If pundits were to be believed earlier in August, there was a chance for a historic vice-presidential debate in 2020: two women of color facing off for the second-highest position in the United States. The speculation was that Nikki Haley, a former US envoy to the United Nations and a South Carolina governor, would replace Vice President Mike Pence on the Republican Party ticket.
This scenario could have led to a debate between Haley and Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominee for vice president. Both women are first-generation Americans of Indian descent, while Harris also identifies as Black. Both women aspire to the Oval Office someday.
But the historic all-female vice-presidential debate will have to wait. Haley appeared on the first night of the Republican National Convention, Aug. 24, supporting the re-election of President Trump and Pence. Pence, who also spoke on the first day of the convention, is scheduled to headline it on Aug. 26; Trump also spoke on the first night and plans to speak each day the event runs, from Aug. 24 to 27.
Using her most-sincere stagelike demeanor possible and raising her familiar refrain about her parents wearing a sari and a turban in her hometown of Bamberg, S.C., Haley avoided saying things like she was “taking names” — as she did on her first day as US ambassador to the UN. She also mostly avoided the words “Covid” and “coronavirus” — a disease that has killed 177,000 Americans as of Aug. 25. She said the pandemic in the US “has set us back but not for long.”
Haley also professed that it had been an “honor” of a lifetime to serve as the US ambassador, while describing the UN as a place where “dictators, murderers and thieves denounce America” — without naming names. In the past, she has used the word “disdain” to convey her feelings about the UN.
Trump tweeted after Haley’s speech at the convention: “As President Trump’s ambassador to the U.N., she defended our ally Israel and executed President Trump’s America First foreign policy.”
Haley, it seemed, could have been Trump’s wild-card answer to a flailing campaign and poor poll numbers. When she announced she was leaving the UN job in October 2018, Haley was so popular that CNN published an article asking: “Is Nikki Haley the Most Popular Politician in America?”
Almost as soon as she left her ambassadorship, speculation began that Haley would replace Pence or even Trump himself on the 2020 Republican ticket. In 2019, Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser to such Republican politicians as George W. Bush and John McCain, suggested that Trump would replace Pence with Haley. Meghan McCain, a TV personality and daughter of the late Senator McCain, revived the idea in March 2020. In his book that came out in June 2020, former National Security Adviser John Bolton wrote that Trump had considered replacing Haley with Pence.
In late July, Bill Kristol, editor at large of The Bulwark, an independent news site, and a Republican commentator who now disowns Trump, tweeted in July that he would replace Pence “with Haley or someone else” around Aug. 15, to try to disrupt the Democrats’ national convention. After Aug. 15, however, Kristol did not respond to queries from PassBlue as to whether he thought this would still happen.
Since Harris was announced as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate on Aug. 12, speculation escalated across many media sites about Trump’s response. Would he shake up his ticket, possibly during the Republican convention, to gain the “suburban women” vote? Apparently not.
On some issues that drive women’s votes, Haley’s policies closely align with Trump and the current Republican agenda; in the past she kept that focus close to her Tea Party affiliation as a politician in South Carolina. In 2012, on a TV show, “The View,” Haley said: “Women don’t care about contraception. They care about jobs and the economy and raising their families and all of those things.” She is against abortion, and in 2019, she said “pro-choice activists are not real feminists.”
When asked to sign a pledge for gender parity in her cabinet as a new South Carolina governor, Haley refused. In her book, “Can’t Is Not an Option,” she called the people following her gubernatorial cabinet appointments (nine white men, three white women, one African-American woman) “identity-politics bean counters.”
Ever since she resigned the UN post, Haley pledged that she would do all she could to see Trump re-elected, and her social media has attested to this commitment. Even after an unusual social media break for her, from June 1 until June 14 — at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US and globally — she renewed her ardent support for Trump on Twitter.
Her feed, with the exception of posts about her family, her dog and popcorn delivery, mirrors Trump’s agenda. Iran, China, Israel and international trade get the most mentions when she is talking policy. Each item was mentioned during her speech at the Republican convention.
Unlike the Republican Party itself, which did not release a policy platform for the convention, Haley stayed true to her policies, her record and her dedication to the Trump-Pence ticket during her speech. Her time at the UN was used as an indication of her strength and leadership — and Trump’s — when she said she was proud to cast the “American veto” against a UN Security Council resolution condemning the US’ moving its embassy to Jerusalem. She praised Trump’s policy on Iran, a little more than a week after the administration’s resolution to extend the Iran arms embargo failed in a Council vote.
Like Trump, Haley’s tweets bash his Democratic opponents, including Biden, who she says is controlled by Senator Elizabeth Warren, a “socialist” and that he is afraid of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her squad. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, according to Haley, needs to retire; while Harris, a relatively new member on Haley’s hit list, is a “radical” and “liberal.”
Haley has affirmed that Black lives matter, but that agreeability has been quickly followed by the assertion that all lives matter.
Covid-19, the world’s most-damaging pandemic in contemporary times, is rarely mentioned by Haley, as if she is allergic to the word and even as the US has the most-confirmed cases of the disease — 5.74 million — in the world and at least 177,000 deaths, topping the planet.
She also promoted Trump’s economic success in her convention speech, despite the country having the highest unemployment rate since the Depression. According to Haley, “Before Communist China gave us the coronavirus, we were breaking economic records left and right.” For the first three years in office under Trump, the economy continued the same rate of growth as it had for most of Obama’s second term.
Just as she did while ambassador at the UN, Haley continues to disagree with Trump over Russia. She is one of the few popular Republicans who openly contradicts Trump’s dismissal of reports of Russian interference in US elections and has publicly condemned the Russian bounty on US soldiers in Afghanistan.
Trump, who was more than 9 points behind Biden nationwide as of Aug. 25, per FiveThirtyEight, a polling site, might have been considering changes out of desperation in the moments he had mulled over dropping Pence for Haley. He has been trying to lure back voters who have fled the Republican Party, many of them women, by tweeting and commenting regularly about “suburban housewives.”
Trump still needs more female voting support, even with Pence on the ticket. A recent Monmouth University poll showed that among men, Trump leads Biden 51 percent to 39 percent. But among women, the larger demographic of voters in the US, Trump is under water, trailing the 61 percent of pro-Biden voters with only 32 percent.
This aligns with 2018 polling that found that white, college-educated women in battleground districts favored voting Democratic by almost 30 points, with a split of 62 to 35. Highly educated, suburban female voters have traditionally voted Republican, but that has been changing.
“Women have been leaving the Republican party since the 80s,” according to Thomas Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University and author of “Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?” in a phone interview with PassBlue. “The party’s position on many issues makes attracting women back tough sledding.”
Patterson also remarked that Pence has strong ties to the evangelical Christian community, and Trump probably did not want to risk any anger if he ditched Pence for Haley. While Haley is nominally an evangelical Christian, Pence is more closely connected to evangelicals, a community crucial for Trump’s political survival.
The question, experts interviewed for this article pointed out, is why would Haley be willing to risk tarnishing her popularity and join Trump’s ticket? To attract women back to the GOP, Haley would have had to shift both her own and the party’s agendas to be more appealing to women, at the expense of backing Trump’s policies.
Her convention speech could have been written with an eye on a later prize, debating the top of the presidential ticket, against Biden or Harris in 2024. Much of the Republican convention’s opening night was filled with vitriol and gross disinformation, so much that even Fox News cut away from broadcasting parts of it. But Haley’s 9-minute-and-23-second speech was broadcast fully.
“America is a story that’s a work in progress,” she said. “But now is the time to build on that progress, and make America even freer, fairer and better for everyone. That’s why it’s tragic to see so much of the Democratic Party turn a blind eye toward riots and rage.”
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Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.