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How much does sexism matter for female candidates?

Sexism plays a role in every election — but using it to disqualify female candidates completely misses the point.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren during a campaign stop on November 25, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

During Tuesday’s Democratic debate, Sen. Bernie Sanders pushed back on CNN reporter Abby Phillip when she asked why he said he “did not believe that a woman could win the election,” comments Sen. Elizabeth Warren says he made in a private conversation.

“How could anybody in a million years not believe that a woman could become president of the United States?” Sanders asked, while denying he ever made this statement.

As it turns out, a lot of people seem to. (And Warren maintains Sanders said so.)

While polling has shown that Democrats are overwhelmingly open to a female president, voters remain concerned that others — including a subset of swing voters — are not. A common refrain? People want to support a woman, but they don’t know if other voters can get past their gender bias to do it.

This dynamic is evident in a 2019 Ipsos/Daily Beast poll. The poll found 74 percent of Democrats and independents said they would be comfortable with a female president, but 33 percent believed their neighbors wouldn’t be quite as accepting.

Earlier this month, former Vice President Joe Biden expressed a similar sentiment, noting that Hillary Clinton encountered sexism when she ran for the Democratic nomination in 2016. “That’s not going to happen with me,” he said, seeming to imply that he’d have a leg up over a female contender. (His campaign has since said his remarks weren’t intended to question a woman’s electability.)

On one level, it’s understandable there’s a perception that sexist attitudes hold back female candidates. Sexism does impose additional barriers on women: Studies show that women have to demonstrate their qualifications in a way that men simply don’t, that they have to calibrate the way they show ambition, and that they’re still judged on tenets like “likability” in a way that male candidates are not.

Clinton and her campaign have said sexism was a major factor in the outcome of 2016. In her book, Clinton communications director Jen Palmieri wrote that the campaign “encountered an unconscious but pervasive gender bias that held Hillary back in many ways.”

Palmieri, however, includes an important caveat. “I want to be clear that while misogyny and sexism were a problem on the campaign trail, I don’t believe everyone who voted against Hillary did so for sexist reasons,” she wrote.

It’s this point that’s sometimes lost in the discussion about sexism — and it’s one that’s further corroborated by data. While women certainly face sexism as candidates, research has found that it’s far from the only factor at play.

Time and again, political scientists have determined that when women run for office, they perform just as well as their male counterparts. And in the last national election in 2018, Democratic women outperformed men. Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota on Tuesday night pointed to their own success as proof: “When you look at what I have done, I have won every race, every place, every time,” Klobuchar said.

In perhaps the most notable line of the evening, Warren called out the men onstage for losing past elections, contrasting their record with hers. “Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost 10 elections,” she quipped, adding that she and Klobuchar hadn’t lost any.

Electability has become a central question among Democrats in 2020. Understandably, they want to pick the strongest contender to take on President Trump, even if the knocks against a candidate (like her gender) aren’t fair. But these concerns aren’t rooted in what the research shows, which is that sexism is real but isn’t the force Democrats fear.

Female candidates deal with sexism

Biden’s remarks (and Sanders’s alleged remarks) point to a concern many voters have raised: that sexism will be so damning to a woman’s candidacy in 2020 that there’s little chance she’ll be able to beat Trump.

For many of these voters, the concern they’ve expressed isn’t so much about their preferences but about those of other voters, who they worry won’t vote for a woman nominee.

It’s an assumption that emerged following the 2016 election and Clinton’s loss to Trump, in part because the campaign made it an issue. Clinton referenced the obstacles raised by gender bias in her book What Happened:

The moment a woman steps forward and says, ‘I’m running for office’, it begins. The analysis of her face, her body, her voice, her demeanor; the diminishment of her stature, her ideas, her accomplishments, her integrity.

In a 2017 interview, Clinton pointed to the effect of misogyny on the election. “Certainly, misogyny played a role. I mean, that just has to be admitted,” she said. “And why and what the underlying reasons were is what I’m trying to parse out myself.”

A Tufts University study from political science professor Brian Schaffner also found that sexist and racist attitudes were tied to Trump support in 2016.

The question is whether sexism against the candidate can be seen as the deciding factor in the election — a conclusion that researchers have repeatedly pushed back on both because it’s tough to pinpoint this exact relationship and because there is evidence suggesting otherwise.

The 2016 race ultimately came down to less than a few percentage points in several states. In Michigan, for example, Clinton lost by roughly 11,000 votes, a margin so thin that any single factor could be pointed to as a reason for her loss. Solely blaming sexism obscures many of the unique challenges she faced, including her heavy political baggage, and ignores other campaign missteps.

As Vox’s Matt Yglesias writes, it’s very difficult to draw a causal connection between sexism and Clinton’s loss given all the variables involved, and even more so, to project that conclusion onto a future nominee:

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.

To suggest that gender was the deciding aspect of Clinton’s loss also fuels dangerous assumptions, effectively enabling people to argue that no other woman should be considered for the job. It’s a flawed conclusion that some people could take from 2016, simply because the sample size of women who have been major-party nominees is so small.

“When people say it shouldn’t be a woman this time because a woman lost last time, well, men have been losing the presidency for hundreds of years,” said Amanda Hunter, a policy director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.

Data shows that women do just as well as men

Research on the 2016 election and other races further counters the assumptions about the role of sexism in campaign outcomes.

When it comes to running for public office, women win at the same rates as men, according to a number of studies, including one from political scientists Richard Seltzer, Jody Newman, and Melissa Voorhees Leighton, who examined patterns in House, Senate, and state legislature races in the 1980s and ’90s.

Another from UC Berkeley’s Lefteris Anastasopoulos looked at whether the nomination of a female candidate for the House affected the likelihood of victory between 1982 and 2012. He did not find that gender had any negative association with the candidate’s probability of winning.

Instead, researchers have determined that the barriers that have prevented women from even deciding to run are larger deterrents than the discrimination they may face once they’re a candidate.

“When women run for political office, they are just as likely as men to be elected,” the New York Times’s Claire Cain Miller wrote. “The main reason they are so underrepresented is that they don’t run in the first place.”

Data from the recent midterm elections further highlights the strength of women candidates. In 2018, Democratic women were among some of the strongest performers, including in competitive swing districts, driving the lion’s share of red-to-blue wins the party experienced in the House. Non-incumbent Democratic women had the highest win rates of any congressional candidates in both parties, according to an analysis by Rutgers University political science professor Kelly Dittmar.

Historically, too, researchers have determined that party affiliations hold more sway than a candidate’s gender, though some studies suggest sexism was at the very least a factor for some voters across party lines in 2016.

Even if that were the case, though, researchers have found that attitudes toward gender could ultimately work more in favor of women candidates and the Democratic Party than it does against them.

“Experiencing the first two years of Trump’s presidency pushed less sexist Americans toward the Democratic Party in 2018,” Tufts’ Schaffner and YouGov’s Sam Luks wrote in the Washington Post. Their research, as well as that of the University of Texas’s Harold Clarke and Marianne Stewart, notes that while voters who may hold more sexist viewpoints could move away from Democrats overall, the party could have more to gain from those with less sexist viewpoints crossing over.

The focus on sexism hurting women candidates creates a self-fulfilling feedback loop

Calling out sexism is important. But doing so can feel like a double-edged sword: If women acknowledge that sexism is a problem, opponents can use their gender against them to question their electability.

As the 2018 elections demonstrated, women have no problem winning in spite of sexism. That year, female candidates across the ideological spectrum flipped the majority of House seats that Democrats retook, and flipped both Senate seats the party won as well as the majority of gubernatorial seats.

Of course, a presidential election is different from congressional and gubernatorial races, but this pattern underscores a track record of a range of female candidates winning.

Citing sexism as the main reason for passing on a female candidate also implies that there are no differences in the qualifications, ideas, and strategy that different female candidates are bringing to their campaign.

This cycle, alone, six women from different ideological perspectives and backgrounds have campaigned for the Democratic nomination. While several of them have already dropped out, the three who are left — Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard — are running on radically different policy proposals across a wide range of issues including health care, student debt, and climate change.

When sexism is used to discount female candidates, such arguments don’t take into account that every woman, including Clinton, Warren, and Klobuchar, is unique, with her own respective strengths and weaknesses.

Electability is a flawed construct

No one knows how the 2020 election will play out, which means any assumptions that people have about the role gender will play are just that — assumptions.

“There’s no empirical evidence that you could lump in a whole region and say that women have not, or will not, fare well there,” said Dittmar, who is a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics.

For one, turnout is a major variable that could wind up swaying the outcome, and it won’t be evident until after the election. In a recent example, Andrew Gillum surprised pollsters when he won the Democratic nomination for the Florida gubernatorial race in 2018, because he was able to turn out a higher proportion of young and black voters than previously anticipated. State-level polls have also missed the outcome of past races, including the 2016 election, because the turnout that day did not align with previous expectations.

In the case of 2020, a Pew poll has found that a segment of voters could be even more energized for a female candidate, though that survey did not include analysis about the types of policies voters favored from their top candidates.

Because there’s so much we don’t know about the election, to rule out an entire group of candidates solely because there are biased notions of who has won the presidency in the past is to give those biases disproportionate weight.

Simply put, there is only one true measure of a person’s electability.

“Is this person going to win the general election?” UCLA political science professor Lynn Vavreck told Vox. “The only way to know that is if they win the general election.”

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