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How Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy are taking different approaches to identity on the campaign trail

The two Indian Americans vying for a Republican presidential nomination are using very different tactics to court a largely white, Christian voter base.
Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy are up against Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis and others in the Republican primary.
Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy are up against Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis and others in the Republican primary.Getty Images

Among a sea of white candidates in the GOP primary, two Indian Americans are vying for the nomination — or at least a spot in the public’s memory. But when it comes to selling their racial identities to an overwhelmingly white, Christian Republican voter base, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley have very different approaches, experts said.

Ramaswamy, 37, who hails from Ohio, has quickly become the party’s latest underdog, currently polling at No. 3. He’s beating former Vice President Mike Pence, though still trailing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump by large margins. 

Building much of his platform on fighting “wokeism” and “Covidism,” Ramaswamy has branded himself as pro-Trump throughout his campaign. He’s also a Hindu and has been outspoken about it. Experts say he’s employing his race and religion in ways not seen before on the GOP side.

“There’s something novel about his story,” said Pawan Dhingra, a professor of American studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts. “There are different angles of his story — one is a Hindu, one as an Indian, one is as an outsider, one is as a tech millionaire — than a standard politician.” 

Haley, 51, born Nimrata Randhawa to Sikh parents, is a much more established political figure. She started her career decades ago in South Carolina, and experts say her race has been a background actor in her life. She converted from Sikhism to Christianity and opted to go by her middle name, Nikki.

Haley’s campaign did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.

Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, currently polls in fifth place and has taken more moderate positions than her contemporaries, including on critiquing Trump. 

“She has sort of this folksy, down-home appeal,” said Varun Nikore, executive director of the AAPI Victory Alliance, a progressive nonprofit group representing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that has not made any 2024 endorsements. 

When Haley talks about her race, it’s usually in the context of overcoming it, experts say, or as a way to dismiss racism in the United States.

Ramaswamy and Haley are polling at 6.9% and 3% respectively, according to the polling aggregator FiveThirtyEight, and political pundits say either of them securing the nomination is unlikely. Despite that, their stars are rising, and they’re racing to court a Christian voter base that looks nothing like them. 

Two distinct political eras 

Haley and Ramaswamy entered politics nearly three decades apart from one another. Tracing their rise illustrates how drastically the prominence of South Asian Americans has changed over time, experts say. 

When Haley started in local chambers of commerce in the 1990s, success for an immigrant, especially in the Republican sphere, was much rarer and more difficult, Dhingra said. Haley putting her identity on the backburner might have been necessary for her political viability, he said. 

Ramaswamy’s success comes after South Asians have spent decades establishing themselves in the tech industry, he said. 

“Vivek is inheriting a certain stature that Indians have in this current moment,” Dhingra said. “Nikki Haley entered the scene a long time ago in South Carolina. It’s not an equal cultural space in which they started off.” 

Ramaswamy touts ‘Judeo-Christian values’ as a Hindu 

Experts say Ramaswamy is a curveball for Republican voters. Someone running for president who looks like him, with his faith and his career background, is unique. The last Hindu candidate to achieve popularity in a presidential race was Tulsi Gabbard in the 2020 Democratic primary.

“I’m not sure I can recall when a South Asian from the tech community has announced a run,” Nikore said. “His brand of politics is sort of mainstream for folks coming out of Silicon Valley.”

But he’s taken some hardline stances, including stating he’d pardon Trump if elected and that he wants to raise the voting age to 25. A list of 10 “truths” on his campaign website includes aphorisms like “God is real,” “there are two genders” and “human flourishing requires fossil fuels.”

He’s also drawn attention for discussions of his Hindu faith with Christian voters on the campaign trail. At a town hall, he told the audience, “We share the same values, the same Judeo-Christian values in power.” His framing has led some to mistakenly believe he is Christian.

“Ramaswamy is very much strategically glossing over real and fundamental differences between Hinduism and Christianity, almost misrepresenting Hinduism,” said Harita Iswara, communications coordinator for the civil rights organization Hindus for Human Rights. “If he makes it further in the race … he might have to litigate further what he actually means beyond saying he has the same good ‘Judeo-Christian’ values as his competitors, in order to appeal to the Christian base. It could potentially stump him.”

But Ramaswamy’s team disagrees with those assessments. 

“Vivek talks about the importance of reviving God and family in our country more than anyone else in this race,” his senior adviser and communications director Tricia McLaughlin told NBC News. “Yes, he knows the Bible better than many self-proclaimed Christians, but that’s exactly what allows him to speak with authority about shared values. He has given speeches where he invokes a fundamental teaching from Hindu scripture, the Vedas: ‘satyam vara, dharmam chara.’ It means: speak truth, do your duty. Which happens to be the heart of Vivek’s message to our country.”

Though he hasn’t taken a public stance on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which many cite as contributing to a rise in Hindu nationalism and Islamophobia both in India and the diaspora, experts said he’s silently riding that wave. Appealing to an evangelical crowd would be near impossible for a Muslim candidate in a similar position, Dhingra said. 

Ramaswamy has called himself a “nonwhite nationalist.” His team told NBC News this comment was “tongue in cheek.”

Nikore said: “He’s trying to make himself relatable and say, ‘Hey, I’m a fundamentalist Hindu just like you’re a fundamentalist evangelical, and this is how you can relate to me.’” 

Haley’s softer approach to identity

Haley doesn’t talk about her race as consistently when addressing the general public. But Dhingra says he’s heard her speak at Indian American events, where she’s been more open about her identity.

“She’s spoken about her family and her parents and what it means to grow up Sikh,” he said. “I don’t know if she has leaned in to it the same way [as Ramaswamy].”

He can also see her referring to race more as her presidential campaign heats up, he said. 

In fact, she announced her 2024 campaign with a reference to her race.

“The railroad tracks divided the town by race,” she said of Bamberg, South Carolina. “I was the proud daughter of Indian immigrants. Not Black, not white, I was different.” 

But when she has brought up her background, she has used it to perpetuate the model minority myth, push back against the racial justice movement and take hard stances on immigration, Nikore and Dhingra said. 

“We faced discrimination and hardship,” she said in her campaign announcement video. “But my parents never gave in to grievance and hate.”

She takes a similar approach to that of former Louisiana governor and 2016 Republican presidential hopeful Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, said experts. Jindal also converted to Christianity, went by his nickname Bobby and dismissed the label “Indian American.”

At the 2020 Republican National Convention, Haley said, “America is not racist,” while invoking her identity. 

“Her success is attributed to America,” Dhingra said. “And she’s able to then, at the same time, push back on Black freedom struggles … as a way to say this country’s not racist.” 

What are their chances of securing the nomination?

Though both Haley and Ramaswamy have been in the national spotlight in recent months, they’re both still long shots, each polling in the single digits, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average.

Ramaswamy is reportedly facing attacks on his faith from right-wing Christian groups. Haley has also faced very public racism, with conservative pundit Anne Coulter saying in February that the candidate should “go back to your own country.”

Their efforts to either confront or skirt around their heritage might not win them a GOP nomination, experts said, but they could influence how a Republican constituency views South Asians. 

The two also might also be vying for positions in the next president’s Cabinet, Dhingra said. 

The candidates haven’t spent much time speaking to South Asian American voters directly, but Nikore said to expect an uphill battle. In doing so, the two Republican candidates would face a voting bloc that is overwhelmingly Democratic.

“They’re diametrically opposed,” he said.