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Nikki Haley's Indian Roots Pose Unique Challenges to Her Presidential Bid

For Nikki Haley, running for political office in the US as an Indian American woman presents unique challenges.

5 min read
Nikki Haley's Indian Roots Pose Unique Challenges to Her Presidential Bid
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It is no secret that Americans, even women, are apprehensive about seeing a female President in the White House. One does not have to go further than 2016 to understand what American voters think about gender and power.

But there is something about Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley that is unique. She can boast about her time as a governor of a southern state, South Carolina, can brag about her foreign policy experience from her days as the US Ambassador to the United Nations, and talk about how she has never lost any political race.

Unlike Hillary Clinton, Haley does not have a super political action committee (PAC) money, a wide range of donors with deep pockets, yet, pledged super delegates, or even the same level of name recognition. But one thing that distinguishes her from Hillary Clinton is that she is considered to be more likeable.

(Photo: Twitter/ Nikki Haley)


It’s only been a week since Haley launched her campaign, and she is polling at 6%, nearly the same as former Vice President Mike Pence's 7%. It is important to note that she was polling at 1% last week.

As she made campaign stops in Iowa and New Hampshire, she made important comments that allowed her to dominate the recent news cycle. First, she delivered a calculated political punch at her former boss – Donald Trump – and President Joe Biden, stating that the US should have mental competency tests for federal elected officials over 75 years of age. Both Trump and Biden are above 75. 

When liberal CNN anchor Don Lemon tried to dismiss her proposition by stating Nikki Haley, who is 51, is past her prime, she hit back by making rounds to multiple cable news shows and calling out the sexism from a news anchor sympathetic to the Democratic Party.

She claimed that the Democrats are rattled at the prospect of a woman of colour as a GOP presidential candidate against Joe Biden, as women and people of colour are two strong vote banks for the Democrats.

People I spoke to who attended her events in Charleston, Iowa, and New Hampshire say they have not decided yet, but Nikki presents an “interesting choice.”

Nikki Haley campaigning at Iowa. 

(Photo: Twitter/ Nikki Haley)


They want to wait and see how she performs in the debates against her potential Republican opponents – Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, and others. These words would be music to Nikki Haley’s ears, as it does enough to bring in big donors courting potential GOP candidates.

In one week, she has demonstrated that not only can she stir up issues that can create headlines, but also possesses skills to be able to dominate the conversations around them.

Nikki Haley's first event as a presidential candidate in New Hampshire. 

(Photo: Twitter/ Nikki Haley)

But Haley faces some unique challenges as well. Soon after she announced her presidential bid, right-wing commentator Ann Coulter went on a racist rant against her.

Known for her anti-immigrant and racist views, Coulter asked Haley to "go back to your own country" where "they worship rats.” This is the kind of racist and xenophobic views Haley, a US-born daughter of Indian immigrants, is up against.

Coulter has a massive following among conservative voters. For her to attack Haley's identity is a preview of how ugly the Republican primaries will be.

There is a reason why both the Democrats and the Republicans are wary of Nikki Haley. She is likeable, she is affable, she is an excellent communicator, and more importantly, she has a record of beating the odds. But over the next few months, she will have to confront the fact that running for political office in the United States as an Indian American woman presents unique challenges. 

Here are a few factors that could impact the odds:

1) Prejudice: Despite progress, racism and prejudice against people of colour still exist in the United States, and Indian Americans regularly face discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, or cultural background. This could make gaining support in certain regions or among certain demographic groups harder. Especially when it comes to the GOP voter base.

2) Voter demographics: The district or constituency where a candidate is running can also impact their odds of success. For example, in areas with high concentrations of Indian Americans or other south Asians, a candidate with that background may have an advantage. On the other hand, in areas with very few Indian Americans or a predominantly white population, a candidate's ethnicity may be seen as a disadvantage.

3) Political experience: As with any candidate, Haley's political experience and track record will impact her odds of success. She has 20 years of political record, meaning every vote, every legislation, every opinion, and every public comment will be scrutinised. A presidential race is taxing (no pun intended).

(Photo: Twitter/ Nikki Haley)

Indian American candidates face unique challenges, such as prejudice or the need to navigate different cultural norms. They also have opportunities to build on their strengths, including a growing base of representation and potential support from the Indian American community.


Indian Americans have been elected to political office at all local and national levels. This representation can provide a base of support for Desi candidates and increase visibility and acceptance.

But as a Republican, Nikki Haley's Indian American voter base is very limited. Her campaign is aware of the challenges she faces as a daughter of Indian immigrants who wants to become the first female president of the United States.

(The author is a US-based journalist who covers the White House, State Department, and US domestic politics. He tweets @DcwalaDesi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for his reported views.)

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