How to Campaign Against Trump as a Woman
Nikki Haley is running for President. She is a former US Ambassador to the United Nations and a former governor of South Carolina. She is an accomplished communicator and conservative. And she is a woman.
In 2023, Haley’s candidacy will thankfully not be determined by her gender — a credit to all women who have run before and exceeded expectations. And yet, so far, Haley is the only woman to have competed in the 2024 presidential race, and it may stay that way. The fact of her gender will create opportunities and pitfalls — particularly when it comes to how she’s fighting Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
I saw a version of this dynamic game eight years ago while running Carly Fiorina’s presidential campaign. Our biggest hurdle was attracting 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 “Children’s Table,” a pre-airtime event featuring the lowest-voted candidates. Fiorina was widely seen as the winner of the debate, but her performance was quickly eclipsed by the shadow Trump cast. At this point, our only strategy available was as annoying as it was obvious: if we wanted to stand out, we needed Trump to attack Fiorina.
That wouldn’t be a problem. Trump has a strange relationship with women. Sure, he insults anyone he deems insufficiently loyal and respectful, regardless of gender. But women get a special kind of attention from him—sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. His attacks on Megyn Kelly, Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi stand out among many examples of how vicious he can be towards women; each of them has male colleagues and counterparts that Trump more often ignores. At the same time, Trump also singles out women to nurture and uplift – Elise Stefanik, Kari Lake, Pam Bondi. And I think we all know who Trump’s favorite child is.
This leads to a paradox for any candidate running against Trump: you could get extra attention from him, and you could 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 — applies to politics, too. For starters, it’s literally true. At the second GOP debate of the 2016 race, when CNN built a scaffolded stage for Air Force One to perform in the background at the Reagan Library, debate organizers had to figure out how to build Fiorina a separate women’s bathroom. To access it, she had to descend a stairway of barred metal in heels and pantyhose within a five-minute commercial break. She chose to hold it for the duration of the two-hour debate. Seriously, running for President as a woman is still harder than running as a man. Haley faces an electorate that hasn’t yet proven they’re ready to elect a woman president.
But there’s another side to the dance metaphor that’s often overlooked. More eyes were on Ginger Rogers than Fred Astaire. She had the flowing dress and the long legs and the blond hair; He had the black suit. In politics, as in life, what sets you apart is what sets you apart. Women make up the majority of grocery shoppers, teachers and PTA members, and these experiences are affecting how we think about business issues and curriculum. For most of us, our beliefs about public safety are shaped by the fear we feel walking to our car at night. Haley starts with a certain advantage over her male counterparts because she understands 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 gave an interview Rolling Stone when he saw Fiorina appear on a nearby TV screen. “Seek in that face! would anyone poll for this? 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, guys, come on. Are we serious?” Fiorina was asked about the quote during the debate at the Reagan Library, and while our campaign team naturally discussed Trump’s comments, we never rehearsed her answer. “I think women across the 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 something about her being a “beautiful woman,” which made the moment even more terrifying.
It worked. Three days after the debate, Fiorina was up 12 points in the polls – she now sat in second place – and Trump was down eight points. Donations poured in. We suddenly felt like we were on the move. The problem was that she was so effective against Trump that he never mentioned her name again. Our campaign spent the next six months drowning in his silence as male candidates took to the debate stage to discuss the relative size of their “hands.” From our media coverage, it turns out that even sexist attention is better than no attention at all.
So what does that mean for Haley as she figures out how to take on Trump? It depends on what she wants from this campaign. She can play to win, run for vice presidency, or build for next time.
Haley certainly knows she’s a long way from winning the nomination. The Republican primary is beginning to look like the 2008 Democratic campaign: all the focus was on Hillary Clinton, the inevitable, and Barack Obama, the alternative. Nobody cared about John Edwards or Joe Biden. Haley will be almost impossible to be taken seriously as long as Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis remain at the center of the Republican field.
But victory isn’t the only reason people run for president; sometimes they just hope for a spot on the ticket. Fiorina ran a large US company (Hewlett-Packard) and ran for the US Senate in California. I don’t think she did a single major interview during the 2016 campaign where she escaped the question, “Will you be Vice President?” It was annoying. I can’t remember any of the men who were asked that question. (Then, when the primaries came down to the last three candidates, Ted Cruz asked her to be his running mate. So we’ve certainly proved everyone wrong.) Still, there’s no denying that running for president raised Fiorina’s profile. She almost certainly would have been the vice president or a senior cabinet secretary for 16 of the 17 GOP candidates. Too bad the 17th guy won.
As with Fiorina, the problem for Haley is that Trump is unlikely to pick her as his running mate. Since leaving his administration, Haley has danced awkwardly between praise and criticism of Trump. Then, after saying she wasn’t going to fight 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 bring down DeSantis, it won’t be enough. That’s a reason for her to support DeSantis and even help him defeat Trump in hopes of becoming DeSantis’ vice president.
A more obvious reason to run for president is simply to stay relevant to the next campaign. There is a long history of repeat candidates winning their party’s nomination on the second try. For Haley’s own political ambitions, a Trump nomination might be the best outcome: Whether he wins or loses the general election, the GOP field would be open again in four years.
Using this campaign as a practice session, Haley can focus on selling her strengths as a candidate, building a national fundraising base, and raising her profile. To do that, she needs to be part of the conversation. She must land punches at both Trump and DeSantis to get them to engage with her, and then survive the inevitable onslaughts. And she must do it without alienating Trump or DeSantis voters.
So far, Haley is signaling that she’s ready to challenge her rivals. “I don’t condone bullies,” she said in her campaign video. “And if you recline, it hurts them more if you wear heels.” Now all she has to do is hope Trump takes the bait. Usually he does.