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Nikki Haley was the only woman on the debate stage. She capitalized on it.

“If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”

The Republican debate stage with candidates behind podiums in a row.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley talked about identity and took slightly more moderate policy positions at the debate.
Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

When the first 2024 Republican debate started on Wednesday, the visual of the stage was striking: On it were seven men clad in dark suits and red ties, and one woman — former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — wearing a white and blue boucle dress. Her gender immediately stood out, and during the debate Haley leveraged this distinction as an asset.

​​“I think this is exactly why Margaret Thatcher said if you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman,” Haley quipped at one point following a prolonged exchange of personal insults between former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy. (Among other things, Christie said Ramaswamy sounded “like ChatGPT” in human form, while Ramaswamy accused Christie of hugging former President Barack Obama.) In that comment and others, Haley leaned into her gender as a unique selling point when it came to her leadership style, and as a factor in how she discusses policies like abortion.

It was a notable move given how reluctant Republicans have been to embrace what they call identity politics — or to even admit that race and gender can affect how you approach policy. The GOP has long called identity politics divisive, and argued that it falsely suggests that different groups can have unique experiences and be marginalized.

Although Haley’s strategy may not appeal to the segment of Republican voters who still hold sexist views, it, along with slightly more moderate policy positions, could resonate with moderate women voters who turned away from Trump — and the GOP — in 2020. Haley stressed Wednesday that she believes she’s uniquely equipped to win back those voters, arguing that because of his past actions and policies, “Trump is the most disliked politician in America. We cannot win a general election that way.”

According to a focus group Navigator Research conducted with 33 independent Wisconsin voters after the debate, 45 percent said they believed Haley had won, the highest proportion to say that of any candidate. However, while Haley may have won over a small sample of independents in a key swing state, to capitalize on any gains she made Wednesday night, she’ll have to make it out of the Republican primary first. And at the moment, Trump’s dominant performance in primary polls makes it difficult to see how Haley, or any other GOP candidate, might win the opportunity to campaign in the general election.

[Related: Republicans showed their hands — and Trump is still holding aces]

How Haley referenced gender during the debate

In addition to the one-liner she used to go after her fellow candidates, Haley referenced gender more implicitly in her responses regarding multiple policies.

While speaking on abortion, for example, and how the Republican Party can try to win back voters who’ve been appalled by GOP bans, she spoke about her own difficult experience having children and the importance of finding a “consensus” on proposals that keep in mind abortion is “personal for every woman and man.” In her response, Haley didn’t provide a specific answer for where she stands on a ban, but instead said she supported voters having the ability to weigh in.

“Let’s treat this like a respectful issue that it is and humanize the situation and stop demonizing the situation,” she said.

In another exchange, Haley weaponized her gender as a way to perpetuate hateful anti-trans sentiment by falsely arguing that trans women on girls’ sports teams posed a major problem. “I will always say I am going to fight for girls because strong girls become strong women. Strong women become strong leaders,” she said. “Biological boys don’t belong in the locker rooms of any of our girls.”

The Republican Party has struggled with women voters

Haley’s debate framing comes as the Republican Party has both struggled with women voters and made inroads in electing more women to Congress at a glacial pace. In the 2020 election, President Joe Biden won 57 percent of women voters, while Trump won 42 percent, according to CNN exit polls. In Congress, 43 percent of House Democrats are women, while just 16 percent of House Republicans are.

As the headline of a 2022 Chicago Sun-Times editorial from Republican commentator S.E. Cupp read, “Republicans have a woman problem.”

Republicans’ intent focus on rolling back abortion rights has only exacerbated this problem as it’s further pushed women voters away from the party. A June 2023 NBC News poll found that 67 percent of women disapproved of the overturning of Roe, including 66 percent of suburban women and 77 percent of women aged 18-49. Abortion ballot initiatives also won big in 2022, and the issue was seen to benefit Democrats, both in 2022 races, and in those that followed, like a Wisconsin Supreme Court race that centered heavily on the issue.

Haley’s comments about her identity and slightly more moderate positioning on some policies could be a way for Republicans to reach some of these voters who believe the GOP has gone too far on abortion. Whether it will make any difference for the viability of her immediate candidacy in the Republican primary, however, seems unlikely.

While post-debate polling isn’t yet available, the latest FiveThirtyEight polling average has Trump at 52 percent and Haley at 3 percent. Several of the points she made during the debate — including about Trump’s massive spending and national unpopularity — sought to undercut that lead, though so far nothing — including the former president’s extensive legal troubles — has made a significant dent.

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