpful to have a woman of color deliver that message.

“You need to have the right person,” Myles said, to “give that message.”

‘Playing all sides’

Haley was the country’s first female Asian American governor and the first Indian American to serve in the Cabinet. She is one of the first two women of color to be elected governor of a state.

Only four other prominent Republican women have run for president and all of them have been White, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Don Bolduc, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire last year, introduced Haley during a recent swing through the state. In an interview, he described her as “a trailblazer” uniquely positioned to speak about race and gender.

“Yeah, she’s a minority. But she has a completely different perspective, and I believe it’s the perspective that all Americans should have,” Bolduc said. “Listen, no one’s saying that there aren’t racist people out there, nobody’s saying that we don’t have problems. But what we are saying is that we shouldn’t use those things to create divisiveness, fear and uncertainty.”

On the trail, Haley has emphasized her family’s immigrant story, beginning each town hall by sharing her experience growing up Indian American in Bamberg, S.C.

“We were the only Indian family in that small Southern town,” Haley said. “We weren’t White enough to be White. We weren’t Black enough to be Black.”

As a result, Haley said, she was “bullied” and “teased on the playground.”

“I would come home and my mom would say your job is not to show them how you’re different, your job is to show them how you’re similar,” she described. She credits her mother’s advice with shaping how she speaks about identity and race.

Scott McNabb, a Cedar Rapids Democrat who attended Haley’s event in Marion, said he viewed her remarks on race and gender as “playing all sides.” He pointed to stories she has told in the past about her father at the fruit stand and her being cast as Pocahontas in an elementary school play, which she recalled in her 2012 book as leading to “a long parade of little boys dancing around me and doing the American Indian hand-to-mouth call.”

“There’s been a painful part of her story, as well as a triumphant part of her story,” said McNabb, who is White. He added, “She also says she doesn’t want to deal with identity politics. Well, that’s the heart of identity politics.”

On the podcast interview Haley did, Weiss questioned her about taking down the Confederate flag. In her response, Haley shared the story of her dad being profiled at the fruit stand — when two uniformed police officers were called to watch him.

“My dad continued to get his produce, and he went to the register, and he thanked them, and he paid. We got in the car, and he didn’t speak to me the entire way home. He hoped I didn’t notice what just happened. I knew exactly what had happened,” she said. Reflecting on her remarks to a group of state lawmakers in 2015, she recalled telling them, “I don’t want a single child to ever drive by this State House and see that flag and feel pain. Bring this flag and this pole down.”

‘A plus and a bonus’

The balance Haley has sought to strike came into focus at her campaign launch speech last month in Charleston. “Take it from me, the first minority female governor in history: America is not a racist country,” she declared.

She added, “This is not about identity politics, I don’t believe in that, and I don’t believe in glass ceilings, either.” And in her stump speech, Haley decries teaching about gender and race in schools and wrote in a recent op-ed, “We’ll get identity politics out of the classroom, as well as the boardroom and the backrooms of government.”

At the Nevada, Iowa, town hall, Haley was asked by a Black attendee about how she would work across the aisle, prompting a response about the fatal shooting in 2015 of Walter Scott, an unarmed Black man, by a White police officer. She described bringing together Scott’s family and law enforcement, each group flanking her as she signed a body-camera bill.

“On the heels of Ferguson, we had an African American man that was killed by a dirty cop, shot seven times in the back, and he was unarmed,” she said, referencing the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. “I remember I wanted to hold our state close. And so the first thing I did was I called the family, the Walter Scott family, and I said, ‘I don’t know what happened, but we’re going to get you an answer.’ And my second call was to law enforcement. And I said, ‘I don’t know what happened, but we’ve got to fix this.’”

Melissa Winger, who attended Haley’s town hall in Urbandale, Iowa, last month, said she believes Haley can appeal to independents like her. Winger, who is White, said it’s “a plus and a bonus that she’s a woman, and she’s a minority woman, so that’s even better.”

But others don’t fully buy into her pitch. David Pendelton, a mixed-race attendee at Haley’s event in Exeter, N.H., said he views her overall description of America as aspirational.

“That’s where she wants the country to head,” he said. “It’s the same country that has Martin Luther King and the Ku Klux Klan.”

‘May the best woman win’

Speaking under a giant American flag the day she launched her campaign, Haley said it’s time for a “tough-as-nails” woman in the White House. Her supporters cheered as she said, “May the best woman win!”

“We start focusing on new generational leadership, and the best way to do that is to put a badass woman in the White House,” she said days later when she campaigned in New Hampshire for the first time. She recently added the song “Woman in the White House” to her event playlist.

In 2012, Haley cited Hillary Clinton as inspiring her first run for office: a successful bid for the South Carolina State House in 2004 against a 30-year incumbent. Clinton, who went on in 2016 to become the only woman to secure a major party’s backing for the presidential nomination, faced sexist attacks in her campaign against Trump. Among other things, Trump accused her of playing the “woman card.”

When it comes to Haley, Trump recently said in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, “She just couldn’t stay in her seat.”

“Nikki suffers from something that’s a very tough thing to suffer from. She’s overly ambitious,” Trump added later in the interview.

Like other female candidates, Haley has faced comments on her appearance that male contenders generally don’t encounter.

After she finished her stump speech in Marion last month and opened the floor for audience questions, a man offered Haley some advice: pick South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) as her vice president. “I really like her a lot, I don’t know how to say it, but she’s —” he trailed off. Another man quickly jumped in: “She’s hot.”

“Well, Nikki, you’re not too bad yourself,” the first man resumed. The crowd laughed. Haley smiled and threw her hand up in the air and said “thanks.”

“You are digressing really fast, I’m just saying,” Haley added, laughing off the incident before promising to keep in mind his running-mate suggestion.


A previous version of this article erroneously quoted Whit Ayres as saying, "You’ve got to sell your strikes," a reference to his view that Haley should bring up her removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State House more often. In fact, he said, "You’ve got to sell your strengths." The article has been corrected.

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Several major Republican candidates and three Democrats have officially declared they are running for their party’s 2024 presidential nomination, and plenty of others are making moves. We’re tracking 2024 presidential candidates here.

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