South Asian Americans relieved as Nikki Haley drops out GOP presidential race, but worried about Trump

South Asian voters watched Nikki Haley exit the presidential race on Wednesday without much fanfare. Many said they felt uninspired by Haley, who they said had a flimsy connection to the Indian American community.

South Asian American voters are pointing to what they say was Nikki Haley’s flimsy connection to the community after she exited the presidential race Wednesday morning.

Indian Americans specifically, 68% of whom lean Democratic, said they struggled with her presence on the campaign trail: A member of their community made it so far on a national stage, but they felt she didn’t represent them.

The GOP primary campaign has been a road of mixed feelings for the community after Haley and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy captured headlines and much of the spotlight on debate stages.

Supporters Nikki Haley at a campaign rally
Haley supporters at a campaign rally Sunday in Portland, Maine.Scott Eisen / Getty Images

“I’m glad it’s over,” said Ashwin Ramaswami, 24, a Gen Z candidate making his first bid for the state Senate in Georgia. “It was fascinating to watch.”

Experts say Haley’s policies veered far from the priorities of Indian American voters. Though she presented herself as a more moderate alternative to former President Donald Trump, she fell short for South Asians on issues like guns, the climate and reproductive rights, said Varun Nikore, the executive director of the nonprofit AAPI Victory Alliance.

Haley’s exit effectively solidifies Trump’s nomination. Her campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

“Nikki was still in the extremist camp — frankly, in the Trump camp — on all of those key issues,” he said. “She is so far out of touch with South Asian Americans and the vast majority of AAPIs, as well.”

Haley’s exit brings a combination of relief and worry, voters say. She didn’t represent them well, they say, but a Biden-Trump rematch worries them, too.

“Nikki Haley has come up in a lot of conversations amongst my South Asian friends and family and colleagues,” Nikore said. “And perhaps a few of them were kind of holding out hope. I got a sense that many of them were rooting for Nikki, not because of Nikki, but because they knew how extreme Donald Trump was.”

Still, Haley wasn’t even on the radar for many Asian Americans. A poll conducted by AAPI Data and The Associated Press-NORC found that just 23% of Asian American and Pacific Islander adults have favorable views of Haley, and the plurality, 40%, said they didn’t know enough about her to give an opinion.

“She does not represent my politics,” said Geetika Rudra, 31, an Indian American voter from New York. “I think the fact that she even dropped out to me indicates that she doesn’t represent a lot of people’s politics.”

Identity and racism on the campaign trail

Some South Asian voters say Haley never made an effort to connect with the community or fully embrace her identity. Others say it wasn’t until this election cycle that they even knew she was Indian.

Harita Iswara, a 23-year-old from Washington, D.C., said Haley never touched on her identity in a meaningful way that supported communities of color, saying she used it more often to perpetuate the model minority myth.

Instead, Haley and Ramaswamy scrambled to win over a base of white Christians, she said, and ultimately, it didn’t pay off. Because of what she said are racist views in the Republican Party, she thinks neither of them stood a chance.

“I’m hoping it’ll make people realize that pandering to these extreme Christian nationalist talking points and white supremacist ideologies are not going to fly,” she said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how conservative your views are. The Republican Party is so extreme now that you are just another brown person to them.”

Nikki Haley greets supporters
Haley greets supporters at a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 15. Carolyn Kaster / AP file

Throughout her campaign, Haley was subject to racist attacks from other conservatives.

In January, Trump promoted a birther conspiracy theory about Haley, claiming she wasn’t eligible to be president because her parents are Indian immigrants. Haley was born in South Carolina.

In February 2023, right-wing pundit Ann Coulter went on a racist rant about Haley on a podcast. “Why don’t you go back to your own country?” she said. “What’s with the worshipping of the cows? They’re all starving over there. Did you know they have a rat temple, where they worship rats?”

Even Ramaswamy took repeated jabs at Haley for choosing to go by her middle name, “Nikki,” instead of her Indian American birth name, Nimrata Randhawa. “An easy thing for me to do being a politician to follow this track is shorten my name, profess to be a Christian and then run,” Ramaswamy said at a town hall. “Let’s be honest — it happens. Make Vivek ‘Vikki’ or whatever.”

Buttons supporting Nikki Haley
Buttons supporting Haley in Portland, Maine, on Sunday.Joseph Prezioso / AFP – Getty Images

Rudra said the intense focus on her identity from both the left and the right was unwarranted.

“I think we can disagree politically with her, and you should,” Rudra said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with her identity.”

She took issue with the idea that Haley has “whitewashed” herself, she said, and she said younger generations struggle to understand the pressure to assimilate that older generations of South Asians faced.

“I get the sense that many people think that she’s betraying the culture or betraying the community by just being a Republican,” she said. “And I think that is emblematic of where a lot of the South Asian diaspora in the United States is — concentrated on the coasts.”

Looking beyond Haley, Ramaswami, the Georgia state Senate candidate, sees a new guard of South Asians in politics emerging. He said that it’s admirable Haley stood up to Trump for as long as she did but that new voices are desperately needed.

For Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy, they were the only two not just Indian Americans but South Asians in that room,” he said of the primary campaign. “I saw them arguing and I felt like ‘my position is not really represented here at all.’ It’s really unfortunate. It would be amazing to see a presidential candidate who’s South Asian and also represents my values.”

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