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Nikki Haley Is The First Woman of Color To Run For The Republican Nomination

Former President Donald Trump is no longer the only candidate in the 2024 Republican primary. On Tuesday Nikki Haley announced that she’s running for president too. Haley was the United Nations ambassador under Trump and a governor of South Carolina — and now, she’s the second major candidate in the GOP race.

Haley’s presidential bid isn’t just significant because she’s the first candidate to openly challenge Trump. As a child of Indian immigrants, she’s also the first woman of color — and the fifth woman ever — to run for the Republican presidential nomination as a major candidate. Haley’s race and gender are particularly noteworthy because Republican women of color are rare in elected office, although their numbers did grow after the 2020 election. The fact that she’s going up against Trump will sharpen the contrast, particularly if he uses the racist and sexist attacks he’s employed against past challengers. Haley’s candidacy will be a high-profile test of how a woman of color is received by Republican primary voters.

There’s a reason why we were speculating that Haley could be the first female president way back in 2020 — she’s been floating around the list of possible GOP contenders for a while. Her star began rising in the Republican Party in 2010 after she was elected governor of South Carolina, beating back several other Republican opponents in a primary she wasn’t expected to win. After some initial struggles within the South Carolina Republican establishment, she made a name for herself nationally when she pushed to have the Confederate flag removed from the South Carolina statehouse in the wake of the racist killing of nine worshipers at a Black church in Charleston. Then in early 2016, Haley gave her party’s response to Obama’s State of the Union address and went on to serve two years as Trump’s ambassador to the U.N., which gave her foreign policy experience she’s sure to draw on during her run. 

Still, she’s not especially well-known among Republican primary voters, at least compared to Trump and two other potential 2024 contenders, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence. And her net favorability is lower than Trump and DeSantis, although it is higher than Pence’s.

Until someone else jumps into the race, Haley will be the sole object of Trump’s attention — and because she’s a woman of color, Haley’s gender and race are likely to be front and center.

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That’s not new for Haley. She opened her campaign announcement by saying that she was “different,” having grown up as the daughter of Indian immigrants in a South Carolina town divided by race and has previously talked about her family’s own experiences with racism — during her 2010 campaign, she often mentioned how she was disqualified from a beauty pageant as a child because the judges traditionally named one Black and one white winner, and she was neither. But Haley uses that story and other examples of racism she’s experienced to talk about how far the country has come, not where it needs to go. “I was a brown girl, in a Black and white world. We faced discrimination and hardship. But my parents never gave in to grievance and hate,” she said in a speech at the 2020 Republican National Convention. She hit a similar note in her announcement video: “My mom would always say your job is not to focus on the differences, but the similarities,” she said. “And my parents reminded me and my siblings every day how blessed we were to live in America.”

She’s likely to face fresh challenges in this contest, though, because, despite the strides that Republican women of color made in congressional elections two years ago, they’re still severely underrepresented at every level of government. Of the 19 Republican women who have served as governor, only two have been women of color, including Haley. And of the women of color elected to the House in 2022, 90 percent were Democrats. 

As we’ve written for the site, the dearth of women among Republican politicians’ ranks is due to two self-reinforcing problems: They’re less likely to run for office, and when they do run, they face significant barriers in the form of voter stereotypes and a lack of institutional support. Because fewer women identify as Republicans, the pool of potential female Republican candidates is just smaller than Democrats’. Moreover, Republican women are more likely than Republican men to have an aversion to the competitive nature of politics, which helps explain their lower levels of political ambition. Plus, ample research finds that being asked to run is vital to increasing women’s representation, but the organization arm of the GOP doesn’t appear to be prioritizing recruiting women candidates in their party. As the 2022 primaries showed, even groups that care about electing more Republican women failed to coordinate to advance that goal.

Candidate issues aside, when Republican women do run, they run into additional roadblocks. All women who run for office face a double bind — where they have to overcome gender stereotypes to prove they’re a strong leader, while avoiding other negative perceptions of women who seek power — but Republicans hold more traditional views about women’s roles, which means their voters may penalize women candidates even more. Many Republican voters don’t think it’s a problem that politics remains male-dominated: According to a 2019 Pew survey, just 33 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe there are too few women in politics, compared to 79 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.​​ There’s also more overt sexism within the GOP base: According to a 2022 poll from PerryUndem, 22 percent of Republicans said that men generally make better political leaders than women, compared to just 4 percent of Democrats.

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Being both a woman and a person of color running in a Republican contest may make things even more difficult for Haley. Increasingly, individuals who harbor more resentment toward people of color are migrating to the GOP, and there’s evidence the same is happening for people with more conservative views about women’s roles in society. The PerryUndem poll found that just 14 percent of Republicans agreed that the country would be better off with more women of color in office, compared to 70 percent of Democrats. Catherine Wineinger, a political science professor at Western Washington University who studies Republican women candidates, said that dual identities can trigger multiple stereotypes. Women and people of color are generally perceived to be more liberal, so female candidates of color will have to work extra hard to prove their conservative bona fides. White Republican women, meanwhile, can present a persona that’s fairly aggressive — think Reps. Lauren Boebert or Marjorie Taylor Greene — but women of color often can’t do that because of negative stereotypes about people of color. “Republican women of color have to navigate that [terrain] more carefully because of racial stereotypes that would paint them as angry,” Wineinger said. 

Trump’s presence in the race will likely sharpen some of these dynamics. Even before she formally announced her candidacy, Trump publicly dismissed Haley as “overly ambitious” — a trope that’s weaponized against women who seek all kinds of power and authority. And when he ran against Hillary Clinton in 2016, many of Trump’s attacks were explicitly gender-based, which may actually have endeared him to key segments of his base. Several studies conducted after the 2016 election found that sexism was a powerful motivator for some of Trump’s supporters.

Haley, however, is not in quite the same position as Clinton because she’s a member of Trump’s own party. That won’t shield her from sexist attitudes — in some ways, removing partisanship from the equation could make her even more vulnerable. There’s a long line of research indicating that party loyalty often blunts the effect of sexism — a Republican voter who would prefer a male president will generally still vote for a Republican woman over a Democratic man. That’s one reason why scholars sometimes argue that sexism doesn’t have an impact in general elections, because voters are so guided by their party affiliation. But in primaries, candidates’ personal characteristics stand out more. A recent study of the 2020 Democratic primary found that women candidates and candidates of color were seen as less electable than the white men in the race, which hurt their overall support.

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Still, it is possible that Haley could turn her identity as a woman of color into a benefit. Wineinger told us that Haley could turn her background as a mother and child of immigrants to her advantage when talking about issues like critical race theory or abortion. “She can say, ‘Hey, as a woman I have these anti-abortion stances,’” Wineinger said. And her identity as a woman of color could help set her apart in a race where she seems likely to be running against a field of white men. Haley seemed to be deliberately leaning into her identity as a woman as her campaign video closed. “I don’t put up with bullies,” she said. “And when you kick back, it hurts them more when you’re wearing heels.”

Either way, Haley’s entry into the race is a historic moment — and how her campaign unfolds will tell us a lot about what it means to run as a Republican woman of color today.

Clarification (Feb. 15, 11:15 a.m.): This story has been updated to clarify that Haley is the first woman of color to be a major candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Meredith Conroy is an associate professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and co-author of “Who Runs? The Masculine Advantage in Candidate Emergence.”


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