When women proved markedly more likely than men to win contested Democratic primaries in 2018, I thought female candidates would have the edge in the 2020 sweepstakes. But that seems not to be the case.
Despite an unprecedented number of women running for president, Morning Consult’s latest national poll puts former Vice President Joe Biden at the front of the pack, with 35 percent, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in second place at 27 percent. Sanders, in turn, is way ahead of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Beto O’Rourke, who are in a tie for fourth at 8 percent. Between the two, it’s O’Rourke who seems to have momentum on his side with a record fundraising haul and saturation-level media coverage.
Name recognition is one plausible explanation for Biden and Sanders’s dominance. But Democrats are also uneasy about whether a woman has the elusive quality of electability, not so much because of sexism, but because of fears that other people’s sexism will hold women back. This wasn’t, of course, the intended outcome when Hillary Clinton and members of her team opined that misogyny cost her the 2016 presidential election. But one can certainly see how voters might have come away from the post-2016 takes about the role of racism and sexism in powering Trump’s victory with the assumption that the road to victory is to nominate a white man at all costs.
Women who run for office do face misogyny, but there’s no reason to believe this is an insurmountable barrier. Women ran and won in historic numbers in 2018. They have led the resistance to Trump from the beginning. It would make a lot of sense to give one the shot to knock him out in 2020.
Don’t overstate Clinton’s problems
There’s no real way to prove whether or not Clinton lost “because of” sexism in part because it’s unclear exactly what “because” means in the context of such a close election.
What’s clearly true, however, is that she came really close to winning. That’s despite her campaign getting screwed by a number of things outside of her control, including then-FBI Director James Comey’s reckless decision-making, President Barack Obama’s perverse insistence on continuing to push the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Sanders extending the primary six weeks longer than it needed to go, and a news media that was so convinced Trump would lose that it never really scrutinized him as a potential president in a serious way.
At the same time, she had also made a number of serious mistakes in her career that predated the 2016 campaign — most notably backing the invasion of Iraq in 2013 and taking a years-long break from politics to do buckraking speeches.
Last but by no means least, the basic fundamentals favored the GOP in 2016. Political science modelers Vox worked with during the campaign predicted that the economy was not growing fast enough in 2016 for Democrats to win a majority of the popular vote while seeking a third term in the White House. Clinton, despite her self-generated problems and the misfortunes out of her control, actually did better than predicted by those fundamentals — probably because Trump is a total disaster, but even so, her opponent did have the savvy to ditch very unpopular GOP positions on Social Security and Medicare.
Regardless of what exact role you think misogyny played in the coverage Clinton received and the reactions people had to her, the outcome of the 2016 campaign should not make you think a woman can’t beat Trump. Clinton would’ve won if she’d had slightly better luck. She would’ve won if the state boundaries were drawn slightly differently. She would’ve won if she’d made a couple of smarter decisions in the past. And most important, she would’ve won if the underlying fundamentals were narrowly in her favor rather than narrowly against her.
Nobody knows how promising the fundamentals will be for Democrats in 2020. But if they’re favorable, there’s every reason to think a woman nominee will win, and if they’re not, there’s every reason to think a man will lose.
Women have a good track-record overall
Only one woman has ever been a major party nominee for president, and that exact same woman is also the only one who (back in 2008) managed to come close to the nomination before falling short. Consequently, it’s inherently difficult to distinguish the misfortunes Hillary Clinton has faced in presidential politics from the misfortunes women have faced.
What we do know from Jennifer Lawless’s 2016 book surveying women who run for Congress is that on average they do just fine. People who run for office get attacked, of course. And when women get attacked, they tend to get attacked in misogynist terms. But on average, women who obtain major party nominations for Congress do just as well as men. Women were badly outnumbered in Congress itself not because women performed poorly in elections, but because women were much less likely to run in the first place.
In the 2018 cycle we saw an unprecedented number of women put themselves forward as candidates, and the results were exactly what Lawless would have predicted — an unprecedented number of women won. Many of them faced misogynistic attacks, of course, but on average they fared perfectly well as candidates.
Indeed, although Brian Shaffner’s research shows that voters with highly sexist attitudes tilted strongly toward the GOP in the 2018 House elections, he also shows that the opposite happened and voters with low levels of sexism broke heavily for Democrats. Gender attitudes were a big factor in the election, in short, but not one that hurt Democrats generally or Democratic women in particular on a systematic basis.
Presidential politics could turn out to be very different from this. But the only way to really find out is to try.
Democrats have a broad field of women
The idea that “you should vote for a woman” was deployed somewhat opportunistically by the Clinton campaign in the 2016 primary to try to shut down some reasonable ideological qualms about her candidacy.
But in the context of the 2020 field, there is such a broad array of women running that Democrats of all different dispositions should be able to find at least one who’s congenial. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), for starters, actually is the potential candidate that Joe Biden claims to be — someone with a proven track record of winning votes in a heavily white working class Midwestern state. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is obviously not identical to Bernie Sanders but offers a broadly similar leftist critique of the US economy and a parallel practical promise to break somewhat with Democratic establishment personnel in executive branch appointments. Kamala Harris, like Beto O’Rourke, has a somewhat fuzzy ideological identity but projects a clear forward-thinking message about the nature of American society.
Then in Kirsten Gillibrand there’s a personification of the spirit of the resistance, and there’s even Tulsi Gabbard if you’re for whatever reason into electing a president who’s weirdly cozy with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
The point isn’t that any of these women are perfect (after all — who is?) but that they do a perfectly good job of collectively representing the main currents within the Democratic Party. If all the men in the race just dropped out tomorrow, there’d still be plenty of room for a robust debate between the five of them over the broad range of topics. And putting a woman in the Oval Office would make a real difference.
A woman president would matter
One of the important ways in which electing a woman to the presidency would matter is by providing a role model. Role models make a large, quantifiable difference in life. Detailed empirical studies by the Equality of Opportunity Project show that girls who grow up in places where there are an unusually large number of woman inventors are unusually likely to themselves grow up to become inventors. Similarly, Amelia Showalter’s research shows that when women get elected to statewide office, more women start running for state legislature.
A female president would be the biggest, most influential role model of all and would very likely spur more women to run for office down ballot. When some of those women win statewide races, that would serve as further inspiration for even more women to run.
This is a particularly important dynamic for Democrats because most Democrats are women, so women not running for office deprives the party of the majority of its potential political talent.
More women in office also changes governance. Michele Swers, a political scientist at Georgetown who’s researched this extensively, shows that women are more likely to work on legislation related to women’s health, parental leave, and violence against women than are male legislators. Women in Congress also appear to be more effective at getting laws passed and at bringing home money to their home districts.
And while this is of course harder to quantify, it seems undeniable that the breakout stars of the new group of legislators are disproportionately women — most famously Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) on the left wing of the party, but also more moderate New Democrats like Reps. Xochitl Torres-Small (D-NM), Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), and Elissa Slotkin (D-MI).
Indeed, the overall results of 2018 seem to suggest that Democrats know in their hearts the power of backing women for political office. But the 2020 presidential polling suggests they’re gun-shy about trying it again in the race for the Oval Office. And undoubtedly presidential politics poses some unique risks. Women have served on Capitol Hill for slightly over a century, while it’s hard by definition for a woman to look “presidential” in a world that’s never seen a woman president. But the only way to actually solve that problem is to go elect one. And there’s really no time like the present.