In a crowded field of Republican presidential candidates, Nikki R. Haley is starting to stand out. Such, anyway, seems to be the conclusion of pollsters, voters and donors alike, who have helped bolster her numbers since she first took to the debate stage back in August. She’s on enough of an upswing that “Saturday Night Live” has started to prep a Haley character in anticipation.
But as the third debate — and, perhaps, Ms. Haley’s debut as an “S.N.L.” character — looms, it’s worth considering just how tactically she has used the fact that she unmistakably stands out, even before she has opened her mouth to show off her foreign policy experience, or scold a competitor, to her advantage.
Yes, I am talking about gender. Being a woman has always been seen as an issue to manage in a presidential race. Ms. Haley is using it as an asset. She announced, in the first debate, as her opponents were sniping at each other, “This is exactly why Margaret Thatcher said, ‘If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.’”
And where is that woman? Just open your eyes and look.
In that initial debate, surrounded by seven men in the exact same outfits — dark blue suits, white shirts, red ties, tiny flag pins, otherwise known as the political uniform of the non-debating Donald J. Trump — Ms. Haley was a beacon in a light blue bouclé skirt suit and high heels.
In the second debate, with the men in pretty much the same outfits (Tim Scott did wear a red and navy striped tie that time), there she was, in gleaming crimson silk shantung and pumps. And chances are, as the field shrinks in the third debate, such distinctions will become even more apparent.
“Political campaigns are about differentiation,” said Cheri Bustos, a former congresswoman from Illinois, who said she also wore skirts and heels during her first primary campaign, when she was the only woman in a field of six. “The best candidates look for every opportunity. Nikki Haley has taken advantage of the situation.”
And she has done so while repudiating conventional wisdom when it comes to women seeking the highest office. You know, the truism that trouser suits should be the uniform of choice for women as well as men, the better to fit in with the group and downplay the whole gender issue.
Hillary Clinton was, of course, the ultimate pantsuit champion, though she swapped her signature rainbow of trouser suits for basic black when she was on the debate stage in 2016, segueing to symbolic suffragist white only after she had won the nomination and setting a tone that has defined the American female political wardrobe ever since.
Indeed, in the 2020 election cycle Kamala Harris, Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson stuck almost entirely to the clothing script, Ms. Harris in dark suits and Ms. Gabbard and Ms. Williamson in white. Since Ms. Harris became vice president, she has worn dark pantsuits almost entirely.
But Ms. Haley wears the skirts. And not just any old skirts: knee-length skirts. The kind of skirts often referred to as “demure,” that suggest legs crossed at the ankle, and traditional gender roles. The irony is, in adopting this more classically female garment in this context, she looks both acceptably conservative and radical at the same time.
After all, you’re not exactly fooling anyone in a pantsuit. So why not upend the status quo and wear something your rivals cannot?
Besides, the pantsuit is in part a Democratic convention. Republican women have hewed more to the sheath dress-skirt suit tradition in presidential politics. When Sarah Palin was John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate in 2008, she wore skirts and skirt suits for most of her major public appearances, including her debate with Joe Biden. Ditto Elizabeth Dole in 2000 for her presidential run.
Many Republican candidates seem to buy into the idea, expressed by Mr. Trump during his term in office, that the women who worked for him should “dress like women,” in the most clichéd sense. Though Ms. Haley’s interpretation of that idea is less Fox News presenter and more Thatcherite. (Ms. Haley did title her 2022 book on female leadership “If You Want Something Done.”)
Still, clichés, generally shared, are also a subtle way for Ms. Haley to plant a seed in viewers’ minds without anyone necessarily being conscious of what is going on. “Her presentation adds to her credibility,” said Frank Luntz, a political communications strategist. “Her verbal strategy and her visual strategy are in sync.”
Ms. Haley may have flip-flopped in her positions on Mr. Trump and his transgressions, especially the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, but she has always stuck to certain core principles, at least when it comes to her image: color, heels, skirt or dress (when not at the Iowa State Fair, where she we wore jeans). She grew up working in her mother’s clothing store in Bamberg, S.C. Her husband is a commissioned officer in the South Carolina Army National Guard, currently serving in Africa. She understands the impact of uniform.
One of her favorite lines, first trotted out in 2012 when she was the governor of South Carolina, is about her shoe preference. “I wear high heels, and it’s not a fashion statement — it’s for ammunition,” she said back then, adding: “I’ve got a completely male Senate. Do I want to use these for kicking? Sometimes, I do.’’
She recycled the line, with a few edits, when addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in 2017: “I wear heels. It’s not for a fashion statement. It’s because if I see something wrong, we’re going to kick them every single time.”
Then she made it the capstone of her February announcement video: “You should know this about me: I don’t put up with bullies, and when you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels.” And just last week, she discussed it on “The Daily Show” in reference to resurfaced rumors that Ron DeSantis wore lifts in his cowboy boots to make himself taller — an allegation the DeSantis campaign has denied but which his opponents, especially Mr. Trump, have somewhat gleefully embraced.
When Charlamagne Tha God, a host of the show, asked if Ms. Haley would be wearing higher heels than Mr. DeSantis so she could be taller, Ms. Haley replied: “I’ve always said, ‘Don’t wear ’em if you can’t run in ’em,’ so we’ll see if he can run in ’em.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that Tom Broecker, the costume designer for “House of Cards” (and “S.N. L.”) said he always dressed Robin Wright Penn’s character in pointed high heels when she was president.
“She felt in control when she had them on,” Mr. Broecker said. “High heels make you walk, and stand, a certain way, as if you can go toe to toe with a person.”
Given the cloud of suspicion hanging over Mr. DeSantis’s shoes, and what they may reveal about his insecurities, it’s not a bad time to have a facility with strategically wielded footwear. Like Hillary Clinton, who after years of pushing back against discussion around her clothes, finally started joking about it and thus neutralized it as an issue to be used again her, Ms. Haley has pre-emptively weaponized her wardrobe for herself. She owns the heels in this race, just as she owns the skirt.
It may seem like a minor detail, but it is starting to become a telling one.