Haley’s GOP Women’s Campaign a Game-Changer, with Trump Impacting US Election 2024

Nikki Haley’s Last Stand

With polls showing Nikki Haley trailing Donald Trump by a wide margin heading into this weekend’s South Carolina Republican primary, many political analysts characterise the vote as Haley’s last stand in her quixotic bid to win the party’s 2024 presidential nomination.

Regardless of the result, however, scholars have said that Haley’s campaign is a historic one. By outdistancing a field dominated by men to effectively challenge the immensely popular Trump, she has moved women one step closer to political parity in electoral politics.

Polls indicate that Trump is leading Haley by as many as 36 percentage points heading into Saturday’s South Carolina primary, even though Haley is a native and former governor of the Palmetto State. And while winning the South Carolina primary would open the door for Trump to capture the party’s nomination outright when 15 states hold their primaries simultaneously next month, Haley’s campaign has, at least in theory, charted a path to remain in the race until Super Tuesday, which could give the former United Nations ambassador an advantage in the 2028 presidential ballot.

Haley, for her part, has pledged to remain in the race despite the odds. Speaking at her alma mater, Clemson University, on Tuesday, she said, “Some of you — perhaps a few of you in the media — came here today to see if I’m dropping out of the race,” she said. “Well, I’m not. Far from it.”

Haley’s emergence as the last woman standing in what was a crowded race stands in stark contrast to candidates like former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and ex-Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who styled themselves as “anti-Trump” candidates. Conversely, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis hewed close to Trump in both style and substance before dropping out in January, after failing to distinguish himself from the frontrunner and presumptive nominee.

Haley, on the other hand, has staked out a middle ground, portraying herself as a would-be “accountant” in the White House, and consequently a calming alternative to Trump’s four years of “chaos”.

Initially circumspect in her criticism, Haley has turned up the heat as the GOP field has narrowed, attacking Trump’s efforts to insert loyalists in the Republican National Convention, highlighting his rising stack of legal troubles, and taking more direct aim at Trump’s “insecurity” and temper tantrums.

Her policy proposals, however, are not substantively different from her former boss, and as recently as this month, Haley told reporters in South Carolina that her campaign is not an “anti-Trump movement”.

Part of Haley’s strategy is to walk a tightrope when it comes to addressing her gender and Indian ancestry in a modern Republican party that is slow to change, Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told Al Jazeera.

For instance, Dittmar said that Haley has, in many ways, leaned into her role as the rare woman in a Republican presidential race, but she has not necessarily portrayed gender as a “point of merit”, underscoring the conservative “idea that somehow hearing about gender and racial identity is anti-meritocratic … and [Republicans] don’t play into identity politics.”

“If you go back to Hillary Clinton in 2016, she used to say, ‘I’m not asking you to vote for me because I’m a woman, I’m asking you to vote for me on the merits. But one of those merits is I’m a woman,’” Dittmar said.

In contrast, Haley has used gendered imagery to boost “masculine credentials” and an image of male toughness that still resonates in the party, repeatedly referring to her high-heeled shoes as “ammunition”. In the advertisement launching her campaign, she proclaimed, “When you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels.”

Moreover, on the issue of race, Haley has tacked to the right, consistent with Trump’s own views, sparking controversy by failing to cite slavery as a reason for the US Civil War.

A historical benchmark

In turn, Trump’s attacks on Haley suggest that there remains a tolerance – if not appetite – for racism and sexism among his supporters, Dittmar said.

Haley has fought back, launching the National Women for Nikki Coalition, a 50-state effort that many see as a last-ditch effort to energise the voting bloc.

While it may ultimately be a matter of too little, too late, Haley’s staying power in the race represents a historical benchmark for a political party that has traditionally been dominated by white men. And both voters, donors and the media appear to hold her in much higher regard than Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and self-proclaimed “hockey mom” who was often ridiculed by stand-up comedians and late-night talk show hosts.

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