NEW YORK – Former South Carolina governor and current Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley is facing widespread criticism after failing to mention slavery when asked about the causes of the American Civil War during a New Hampshire campaign event.
When asked “what was the cause of the United States Civil War?” by a voter at the event on Wednesday, Haley responded that the conflict stemmed from “how government was going to run, the freedoms, and what people could and couldn’t do.” She added, “I think it always comes down to the role of government and what the rights of the people are. And I will always stand by the fact that, I think, government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people.”
After giving her answer, the voter told Haley it was “astonishing” she did not say the word “slavery” in her response. Later that night, President Biden said slavery was indeed central to the Civil War during an interview where he reacted to video footage of the exchange.
In an interview with a local radio station on Thursday, Haley addressed the backlash and clarified her views. “Of course the Civil War was about slavery,” she said. “We know that. That’s the easy part of it.”
Haley explained she was more interested in examining the lessons that could be learned from the Civil War, and defended her initial response to the voter’s question. “I know it’s about slavery,” she said. “I am from the South.”
Haley has a complex history when it comes to racial issues in America. As a woman of color, her campaign worked to portray her as willing to tackle matters of race and identity differently than rivals like former President Donald Trump.
When governor of South Carolina, Haley ordered the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds in 2015 after a white supremacist murdered nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston. She also condemned Trump’s response to the 2017 racist and antisemitic protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, though later served as his ambassador to the United Nations from 2017-2018.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party overall has taken a markedly different approach to issues of race and the nation’s legacy of slavery and white supremacy in recent years. Republican governors, including some of Haley’s competitors for the 2024 nomination, have sought to eliminate diversity and inclusion initiatives at public universities while banning books that deal with race.
The backlash to Haley’s Civil War comments comes less than three weeks before Republican voters begin casting ballots in early primary states. The Iowa caucuses on January 15th represent the first contest in the nomination process.
Haley’s campaign has surprised many with its momentum over the past few months as the once crowded field seeking the Republican nod has winnowed. While rivals like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have reportedly struggled with organization and fundraising issues, Haley has steadily gained support heading into the early state contests.
Former President Trump remains the commanding front-runner both nationally and in early primary states. However, polling has shown Haley as the lone challenger who could pose issues for Trump, routinely placing second or third in surveys. She also has performed well in hypothetical head-to-head matchups against President Biden.
The misstep over the Civil War’s origins provides Haley’s rivals seeking to blunt her rise with a high-profile opportunity to attack her credibility. But it remains to be seen whether the flap will have a lasting impact, as Republican voters have so far appeared reluctant to split from Trump despite occasional controversies surrounding his past comments on racial issues.
Ultimately, Haley’s ability to connect with a diversifying electorate could prove pivotal if she advances to a general election campaign against Biden or another Democrat. The coming weeks will show whether rank-and-file primary voters view the Civil War comment as a disqualifying indicator she would struggle in that mission, or an understandable oversight unlikely to define her broader record on racial justice.