Thursday, May 23, 2024

Inside the warehouse for an upscale department store chain in eastern Iowa, Michele Barton, wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with “Women for Nikki” in bright pink letters, mused excitedly about the prospect of sending the first woman to the White House. But Ms. Barton, 52, a mother of four and a lifelong Republican, was quick to insist that she was not supporting Nikki Haley because she is a woman.

“I think she is the right candidate,” she said on Wednesday as she waited for Ms. Haley to appear at a town-hall event in Davenport. “It just so happens that she is a woman.”

It’s a familiar refrain from some of Ms. Haley’s most enthusiastic female supporters, who, like the candidate herself, downplay the importance of her gender in the 2024 presidential race, even as they celebrate the potentially historic nature of her bid.

Ms. Haley is performing this balancing act at a striking moment in U.S. politics. Her climb in the polls and the struggles of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida mean that the Republican candidate with the best hope of pushing the party beyond former President Donald J. Trump — who has a long history of misogynist remarks and sexual misconduct allegations — might well be a woman.

Throughout her campaign, Ms. Haley has sought to tread a fine line in talking about her gender. She emphasizes elements of her life and career that inherently set her apart in an otherwise all-male field, but avoids leaning into identity politics in ways that might repel the largely white and graying base of conservative voters she needs to court in order to win the nomination.

“I don’t want to just be a woman,” she told Charlamagne Tha God on “The Daily Show” last month. “I don’t want to just be Indian. I don’t want to just be a mom. I don’t want to just be a Republican. I don’t want to just be all of those things. I’m more than that. And I think every person is more than that.”

Her stump speech includes nods to her experiences as a mother and a military spouse. Her pithy rejoinders to her rivals invoke her five-inch heels. Her list of close-out songs at town-hall events includes Sheryl Crow’s “Woman in the White House.”

On the campaign trail in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, she rarely brings up her gender, which her allies believe could be a potent asset to win over college-educated voters and suburban women in a general election, if she were to beat Mr. Trump in the primary.

Chris Cournoyer, an Iowa state senator and Ms. Haley’s state chairwoman there, said these demographics could also help Ms. Haley become more competitive in the state, where she has trailed Mr. Trump in polls by a wide margin and until recently also lagged behind Mr. DeSantis. “I’ve heard from a lot of women who are independents, a lot of women who are Democrats, that they are going to switch parties to caucus for her on Jan. 15,” Ms. Cournoyer said.

Although she often mentions her barrier-breaking victory to become the first woman and first person of color to serve as governor of South Carolina, Ms. Haley does so mainly to argue that the United States is not “rotten” or “racist.”

Her event on Wednesday at the Von Maur warehouse in Davenport may have been billed as a Women for Nikki event, but aside from three coalition T-shirts on display near the entrance, the venue carried few signs of the all-female, grass-roots groups that have helped spread her message.

Both Republican strategists and gender studies scholars say that Ms. Haley’s relatively muted approach to gender on the trail makes sense: The path to higher office for women is often paved with double standards and gender biases, regardless of a candidate’s party or ideology. But it can be particularly difficult for Republican women. Conservative voters tend to harbor traditional views about femininity while expecting candidates to seem “tough.”

A recent study from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University found that Republicans were less likely than Democrats to see distinct barriers to women’s political representation, support targeted efforts to increase diversity in politics and pressure party leaders to embrace strategies to expand the ranks of women in power.

Kelly Dittmar, who as the center’s research director worked on the report and has analyzed Ms. Haley’s political bids, said she saw parallels between Ms. Haley’s campaigns for governor and president. In both, Ms. Haley’s ads have talked about being “new” and “different,” offering cues to voters about her race and gender but, Ms. Dittmar said, allowing them to interpret the words as they wished.

“It is both strategic and in line with her own conservative identity,” Ms. Dittmar said, adding that as a candidate for governor Ms. Haley rejected calls from her constituents to promise that she would appoint an even number of men and women to her administration.

No woman has ever won the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, or even a state Republican presidential primary, and Ms. Haley is only the fifth prominent Republican woman to run for her party’s nomination. Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, last made the attempt in 2016, and she made gender central to her campaign.

With her own calibrated approach, Ms. Haley has sought to lean into her foreign policy and executive experience, challenge misconceptions about women and electability and position herself as one of her party’s most effective messengers on abortion, despite having signed some of the nation’s toughest anti-abortion restrictions as governor of South Carolina. She recently said that as governor she would have signed a six-week ban on the procedure.

The approach has won her some of her most devoted supporters and often unpaid volunteers — women willing to drive for hours to set up chairs, collect contact information and hype up her bid. Campaign officials say that Women for Nikki chapters have now emerged in all 50 states. At recent town halls in Iowa, at least two women asked her to reiterate her stance on abortion, though they had already heard it, so that others in the room could hear it, too.

“I don’t think the fellas know how to talk about it properly,” she said both times.

And yet, the issue of gender has remained inescapable. In the fourth Republican presidential debate, the entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy lobbed gendered attacks, accusing her of benefiting from “identity politics,” as former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey went the other direction, defending her in what some of her supporters saw as playing the white knight. Then, there is Mr. Trump, who calls her a “Birdbrain” and remains popular among Republican women.

A poll from The New York Times and Siena College released this month found that 63 percent of female Republican primary voters supported Mr. Trump. Ms. Haley had 12 percent support from that group. Other surveys show her garnering more support from men than women. But in hypothetical matchups, Ms. Haley has beaten President Biden by the widest margin of any Republican challenger, roughly splitting female votes with him.

“Nikki has potent electability against Biden, but she needs to find potent electability against Trump,” said Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who has been working to defeat Mr. Trump. “Right now, voters just don’t believe she can do it, and so she has to change that perception.”

Perhaps Ms. Haley best captured her approach in response to a question from a prospective voter while campaigning this week in Agency, Iowa. Listening to Ms. Haley on the warehouse floor of a corn seed company, Sarah Keith, 28, a chemical engineer, wanted to know how the candidate would draw more women into the party, particularly those dissatisfied with the liberal agenda.

“They talk about women’s issues,” Ms. Haley said, referring to the Democrats and defining those concerns as the same ones that worry most voters, including the economy and national security. “I think women are tired. I think everybody is tired of the noise, and what they want is just to see results.”

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