“In America, anyone can become President… That’s one of the risks you take,” Adlai Stevenson, a Democratic presidential candidate in the 1950s and political wit, once joked. Indeed, Stevenson, whose grandfather was the US Vice-President in the 1890s, is regarded in some quarters as one of the finest aspirants not to win the White House, twice losing the presidential race to Dwight Eisenhower, in 1952 and 1956, and eventually retiring as the US ambassador to the United Nations in the 1960s. Eisenhower himself was a celebrated general, having been the supreme allied commander in World War II. So, effectively, they were two well-known personalities who duked out for the presidency; hardly the “anyone” or nobodies Stevenson alluded to.
But there have been many US presidential elections where relative outliers have gone on to make it to the Oval Office, including two in more recent history. When a skinny black man with a name that had echoes of Osama, just six years after 9/11, announced his candidacy for the White House in February 2007, few gave him any chance. Yet, Barack Hussein Obama, then 46, with just two years as Senator under his belt, swept two terms as the US President on the strength of hope and change he offered. Eight years later, in an equally improbable victory, a New York City businessman with a dodgy reputation belied odds, storming into the White House in 2016 even though his opponent held a “93 per cent probability of winning” on polling day.
It is in the spirit of such upsets that Nikki Haley, a first-generation daughter of Indian immigrants from Amritsar, has thrown her hat in the ring, announcing her intent on Tuesday to seek the Republican Party nomination for the presidential race. As things stand, she has little chance, polling a trifling 1 per cent behind favourites Donald Trump and his putative challenger Florida governor Ron DeSantis, both polling in the 30s. She is behind even Mike Pence, the former Vice-President and another potential challenger, who is polling 2 per cent.
In fact, the prevailing wisdom in America’s political punditocracy is that she is actually aiming for the vice-presidential ticket as a running mate to the eventual nominee, a fate or stroke of luck that befell Kamala Harris in 2020 after she was routed in her bid for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. When and if that happens, who knows what lies ahead if the President happens to be a geriatric octogenarian?
But politics is a strange beast. American politics, in particular, is now a tangled skein of momentum and luck, which the Roman philosopher Seneca described as “preparation meeting opportunity”. Although most presidential races over the past century — with some rare exceptions — have been fairly predictable heading into the final stretch, there is now an element of caprice in the outcome as an increasingly diverse and anxious electorate seeks change, not status quo. Outliers appear to have a better chance than in the 20th century when presidential elections typically involved two white men.
Haley is the US-born daughter of Indian Sikh immigrants from Punjab. Her parents Ajit Singh Randhawa and Raj Kaur moved to Canada in the 1960s before settling down in Bamberg, South Carolina, where Haley was born as Nimrata. She took her last name after marrying William Michael Haley, a commissioned officer in the South Carolina Army National Guard. The two share a daughter, Rena, and son, Nalin. In a video announcing her presidential bid, she talks of her immigrant roots, of growing up where “the railroad tracks divided the town by race”. She has previously spoken of her Sikh heritage, of her father wearing a turban and her mother a sari, and how she was “a brown girl in a black and white world”.
It is a background that does not go down well with the current Make America Great Again (MAGA) narrative of the Republican Party. Besides, her resume is modest and she has taken on the face of MAGA: Donald Trump. She served two terms as the governor of South Carolina and just shy of two years as the US ambassador to the United Nations, a post to which she was nominated by then President Trump. Like many moderate Republicans, she was a never-Trumper before becoming a fawning acolyte when he overran mainstream Republican and won the GOP nomination. Now she is challenging Trump again, having discovered that America needs a “new generation of leadership”.
The expectation is Trump will destroy her in the race for the party nomination, the first step in the long and arduous run for the White House, in the same way he demolished Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who also ran in 2016. It was an ugly, venomous, and sexist attack.
In her presidential pitch, Haley spoke of being strong against Russia and China, warning, “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.” She might need it first against Trump.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington.)
He may well be the only leader with the standing to convince Palestinians to accept an imperfect compromise, if it means they can finally live peacefully alongside Israel in an independent Palestinian state