Haley's campaign exposed cracks in Trump's GOP

Her run also underscored a narrow path for women in the Republican Party.

March 7, 2024, 3:33 PM

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley's presidential campaign was both brief, barely lasting until Super Tuesday, and seemingly prolonged, as she stayed in the race even as it became clear she didn't have an electoral path to the nomination.

Haley was the last woman standing in a field of Republican primary candidates that seemed like long shots from the get-go. As New York Times opinion columnist Jamelle Bouie cogently explained when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis dropped out, "the fact is that the only way DeSantis — or any other Republican candidate — could have prevailed is if Trump had not been in the race to begin with." Of course, these two challengers ended up cutting quite different profiles with their unsuccessful campaigns. DeSantis, a staunch conservative who'd built a MAGA-adjacent profile as governor, seemed like a natural successor to former President Donald Trump, whom he endorsed immediately after dropping out. In contrast, Haley pivoted by the end of the primary contest to position herself in true opposition to Trump, and has yet to endorse him.

Though its ending seemed to confirm Trump's juggernaut status within the GOP, Haley's unsuccessful campaign may have both illuminated the underlying divisions within her party and paradoxically helped maintain its cohesion. And in another contradiction, it underscored both the enduring prevalence of sexism in politics and the electability of women.

It's Trump's party, but a notable minority aren't on board

Trump's primary wins were largely decisive, but they weren't overwhelming. As political scientist Seth Masket explained, Trump hardly garnered the unified support expected for an incumbent-like figure. Haley exceeded polling expectations in several contests, and earned a substantial share of the vote against Trump in early-voting contests: 43 percent in New Hampshire and 40 percent in South Carolina, where she was the only other major candidate remaining. She received just 19 percent of the vote in Iowa, but Trump barely won a majority (51 percent) competing against the slightly larger field.

Haley's showing here highlights a notable division within the Republican party, and also underscores the potential impact of Republican-leaning independent voters, whom she did particularly well with, and other Haley primary supporters. A February Emerson College Polling survey found that 57 percent of likely GOP voters who planned to support Haley in the primaries said they would vote for President Joe Biden over Trump in November, while 29 percent would back Trump and 15 percent weren't sure. (It's worth noting, though, that this doesn't necessarily represent a new vulnerability for Trump in the general election: Siena College/New York Times polling found a plurality of Haley's supporters voted for Biden over Trump in 2020.)

Since she left the race, at least one pro-Haley super PAC has pivoted to push Haley's supporters toward Biden's camp. Other data suggests a decent share of GOP primary voters are already convinced: According to AP's exit polling in the early states, 20 percent in Iowa, 34 percent in New Hampshire and 25 percent in South Carolina said that if Donald Trump were the Republican Party's presidential nominee, they would be "dissatisfied enough that [they] would not vote for him in November."

While this bloc of anti-Trump GOP primary voters is obviously not a majority, it's a large enough minority to make a difference electorally. But in the early days of her campaign, Haley, and other major candidates, attacked Trump "carefully." Far from courting those anti-Trump voters, they targeted each other on the debate stage as opposed to Trump. Seeing little change in their standing with that message, most other candidates dropped out of the race — but the Haley campaign seemed to change tack, arguing that the party has been flagging under Trump's leadership. Ahead of South Carolina's Feb. 24 primary, she ramped up her attacks, saying Trump had been a "disaster" for the party, and that she would refuse to "kiss the ring," seemingly alluding to other challengers' public and profuse endorsements of Trump.

Almost incidentally, it seemed, Haley became a protest candidate. It's a label that reflects not only her decision to directly attack Trump, but also Trump's incumbent-like stature within the party. At an election night party in South Carolina, Haley framed her candidacy explicitly in terms of providing an alternative choice for a "fully divided" Republican party, telling the crowd, "In the next 10 days, another 21 states and territories will speak. They have the right to a real choice. Not a Soviet-style election with only one candidate. And I have a duty to give them that choice."

Of course, you could argue her run was a bit of a mirage, as she came to represent values and voters largely abandoned by MAGA-style politics. Her candidacy drew from Republicans who long for Reagan- or Bush-era conservatism, which Haley has come to represent, and she did better with more moderate, educated and suburban Republicans, all groups that Trump has struggled to woo. But even with her departure, her "protest run," in garnering media attention and offering at least the illusion of a competitive contest, may end up helping keep Trump's party together by leading these voters to believe they still have a home in it — even as her run also made clear that, at least for now, the modern GOP belongs to Trump.

An electability argument for Republican women

One of Haley's main pitches to voters was that she would beat Biden in November. On the stump and in ads, she regularly made the (ill-supported) claim that she would beat Biden by 17 points in the general election. That number comes from a Wall Street Journal poll from last year, but doesn't tell the whole story: Other polls have shown a much tighter theoretical race between Haley and Biden.

"Electability" is a fraught concept, and discussions about who is electable have been called a "trap," especially for women and people of color, because historically white men have dominated high political office in the U.S — that is to say, we are conditioned to think white men are more electable because they've more often been elected. In the 2020 Democratic primary, there was no shortage of think pieces and polls about electability, in no small part because of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's loss to Trump in 2016 (e.g., "Warren battles the ghosts of Hillary"). The question of whether nominating a woman would lead to another loss in 2020 seemed to be at the top of Democrats' minds, to the detriment of prominent female candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

For instance, a poll by the progressive think tank Data for Progress found that if given a "magic wand" that would automatically make their first choice the president, Warren was respondents' top pick. But those same respondents said they would vote for Biden without the magic wand. That calculus — withholding support for a preferred candidate out of concern that others will object to that candidate because of their identity — has been termed "strategic discrimination" and shown to negatively impact female candidates.

Fast forward to the 2024 GOP primary, and there was much less being made of Haley's electability. That could be due to how unpopular both Biden and Trump currently are. Or it could be because she wasn't viewed as a serious threat to actually defeat Trump, let alone make it to the general election and become president. Research by political scientist Nichole Bauer finds that perceptions of women as political leaders are positive in the abstract. But in a competitive electoral environment, the backdrop for the evaluation shifts, and perceptions of female leadership decline.

That a female candidate was able to make an electability argument was notable. But unfortunately for Haley, while electability didn't seem to be a weakness, it wasn't necessarily a strength either. For one, while many national polls did show her beating Biden by a larger margin than Trump, GOP primary voters didn't seem to believe it. Four in five Republican or Republican-leaning Americans in a January ABC News/Ipsos survey said Trump had the best chance of winning the presidency, out of remaining GOP candidates. Seventy-one percent of South Carolina Republican primary voters in a late January Monmouth/Washington Post poll said the former president would probably beat Biden, compared to 63 percent who said the same of Haley. Other early voting state polls that asked the question showed similar deficits for Haley. It's a small but meaningful gap, though it's hard to say how much these perceptions reflect respondents' personal preferences — after all, a solid majority of Republicans support Trump — and how much these perceptions, or even the preferences themselves, reflect strategic discrimination.

Plus, national polls, on average, show Trump beating Biden, too. Perhaps in part because of Trump's edge on electability, it didn't seem to drive voter choice in this year's GOP primary, unlike what we saw in the 2020 Democratic primary. For example, nearly two in three likely South Carolina GOP primary voters in a January Monmouth University/Washington Post poll cared more about supporting a candidate whose issue stances they agreed with, versus someone most likely to beat Biden in November — which was true of both Haley and Trump supporters. In contrast, a 2020 ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 58 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners preferred a candidate who could beat Trump over one whose stances they agreed with — and those who said so were more likely to support Biden over far-left candidate Bernie Sanders.

It's (still) hard to run as a Republican woman

In January, Haley wrote on X, formerly Twitter, "Is America ready for a female president? You bet, and I'm going to be the one to make them proud." It's the kind of statement that draws applause, or even tears, among Democrats. But the same isn't necessarily true in the GOP, a party that, unlike Democrats, is less outwardly committed to electing women.

According to a 2023 Pew survey, 75 percent of Democrats, but only 29 percent of Republicans, say there are too few women in politics. In that same survey, 57 percent of Democrats and only 14 percent of Republicans said it was at least somewhat important to them that the U.S. elects a female president in their lifetime. Beyond this, a Suffolk University/USA Today poll from December 2022 found 50 percent of Republicans said the ideal president would be a man (2 percent said a woman, and the rest said gender didn't matter), while a 2022 poll from PerryUndem found that 22 percent of Republicans said men generally make better political leaders than women (compared to just 4 percent of Democrats who agreed with that statement).

So it's no surprise that Republican women may also face harsher scrutiny from those within their own party: Haley's statements emphasizing her gender have drawn ridicule from fellow Republicans and Trump acolytes. When Haley announced she was running, Trump made a swipe that she is "overly ambitious," a trope often weaponized against women seeking office. She also faced other subtle attacks invoking her gender throughout her campaign: a DeSantis ad tied her to Hillary Clinton, Trump mocked her "fancy dress that probably wasn't so fancy," and Vivek Ramaswamy called her "Dick Cheney in 3-inch heels" (though, to be fair, he seemed to be aiming this barb at DeSantis as well).

In a party with a growing disdain for "identity politics," talking about being a woman as a Republican is largely written off as playing the "gender card," while not doing so might be seen as subversive, because Republicans have more traditional views on femininity. So despite evidence of Republicans' hostility toward women in public life, Haley threaded the needle by making subtle references to being a woman, a wife and a mother on the campaign trail. She even weaponized gender herself, to call out ways that her opponents weren't manly.

Haley — who in 2022 literally wrote a book about women leaders — made all of these choices carefully and intentionally, all while implicitly denying that she was in it to shatter the "glass ceiling." She generally did not deviate from her party on issues, like abortion, that women may prioritize or have more moderate views on. Yet she was still perceived as the more moderate candidate, which was likely due in some part to being a woman — Republican women are perceived as more moderate than Republican men, even if they are not. That fact may help explain why some of the most devout and outspoken MAGA-esque Republicans in the Trump era are women.

Ultimately, Haley's candidacy illustrated the tightrope that women walk when they run, and how much narrower it is when you're campaigning as a Republican.

But, perhaps paradoxically, a close look at how gender intersects with party identity yields clues as to why Haley's electability argument could have seen some success. So long as U.S. voters view the presidency as a symbol of the country's strength and power, women are at an inherent disadvantage. It's part of why Haley regularly touted her foreign policy experience, and that may have helped her with some voters. But research also shows that Republican women as a whole, likely due to their association with the Republican Party (which traditionally owns issues of national security and defense), are able to overcome some of the symbolic limits Democratic women face. It's why a number of scholars who study gender and politics speculate the first female president will be a Republican.

Now what?

When she suspended her campaign after Super Tuesday, Haley quoted Margaret Thatcher ("never just follow the crowd") and specifically thanked women and girls for their support. In that sense, she must realize how her candidacy will be remembered, even if it started out as something very different.

While most other losing candidates did the political calculus and threw their lot in with Trump — as Haley once did herself — Haley, at least for now, seems to have taken a different path. In doing so, her prolonged, losing campaign did the most to signal a deeper problem within her party, though it could easily be overlooked in the face of Trump's dominance and the country's pivot to the general election contest. Whether those intraparty problems will rear their head and trouble the GOP in November or beyond remains to be seen. But if they do, Haley has positioned herself as a natural heir to course correct.

Such an ending wouldn't be surprising, at least from a gendered perspective. The "glass cliff" is a phenomenon where women (and members from other marginalized groups) are hoisted up to lead during crises, because in times of precarity and high risk of failure, women finally get their shot.

Mary Radcliffe contributed research.