Meghan McCain's sexist comment shows why Nikki Haley has no chance of winning the GOP nomination

Republicans may say they're be OK with a female president, but they always find an excuse to not vote for a woman

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published January 17, 2024 6:00AM (EST)

Meghan McCain and Nikki Haley (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Meghan McCain and Nikki Haley (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Leave it to Meghan McCain to offer the perfect example of the ironclad rule: Anyone who claims they are "not sexist" is about to say something ridiculously sexist. In this case, the former host of "The View" revealed her misogynist instincts with regards to Vice President Kamala Harris, in a recent episode of McCain's podcast. 

"Not because of sexism," McCain claimed before she unloaded a series of sexist stereotypes about Harris, saying the vice president is "really unserious" and sounds like "a 19-year-old stoner in college who's high at 3 a.m." McCain insisted it's a mystery why "I have a very strong adverse reaction to her."

Anyone who claims they are "not sexist" is about to say something ridiculously sexist.

"If anything, Vice President Harris has proven to me that maybe a woman can't be Vice President. I actually think she's setting feminism back 10 years," McCain said. She then covered her tracks by claiming, clearly falsely, "There are so many female politicians I love and respect that I'd be happy with being President."

Ah yes, the old "I'd love to vote for a woman, just not that woman" gambit. As Maggie Astor of the New York Times wrote in 2019, "Few Americans acknowledge they would hesitate to vote for a woman for president." Instead, they simply hold women to a standard so high and contradictory that no woman could ever meet it. For instance, sexist voters dislike ambition in female politicians, but of course, the mere act of running for office is inherently ambitious. Or, as with McCain's "19-year-old" comment, sexists will sneer at the high timbre of a woman's voice. But if a woman has a voice low enough to sound like a man's, they would object that it's weird and off-putting. 

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Voters of both parties fall into the "just not that woman" trap, though it's not a serious problem on the left. After all, Democrats mostly did turn out for Hillary Clinton, awarding her nearly 3 million more votes than Donald Trump received in the 2016 election. (He only won because of the Electoral College, which tilts unfairly towards Republican-controlled regions.) But there's little doubt that Republican voters, who back a party opposed to women's basic rights, are especially bad on this front. They may be OK backing female politicians for Congress or even as governors, but when it comes to the White House, knee-jerk views that women aren't "strong" enough, as McCain's comments show, will always win out in the end. 

This is why South Carolina's former Gov. Nikki Haley never had a real shot at winning the Republican nomination, despite the endless cable news hype of her candidacy. It's not just that Trump is the 800-pound orange gorilla in the race. Haley didn't even manage to beat Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the recent Iowa caucus. DeSantis is a historically bad candidate, snappish and known for eating pudding with his fingers. The media narrative is that he's flaming out while Haley, with her normal demeanor and political graces, is the only viable not-Trump candidate. But that's the power of being male with Republican voters, especially in a presidential race. A woman simply cannot win with these voters, no matter how much better at this she is than her male competitors. 

Despite the chatter about "small government" over the years, it's clear that the main beliefs animating the Republican Party are about maintaining unjust racial and gender hierarchies.

It's true that Republican voters rarely come right out and say they will never vote for a woman for president. Gallup polling shows that 90% of Republicans say they would vote for a female candidate, compared to 97% of Democrats. But when the question is softened a little, so that it sounds less like an accusation of sexism, the true preferences come out. When YouGov pollsters asked if they hope to see a female president in their lifetime, enthusiasm stayed high for Democrats, at 89%. The number for Republicans, however, plummeted to a mere 41%. This is much closer to the real feelings people have on this issue. After all, if you think women are equal to men, you would hope that could be reflected in our leadership choices. But most Republicans still see women as less worthy than men. 

Republican pollster — and never-Trumper — Sarah Longwell has turned up similar results in her focus group testing of Republican voters. On her recent podcast, Longwell described how Iowa Republican voters reacted to the mere idea. "I would love to see a woman president," Longwell recounted one person in the focus group saying as the rest of the group "just stared" at her in a hostile fashion. Longwell said this comes up a lot with Republican voters. "I often hear someone say 'I don't think a woman can be president,'" and "there are nods from the group."

Longwell reiterated this point on the Pollercoaster podcast, when discussing a group of Trump voters in New Hampshire: "Five out of seven people in the group said they would rather vote for a man than a woman." She said it's been "coming up in all these groups," this notion that a woman is not "strong enough" to be president.

Despite the chatter about "small government" over the years, it's clear that the main beliefs animating the Republican Party are about maintaining unjust racial and gender hierarchies. In-depth polling last year from PerryUndem shows a "majority of Republicans hold hostile sexist views," regardless of their gender. In fact, partisan identity was a far more reliable indicator of sexism than gender, with Republican women being more likely than Democratic men to cite cruel stereotypes about women. Over 80% of both Democratic men and women, for instance, agreed that it would be better if men and women had equal share of power in our society, while a majority of Republicans disagreed. Meanwhile, strong majorities of Republican men and women claimed "white men are the most attacked group." Few Democrats of either gender agreed. 

Haley is certainly smart enough to know that the voters she's vying for are sexist. We know this because she panders to even the grossest forms of misogyny, such as sexual abuse denialism. 

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Of course, Trump was found functionally guilty of sexual assault by a jury in May. While the statute of limitations for criminal charges had run out, the verdict in the civil trial was clear as day. By any meaningful standard, he is no longer "innocent until" anything. He was proven guilty. 

But even this disgusting sexism from Haley won't save her, because she is still a woman herself. Republicans obviously tolerate some number of women running for higher office, which is why Haley got the South Carolina governorship to begin with. That's due, however, to the perception that governors are caretaker offices focused on administrative duties. They're like H.R. managers, but in government. The presidency, however, comes with titles like "commander-in-chief." For most Republicans, such power and prestige should only belong to men. 

The mainstream press depends on the illusion of a competitive primary to generate clicks and ratings, so the hype machine is already in full swing for Haley's chances in New Hampshire's primary next week. A CNN poll that found Haley is only "single digits" behind Trump, for instance, far eclipsing the less exciting aggregate poll numbers that show she's running more like 14-15 points behind Trump in the Granite State. Worse for Haley, those numbers are goosed by the fact that New Hampshire has an open primary, meaning she's likely drawing support from independents and Democrats who want to register their distaste for Trump. The GOP is composed of voters who sound just like Meghan McCain: They may deny they're sexist, but they can't stand any woman who would actually make a run for president. Haley never had a chance with the Republican base.  

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Election 2024 Meghan Mccain Nikki Haley Republican Primary Sexism