Nikki Haley is running for president. She is the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the former governor of South Carolina. She is a savvy communicator and conservative. And she is a woman.
In 2023, thank goodness, Haley’s candidacy will not be defined by her sex—a credit to all the women who have run before and toppled expectations. And yet, Haley is the only woman to enter the 2024 presidential race so far, and that might remain the case. The fact of her sex will create opportunities and pitfalls—especially when it comes to the question of how she campaigns against the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump.
I saw a version of this dynamic play out eight years ago, when I ran Carly Fiorina’s presidential campaign. Our biggest hurdle was getting attention in a crowded field of 16 other Republican candidates, all of whom were men. At the first GOP primary debate, in the summer of 2015, we were relegated to the “kiddy table,” a pre-prime-time event with the lowest-polling candidates. Fiorina was widely seen as the winner of the debate, but her performance was quickly eclipsed by the shadow that Trump cast. At that point, our only available strategy was as annoying as it was obvious: If we wanted to get noticed, we needed Trump to attack Fiorina.
That wasn’t going to be a problem. Trump has an odd relationship with women. Sure, he insults everyone he deems insufficiently loyal and deferential to him, regardless of gender. But women garner a special type of attention from him—sometimes positive, sometimes negative. His attacks on Megyn Kelly, Elizabeth Warren, and Nancy Pelosi stand out among many examples of how vicious he can be toward women; each of them has male colleagues and counterparts whom Trump more often ignored. At the same time, Trump also singles out women to promote and elevate—Elise Stefanik, Kari Lake, Pam Bondi. And I think we all know who Trump’s favorite kid is.
This sets up a paradox for any female candidate running against Trump: You might get extra attention from him, and you might well need that attention. But his attacks can also underscore the fact that you are a woman, and add to the sexism you are already facing.
The old adage about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers—that she did everything he did but backwards and in heels—also applies in politics. For starters, it’s literally true. At the second GOP debate in the 2016 race, when CNN built a scaffolded stage so that Air Force One could be in the background at the Reagan Library, the debate organizers had to figure out how to build Fiorina a separate women’s bathroom. To access it, she had to get down a grated-metal staircase, in heels, with pantyhose, all within a five-minute commercial break. She opted to hold it for the duration of the two-hour debate. More seriously, running for president as a woman is still harder than running as a man. Haley faces an electorate that has not yet proved that it’s ready to elect a woman president.
But there’s another side to the dancing metaphor that is often overlooked. There were more eyes on Ginger Rogers than on Fred Astaire. She had the flowy dress and the long legs and the blond hair; he had the black suit. In politics, as in life, whatever makes you different also lets you stand out. Women make up the majority of grocery shoppers, teachers, and PTA members, and those experiences affect how we think about economic issues and school curricula. For most of us, our views about public safety are informed by the fear we feel when walking to our car at night. Haley starts with a certain advantage over her male peers because she knows what it means to be a woman, and women make up the majority of American voters.
But Donald Trump.
In the fall of 2015, Trump was giving an interview to Rolling Stone when he saw Fiorina pop up on a nearby TV screen. “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!” he told the magazine. “I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not [supposed to] say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?” Fiorina was asked about the quote during the Reagan Library debate, and although our campaign team had of course talked about Trump’s comments, we’d never rehearsed her answer. “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” she replied, to applause. It knocked Trump down for the rest of the debate. In response, he stammered out something about her being a “beautiful woman,” which made the moment even more cringeworthy.
It worked. Three days after the debate, Fiorina had jumped 12 points in the polls—she was now sitting in second place—and Trump had dropped eight points. Donations were pouring in. We suddenly felt like we had momentum. The problem was that she had been so effective against Trump that he never mentioned her name again. Our campaign spent the next six months drowning in his silence while the male candidates talked about the relative size of their “hands” on the debate stage. When it came to our media coverage, it turned out that even sexist attention was better than no attention at all.
So what does this mean for Haley as she figures out how to go up against Trump? It depends on what she wants out of this campaign. She can play to win, try for the vice presidency, or build for next time.
Haley surely knows she is a long shot to win the nomination. The Republican primary is beginning to look like the 2008 Democratic contest: All of the focus was on Hillary Clinton, the inevitable, and Barack Obama, the alternative. Nobody cared about John Edwards or Joe Biden. Haley is going to have a near-impossible time being taken seriously as long as Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis remain the focus of the Republican field.
But winning isn’t the only reason people run for president; sometimes they’re just hoping for a spot on the ticket. Fiorina ran a major U.S. company (Hewlett-Packard) and was a candidate for the U.S. Senate in California. I don’t think she did a single major interview in the 2016 campaign where she escaped having to answer the question “Are you running for vice president?” It was infuriating. I don’t remember any of the men getting asked this question. (Then, when the primary got down to the final three candidates, Ted Cruz asked her to be his running mate. So we sure proved everyone wrong.) Still, there’s no denying that running for president elevated Fiorina’s profile. She almost certainly would have been the VP pick or a high-ranking Cabinet secretary for 16 of the 17 GOP candidates. Too bad that 17th guy won.
As with Fiorina, the problem for Haley is that Trump is very unlikely to pick her to be his running mate. Since leaving his administration, Haley has awkwardly danced between praising and criticizing Trump. Then, after saying she would not run against him, she decided she would. She has already failed Trump’s first (and arguably only) test for women: loyalty to him in all things. Even if she helps him take down DeSantis, it won’t be enough. That’s a reason for her to root for DeSantis and even help him defeat Trump, in the hopes of becoming DeSantis’s VP pick.
A more obvious reason to run for president is simply to stay relevant for the next campaign. There is a long history of repeat candidates winning their party’s nomination on a second try. For Haley’s own political ambitions, a Trump nomination might be the best outcome: Whether he won or lost the general election, the GOP field would be open again in four years.
If Haley uses this campaign as her practice round, she can focus on selling her strengths as a candidate, building a national fundraising base, and increasing her name recognition. To do that, she needs to be part of the conversation. She needs to land punches against both Trump and DeSantis to get them to engage with her, and then weather the inevitable attacks. And she has to do it without alienating Trump’s or DeSantis’s voters.
So far, Haley is signaling that she’s willing to challenge her rivals. “I don’t put up with bullies,” she said in her campaign video. “And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels.” Now she just has to hope that Trump takes the bait. He usually does.