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Surrounded by a salt-and-pepper sea of heads at a recent New Hampshire town hall, 9-year-old Hannah Kesselring rose to ask presidential hopeful Nikki Haley an all-too-important question: why was she better equipped than her 2024 rivals to lead the nation?
After listing off her economic accomplishments as the former governor of South Carolina and foreign policy chops as ambassador to the United Nations, Haley emphasized a more unconventional credential.
“The third reason is: I’m a mom,” she said to pin-drop silence from the crowd of more than 300 people. “And the truth is, I don’t want my kids growing up like this. I don’t feel comfortable with the way the country is and just letting my kids have to deal with it.”
It was an unexpected response from the sole woman running in the 2024 GOP presidential primary. For years, women vying for political office have faced skepticism and increased scrutiny over their roles as caretakers, where their male counterparts haven’t.
Yet, as Haley, 51, rises in polls and takes on the status of leading Trump alternative in the Republican race, she has so far been relatively unscathed by the typical criticisms that befall women with children running for office.
In some ways, Haley – the mother of a 25- and 22-year-old – has landed on the perfect equation, according to Christine Matthews, president of Bellwether Research and Consulting, a leading public opinion pollster.
“She is in that sweet spot, you know, where she's sort of the perfect age. She checks the motherhood box but is now able to run and her kids are safely launched,” Matthews said.
Gender and parenthood on the trail
Research published in 2017 by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, an organization aimed at increasing women’s representation in American politics, found that voters often critique women in elected office with young children – questioning their ability to balance the tasks of motherhood with the requirements of the job.
At the same time, voters distrust women without children, fearing that they won’t understand the issues facing families.
Those with older children tend to fare better.
“They don’t face as much scrutiny around childcare and balancing the work,” said Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, and they’re more likely to “get the benefits of voters believing they’re in touch with kitchen-table issues.”
Haley is tapping into that.
“She’s able to use the frame of being a mom and other feminine stereotypes like high heels in a way that works for her,” Hunter said. And these tactics can help with relatability – particularly around issues like the economy.
Attendees at Haley’s recent Derry town hall, like Marlo Devir, 52, said the former governor’s comments about motherhood struck a chord because they showed she understood the struggles with housing prices and grocery bills.
“I think all politicians have children and they care about their children,” said Devir, a Windham, New Hampshire resident who staffs physicians at hospitals. “But she’s one of the few people that I’ve heard say that she cares about the way she leaves it to her kids. She worries about the same things that we worry about.”
Haley's parenting criticisms
Haley hasn’t been completely immune to negative comments about her parenting on the campaign trail. During the third GOP debate, for instance, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy brought up her daughter in one of the most viral moments yet of the 2024 campaign cycle.
“She made fun of me for actually joining TikTok while her own daughter was actually using the app for a long time. So, you might want to take care of your family first,” Ramaswamy said to Haley, as the candidates discussed the potential dangers of the social media platform, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance.
“Leave my daughter out of your voice,” Haley shot back. “You’re just scum.”
The exchange landed loud boos from the Miami audience that night. Hunter said she believed Ramaswamy’s comments “implied that Haley didn't raise her daughter right” and played into “age-old gender stereotypes” about a woman’s role in the family.
Neither the Haley or Ramaswamy campaigns responded to a request for comment about the exchange.
But most early state voters USA TODAY spoke with viewed the exchange as merely petty banter. And while many believed Ramaswamy’s comments about Haley’s children were uncalled for, they didn’t impact their opinion of the former South Carolina governor.
“I didn’t take it for anything more than ‘this is hysterical’ and ‘knock it off,’” said Scott Bourget, 59, from Exeter, New Hampshire. “Because they’re both very intelligent individuals and it’s like ‘OK, stop that.’”
A retired nuclear security officer, Bourget is more concerned about where the two candidates stand on issues like energy production and foreign policy. At the end of Haley’s town hall in Derry, Bourget, who supported former President Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections, said he was seriously considering casting a ballot for the former U.N. ambassador.
Patty Zaharis, 62, similarly described Ramaswamy’s comments as “childish” and said it was “too early in the campaign” to bring children into the conversation – though she argued that eventually, “they become part of our lives.”
Like Bourget, she’s still strongly weighing both candidates.
Parenting across the field
Haley is far from the only parent on the campaign trail. Both Ramaswamy and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have young children who frequently appear onstage at campaign events and as anecdotes in speeches.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie even mentioned his adult children during the fourth GOP debate, saying: “As a father of four, I believe there is no one who loves my children more than me,” in response to a question about parental rights.
But barring an ad posted by Ramaswamy for a six-figure childcare care professional that received criticism earlier this year, negative commentary about parenting from male candidates has been few and far between.
Hunter described the treatment of fathers in politics as “the soccer dad credit,” noting that being an attentive parent is often a nice-to-have asset for male politicians, whereas it’s an expectation for women in similar roles.
The DeSantis family's frequent campaign trail appearances may help “soften his very stiff image,” Matthews argued. A woman with similarly aged children, however, may receive more criticism “about who would be caring for the children,” she said.
But it’s a question, at least this cycle, with no definitive answer.
“We'll never know for sure since Haley's kids are older, but I would imagine that there would be a very different standard that those men would be held to,” Hunter said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why Haley is in a 'sweet spot' of parenting and politicking in 2024