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Nikki Haley will be the lone woman on the GOP debate stage. Why that could help — or hurt.

Female presidential candidates have expressed optimism about their chances in the past, but America has yet to break that highest governmental glass ceiling of electing a woman to the Oval Office.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in Atlanta on Aug. 18, 2023.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley will be the only woman onstage at Wednesday's Republican presidential debate.Ben Gray / AP file

ATLANTA — Before former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley even says a word at Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate, she’ll present a sharp contrast to her rivals by virtue of her being the only woman on stage.

The fact is not lost on Haley and her team, but she downplayed the issue when asked about it by NBC News.

“It’s obviously something that I think that they’re going to notice,” Haley said of the viewing audience. “But I think Americans are ready to change history. … I think they’re ready for a woman who’s going to go in there and get it done. We’re results oriented. We know how to bounce multiple balls at the same time, and we don’t play the nonsense drama. I think it’s time.”

Other female presidential candidates have expressed such optimism in the past, but America has yet to break that highest governmental glass ceiling of electing a woman to the Oval Office. For Haley, Wednesday’s debate presents the same opportunity and challenge that the women of past campaigns have faced: It will be the biggest audience yet to draw support for her candidacy, but also requires a careful high-wire act for her to succeed.

“Women have to satisfy both gender stereotypes” on the debate stage, said Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which conducts research and advocates for female candidates. In addition to having to work harder than their male counterparts to show their qualifications — often presumed for men — women “have to be strong enough to be commander-in-chief but still maintain a level of femininity, or else they’ll risk seeming ‘too tough’ and alienating voters.”

That's a tricky balance when parrying real-time attacks while trying to confidently present bonafides.

“There are vastly different permission structures around how voters want to see men and women respond to attacks,” Hunter said. “That’s the challenge for women because the entire definition of a campaign is contrasting. But voters have more preferences around how they want to see women do that, or not.”

Hunter referred to years of her organization's research on themes such as candidate "likability," which can work for and against female candidates. Being seen as going too far or being too aggressive could cause voters to dislike these candidates; but not fighting back could also come across as weak. And research by Hunter's organization shows it’s essential for voters to like a woman to vote for her, whereas they are still willing to vote for a man they don’t like.

In 2020, despite more women than ever before running in the Democratic primary, the debate stage proved fertile ground for sexism. In moments when the women went on offense — like then-Sen. Kamala Harris attacking then-former Vice President Joe Biden for his past stance on busing, or Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s verbal lashing of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — even attacks that landed were criticized as too aggressive or below the belt.

Then-GOP candidate Carly Fiorina found herself on the receiving end of sexist remarks from her colleagues, but also in answering questions from reporters that she knew her male competitors weren’t being asked.

“The first question I was asked [after one 2016 debate] was what shoes was I wearing,” Fiorina told NBC News

Lauren Leader, co-founder of All in Together, a nonpartisan group focused on female voters, sees potential parallels between Fiorina and Haley.

“When Nikki Haley first declared, my concern was she’d be subject to relentless sexist attacks” akin to what Fiorina experienced when then-candidate Donald Trump derided her for “that face” in 2016, Leader said. “In fact, what’s happened is they’ve instead ignored her. In some ways that’s worse,” she said, and gives Haley “the highest hurdle” for this coming debate.

While political watchers will be quick to point out gender bias — and Haley has leaned into identity politics in new and surprisingly ways throughout the primary — conservative politics often abhors identity politics. Candidates like Fiorina and Haley will speak of being different, but they also are often quick to add that gender is not an excuse or outright selling point; merit should be the goal.

Asked if gender factored into her preparation for Wednesday night’s debate, Haley told NBC News plainly: “No, it doesn’t factor into my prep.” But her identity and history-making tenure also wasn’t far from mind. 

“Look, there were never any lines to the women’s bathroom in any of the jobs I had,” she said, referring to being the first woman of color elected as South Carolina’s governor, among other milestones. “It’s what I’ve always done. But I’ve always been the toughest, the smartest, and the one that got things done. That’s what you’ll see if I’m your president.”

When NBC News noted that being the lone woman onstage Wednesday night also meant there won’t be lines for the women's bathroom during tight commercial breaks, Haley quipped that the men “can stand in line all they want.”