Shawn J. Parry-Giles, University of Maryland and David Kaufer, Carnegie Mellon University, The Conversation, 19 January 2024
Our research shows that women presidential candidates, more than the men they run against, often speak differently to different audiences in pursuit of moderation and common ground. They also tend to shift their strategies and messages in response to criticism. And they often pay a price for it.– Shawn J Parry-Giles & David Kaufer
While Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley has said that she is “very pro-life,” she has also said that abortion is a “personal choice.” Her wording on different thorny political issues such as abortion has left some voters confused about where she actually stands.
This has led some political observers, such as Politico journalist Michael Kruse, to say that Haley has “made a career of taking both sides,” citing her positions on issues such as identity politics, Donald Trump and abortion.
In the weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses, an Iowa voter praised Haley for pursing a “political middle,” noting this allowed the former South Carolina governor to “compromise” and work “both sides.” Conversely, some conservative commentators have also suggested that Haley’s approach is “inauthentic.”
Haley placed third in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15, 2024, drawing support from 19% of voters there.
Polls on Jan. 16, 2024, showed Trump’s lead over Haley in the New Hampshire primary, set for Jan. 23, narrowing.
We are communication and English scholars who study the role of language and persuasion in politics. We are particularly interested in the ways that speakers and writers adapt their messages and language in different situations and among various voters. We call this concept rhetorical adaptivity.
Our research shows that women presidential candidates, more than the men they run against, often speak differently to different audiences in pursuit of moderation and common ground. They also tend to shift their strategies and messages in response to criticism. And they often pay a price for it.
Rhetoric and presidential campaigns
Politicians changing their words and messages to appeal to different audiences is the subject of a book we co-authored in 2023, “Hillary Clinton’s Career in Speeches: The Promises and Perils of Women’s Rhetorical Adaptivity.”
This project examined how Clinton, her presidential opponents in 2008 and 2016, and the Democratic women who ran for president in 2020 campaigned differently. We found that women more commonly adjusted their language and reshaped their positions to appeal to more voters and to manage the controversies they faced.
In 2016, for example, Hillary Clinton tried to find more of a middle ground on abortion by referring to the “fetus” as an “unborn person” and talking about restrictions on “late-term abortions” – even as she defended a “pro-choice” position.
Both Clinton and Haley opponents have questioned their authenticity, citing the politicians’ shifting language and positions. Such challenges aimed to undermine their candidacies by suggesting they lacked the character to be president.
Haley’s rhetorical maneuvers
Haley’s critics also cite her shifting positions, including on issues such as abortion, Palestinians in Gaza and Donald Trump to argue she lacks a political core.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, for example, was quick to condemn Haley’s “compromising stance” on abortion during the August 2023 Republican debate.
Haley’s opponents have also challenged her changing positions on the Israel-Hamas war. As the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Haley supported Israel and disparaged the U.N.’s Palestinian refugee agency for “using American money to feed Palestinian hatred of the Jewish state.”
Yet, in the early days of the Israel-Hamas war in October 2023, Haley showed more sympathy for the Palestinians.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ridiculed Haley’s compassion as being “politically correct.” Haley reaffirmed her pro-Israel priorities in response during a speech in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in mid-October 2023. Haley said she supported Israel and called for the elimination of Hamas. Concern for the Palestinians slipped down the ladder of her priorities.
As a U.N. ambassador, meanwhile, Haley was unwavering in her support for Trump. In her 2019 book, “With All Due Respect,” Haley concluded: “In every instance I dealt with Trump, he was truthful, he listened and he was great to work with.”
Trump called her out on this discrepancy in the fall of 2023. “She criticizes me one minute, and 15 minutes later, she un-criticizes me.”
Haley’s character woes
Other critics frame Haley’s positions as “flip-flopping.” They don’t interpret what she is doing as moderating her positions or using the language of compromise to build consensus.
Time magazine ran a headline in February 2023 that read: “A Brief History of Nikki Haley’s Biggest Flip Flops on Trump.” In March 2023, The New York Times featured an opinion piece titled, “The Serene Hypocrisy of Nikki Haley.”
Challenging the authenticity of presidential candidates is commonplace, but it is especially piercing when the challenge is directed against women candidates. In presidential politics, research shows that women are conditioned to be uniters, consensus-builders and mitigators of any negativity they face.
Yet, efforts to do this and still “be all things to all people” often result in women candidates falling into gaffe traps.
Haley’s initial refusal to associate “slavery” with the Civil War in December 2023 reinforced a southern trope that some Republicans of color called a “tactical blunder.”
Women’s election challenges
More leadership experts are recognizing the benefits of political candidates integrating multiple perspectives into their thinking and speech. The Pew Research Center found in 2018 that in politics as well as business, women are perceived to be more “compassionate” and “empathic” and are more likely to work out “compromises” than men.
Yet, in presidential campaigns, and especially primaries, compromise, adaptivity and problem-solving are exchanged for hubris, rigidity and ideological purity. Playing to the political middle is treated as politically evasive and opportunistic.
Eventually, women playing to the middle become more gaffe-prone as the campaign unfolds. Women, more than the men they run against, are granted minimal room by opponents and pundits for unforced errors before they are quickly dismissed as “unelectable.”