“Do you know what John Hopkins defines a woman as? A non-man.”
These words were spoken by Nikki Haley, a Republican candidate for President, at her campaign event on Sept. 19, 2023. Standing on a small platform at Jethro’s BBQ in West Des Moines, her words echoed through the room. These words brought attention to an important fact: Nikki Haley is the only female fighting for the Republican nomination this caucus season.
She followed John Hopkins’ definition of a woman with a denunciation of it, arguing that this interpretation should be significantly edited. She highlighted that as a woman, she felt the description was insufficient for all it means to be one. Even asking the crowd- “We are much more than non-men, aren’t we?” The cheers in response from the room were some of the loudest of the morning, with one woman (in a v-cut “Women for Nikki” shirt) even jumping to her feet in exhilaration. She quickly moved on from the topic of gender, but it seemed it quite an important issue to many present there. Something about her mentioning womanhood appeared to spark a kind of electricity in the air, and her statements on it felt impactful to those present.
When I first got to Jethro’s BBQ on Saturday morning, a kind older lady immediately ushered my group and me to some open seats. We were seated in the front row (so close I feared if I sneezed, it may knock her off her platform) at a table and chairs. Looking around, it became clear that women really were for Nikki, much like the t-shirt suggested. Signs, stickers, and t-shirts filled the room, many of them with the same slogan. With a crowd of over a hundred people, a little over half were women, especially older women. These women, dressed in their best (I even saw three pairs of American flag earrings!), chattered excitedly before the event started. They excitedly spoke to some of the young women at the event, seemingly interested to see young people being active in politics. Overall, the room’s energy was cheerful and excitable as they waited for Haley to speak.
Along with having many women in the audience, a number of the event organizers were women as well (again, wearing the aforementioned “Women for Nikki” shirt). Frantically, they signed people in and sat them, constantly rearranging chairs to create more space as the venue almost completely filled up about 20 minutes after the doors opened. It seemed so women-oriented to some that the man trying to get the sound system running even said “Chick Check” instead of “Mic Check” a few times.
While Haley’s gender seemed very important to the people in attendance, her call of attention to it in her speech was quite uncharacteristic of Haley’s previous campaign methods thus far. So far, Haley has decentralized her gender from her campaign, instead focusing more on her merit as a candidate. In past elections, she has not centered her gender very much, even when it may have been opportune to do so. One example of this is Haley not even mentioning that she became the first governor of South Carolina who was not a white man, even though this fact could garner a lot of support from different voter populations. At the event, she tried to make her achievements central instead of her gender as in her past. After bringing up the non-man definition, Haley seemed to steer clear of what is commonly deemed “women’s issues” and how these issues play a role in the upcoming election. Most surprisingly, she even steered clear of abortion, not mentioning it once throughout the event despite having a clear position (even present in some of the literature handed out at the event).
While her gender was a plus for a lot of the audience, Haley seemed to have a variety of other appeal as well to both women and men (or should I say, non-women). When speaking to an older man at our table, it became apparent that Haley had a unique “it factor” about her aside from her gender.
According to the people in Jethro’s BBQ, this “it factor” seems to be an electability that some of the other candidates lack. Before the event officially started, I asked the man at our table why he had decided to support Haley over other candidates. He responded with a simple, resounding, “She can win.”
After a little conversation, I found out the man was a self-identified “snowbird” and spent half of his time in the year in Iowa and the other half in Florida. To me, it begged the question, why wasn’t he bucking for Ron DeSantis, current Florida governor, if he spent all that time in Florida? He answered by saying while he admired what DeSantis has done for Florida, Haley had much more grace, poise, and professionalism. He furthered this by mentioning former President Donald Trump, stating he didn’t find Trump electable due to his personality. He argued the way Haley presents herself makes her much more suited to the presidency instead.
This statement on how she carries herself certainly rings true, as she has a particular type of poise and grace. She spoke smoothly and intelligently during her speech with no stutter or pause. It was well-paced, and even her body language screamed calm and confident. I noticed she did not pace around her little stage but instead took an intentional step forward, back, or sideways with each new speech topic. Furthermore, she spoke passionately and emotionally. Her face was expressive, and her gestures even more so. The crowd did not seem bored or lost by her speech but instead invigorated by what she was saying (which is quite a feat at 9 a.m. in a BBQ restaurant not serving free BBQ).
As Ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina Governor, Haley is highly experienced in the realm of politics (both domestic and foreign) and comes off as such. While speaking, she cited many instances of her influencing policy and lawmaking in her past. She emphasized how she was straightforward and candid while doing so. Haley specifically recalled her work making South Carolina politicians more transparent by passing a reform bill requiring lawmakers’ votes to be “on the record.” She expressed how this bill helped keep politicians more accountable to their constituents in South Carolina. The audience cheered a lot at this, seemingly appreciative of her dedication to transparency, especially as she compared herself to other politicians who have been criticized for lack of transparency and even obscuring government processes.
Haley’s speech also focused on the idea that she would fix the problems “no one else would fix.” With this, she spoke explicitly about how politicians often ignore education and how she made it and continues to make it a priority instead. She emphasized how much work she did in education in South Carolina. Specifically, she talked about how she expanded school choice by funding more charter schools and implemented educational measures in South Carolina to improve its low ranking in education and bring it back up again. Again, the audience seemed to appreciate this piece about her considerably – that she would be willing to fix problems others ignored.
In a pretty unconventional piece of her speech, Haley even called out Republicans in both national and state governments for ignoring issues. As a Republican herself, the call out of her party was fairly shocking. She primarily targeted Republicans in Congress, arguing that they have not upheld their duties to the American people. She specifically cited them as having created more of the budget crisis and national debt due to their overspending than Democrats have for several decades. This statement was met with huge applause and cheers from the audience. Seeing this made it evident that many appreciate Haley’s transparency, candor, and boldness in calling attention to problems commonly swept under the rug, even by those of her same party.
After her speech, Haley proceeded to answer many questions from the audience. From questions on sustainable energy sources to relations with China to ethanol (you've got to love Iowans), the audience seemed pleased by her answers. In all truthfulness, there were quite a few hardball questions thrown Haley’s way, but she handled them with poise. She also expertly brought up many of her other successes, such as lowering recidivism rates in South Carolina, to seemingly unrelated questions, but she connected them well.
Overall, Nikki Haley's town hall event appeared to be a resounding success. She portrayed herself as a transparent doer, as someone who is not entrenched in the obscurity of politics, and as a well-spoken person with leadership skills. The Iowans at Jethro’s responded significantly to this. The energy was up throughout the event, and people seemed thrilled at the thought of Haley’s campaign. Past her being a woman, it appears to Iowans that Haley has something else unique about her relative to her Republican opponents – her sense of poise.