When she gave a speech declaring her 2024 presidential candidacy, raven-haired former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley began to carve out her lane by focusing on a salient difference between her and the two most recent Presidents: age.
“We’re ready,” Haley, 51, said Wednesday in Charleston. “Ready to move past the stale ideas and faded names of the past, and we are more than ready for a new generation to lead us into the future.”
When she reached the portion of her remarks dedicated to America’s place on the world stage, she declared, “America is not past our prime, it’s just that our politicians are past theirs.” Laughter and cheers erupted. Many of Haley’s biggest applause lines critiqued elderly politicians and their old way of doing things. “We won’t win the fight for the 21st century if we keep trusting politicians from the 20th century,” she said.
“In the America I see, the permanent politician will finally retire,” she said. “We’ll have term limits for Congress and mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old,” naming a cutoff age just below that of the only other major Republican in the race—Donald Trump is 76 years old.
Haley’s generational change argument isn’t just aimed at Trump. At 80, President Joe Biden is the oldest President in American history. Critics frequently question whether he’s fit for office, highlighting potential signs of mental or physical deterioration. Numerous polls indicate that voters are not excited about the prospect of a 2020 rematch between Biden and Trump, and a majority of Americans tend to say they want a chief executive under 75, if not much younger. Haley, who would be America’s first female and first Asian American President, checks that demographic box. But while her promise of generational change may deliver applause, experts say it won’t be enough on its own to win her the Republican nomination.
“It’s not specific to Nikki Haley and I don’t understand it as a message,” says anti-Trump Republican strategist Sarah Longwell.
Haley isn’t the only Republican politician who could argue that their election would usher in a new generation of leadership. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, widely considered Trump’s strongest competition for the nomination should he jump in the race, is 44. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, also reportedly considering a bid, is 57.
Haley’s supporters have doubled down on her generational change message. South Carolina Republican Party Katon Dawson said at Haley’s announcement, “New faces, we’re going new places.” Rep. Ralph Norman, the first South Carolina congressman to endorse Haley, told Fox News, “In 2016, President Trump was exactly who the Republican Party needed at the time… However, the Republican Party has entered a season of change. We’re at a pivotal juncture, and most of the Republicans I know are now looking for new leadership with a new vision at the top of the ticket.”
Experts say age is not the most important factor for voters—even when the candidate is trying to take up the mantle of generational change. After all, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who sought the Democratic nomination for President, built a movement among young supporters despite being well into his 70s.
“I think it’s a second-tier consideration,” says John Della Volpe, Director of Polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics and author of FIGHT: How Gen Z is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America. “In the first tier are questions related to character, integrity, values, experience in government.”
“Perhaps it’s a way she thinks she can differentiate herself,” Della Volpe says of Haley’s focus on age, in what many expect to be a crowded primary field.
Haley has spent the past eight years threading the needle on Trump, as she’s both criticized him and served as his ambassador to the United Nations. Though she did not mention him by name in her launch video or her Wednesday speech, highlighting their age gap allows her to draw a contrast with him without directly repudiating his policies or style in a way that could repel his voters. A Morning Consult poll conducted over the weekend found that 47% of potential Republican primary voters would vote for Trump if they had to decide now, with 31% opting for DeSantis and only 3% backing Haley.
Alex Shieh, the 18-year-old chief pollster and co-founder of the Phillips Academy Poll, says that generational change could be an important component of the general election and that Democrats shouldn’t take Gen Z votes for granted. He thinks young voters are tired of polarization and turned off by the extremist segments of the Republican Party, but he believes a candidate like Haley could change that. “Trump, but also people like DeSantis, who are thrown around as alternatives to Trump, they both built their political personas around this culture war,” Shieh says. “That obviously gets a lot of press, but that also alienates a lot of Gen Z-ers, whereas Nikki Haley likes to portray herself as a more moderate presence by staying away from the culture wars.”
Indeed, one of the signature achievements of Haley’s tenure as South Carolina governor was her leadership of the effort to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol. She said in 2016 that she didn’t think a proposed transgender bathroom bill in the state was “necessary.” Though she invoked culture-war controversies over critical race theory in her launch video and her announcement speech, her pitch to become the GOP’s avatar of generational change may be less about her biological age, and more about her ability to help the party age out of its Trump era.
It’s not yet clear that’s what voters want. During a focus group with Trump voters Monday night, Longwell asked for participants’ thoughts on Haley and found, “That’s not what Republican primary voters are looking for.” she says. “They want to know, ‘Does the media hate you? You know, are the Libs mad at you all the time?’ … They want people from the Make America Great Again cinematic universe.”
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