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Voters are back to worrying whether a woman can win

Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar are being held to a higher “electability” standard than the men running for president.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

DOVER, New Hampshire — Newspaper editorial boards across America seem ready for a woman president. But voters aren’t so sure.

The New York Times recently endorsed both Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), the two women left standing in the higher tiers of the 2020 Democratic primary. While the paper clearly couldn’t choose between Klobuchar’s pragmatic moderation and Warren’s sweeping “big structural change” stance, its choice of two women made a statement.

Warren and Klobuchar have also racked up nods from early state newspapers, with Iowa’s Des Moines Register endorsing Warren and the conservative-leaning Union Leader and more liberal Keene Sentinel board backing Klobuchar in New Hampshire.

But interviews with dozens of New Hampshire voters reveal an underlying anxiety about picking a woman to go up against President Donald Trump.

“I am so disappointed with voters in this country, I wonder if a woman could win,” said Freedom voter Chris Hurley, who voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016 but is considering Klobuchar this year. “I hate to say that. It may be a white middle-aged man. We’ve got to beat Trump.”

The media and voters alike have become obsessed with the concept of “electability.” Political experts told me it’s a vicious cycle.

“We’re saying put on this pundit hat and pick the most electable candidate,” said Betsy Fischer Martin, the executive director of American University’s Women & Politics Institute and a former TV executive. “Voters have heard this messaging coming out of the media about women candidates being unelectable. That circular conversation that’s going on, the more it’s being talked about, the more it gets into people’s conventional wisdom.”

Although Warren and Klobuchar have an unblemished record of winning elections compared with their male counterparts (something Warren pointed out on the debate stage in January) and Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes in 2016, the latter’s Electoral College loss is fueling voters’ fears.

With two weeks until the primary, New Hampshire voters seem especially conscious of what a “middle America” voter in the Midwest might think of their choice.

Women have to make the case that they’re electable because there’s never been a woman president

Though the 2016 election is looming large in voters’ minds, they might want to pause to think of the 2018 midterms — also known as the “year of the woman.”

As a new wave of Democratic women swept into the US House and governor’s seats around the country, an analysis of 2018 Democratic primaries by the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman showed that women candidates statistically overperformed their male competitors by about 15 percent.

“I think that people are forgetting the lessons of 2018,” Rep. Katherine Clark, vice chair of the House Democratic caucus and a surrogate for Warren, told me in a recent interview. “When people are scared, which they are, they kind of look for what they’ve always known as the safe choice.”

Women statistically demonstrated that they were more electable than men in the most recent election, but somehow they’re still not seen as the “safe choice” Clark mentioned. That’s because, to voters, winning executive office has a higher bar than winning legislative office. Not only do women have to campaign for president, they also have to make the case for why they would make a suitable president. Men innately don’t have to make that case, because the American public is very used to seeing men as president.

“Men are assumed to be qualified and women have to prove they’re qualified over and over,” said Amanda Hunter, research and communications director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. “They’re held to a higher and different standard; the standard is often perfection.”

The women running for president in 2020 keep having to come back to the tangible things they’ve accomplished: winning elections, passing bills, starting federal agencies. Research on electability from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation shows that “empathy, toughness, and substance” are qualities candidates have to demonstrate in order for voters to consider them electable.

A majority of voters polled for that research — 56 percent — have also heard the media discuss women candidates as unelectable. And though nearly 80 percent of voters rejected the idea that a woman isn’t electable, the foundation’s survey also found that Democratic and Republican voters alike are more inclined to think it’s more important to appeal to swing voters than to the party’s base.

That standard is amplified with Trump in the picture and what is sure to be a bruising general election. Former Republican Sheree Dustin of Hampstead, New Hampshire — now an undeclared voter — looks to Biden when she thinks about electability. Dustin said she liked Klobuchar but has doubts about the Minnesota senator in a general election.

“She’s not going to win; she’ll lose,” said Dustin. She just sees Biden as more uniting.

Voters in New Hampshire recognize women have to meet a higher bar

Many voters interviewed in New Hampshire said they believed the women running for president in 2020 are being held to a higher standard than the men.

“The biggest uphill battle she has is the inherent misogyny,” Dover voter and Warren supporter Jeremiah Dickinson told me as he waited to see his candidate speak a few weeks ago. “She’s the smartest, most prepared.”

But it was also clear that a lot of voters weren’t just basing their vote on what they alone think; they were also concerned about what swing voters around the country might think.

“I think Elizabeth is very intense and may not appeal to the majority of voters,” Concord voter and Pete Buttigieg supporter Diane Doner Salice told me, even as she added that she thought Warren was “eloquent.”

That’s not a sentiment exclusive to New Hampshire. My former colleague Tara Golshan found the same thing when she talked to caucus-goers in Iowa last summer.

“Biden and Warren are our top two choices,” Iowa voter Connie Esbeck told Golshan in August, adding, “I’m still afraid there’s going to be people that are prejudiced against electing a woman.”

Her husband, Glenn Esbeck, a Clinton supporter in 2016, added, “There are some old stubborn guys, they may not vote for a woman.”

A recent WBUR poll of New Hampshire showed the stark gender divide on Warren’s favorability numbers. Among women, 65 percent had a favorable opinion of the candidate, compared with 21 percent who said it was unfavorable. But among men, 53 percent said they had a favorable opinion of Warren, while 40 percent had an unfavorable opinion. (Similarly, the poll found that Klobuchar’s unfavorables were higher with men than with women.)

Other New Hampshire voters told me they thought Warren and Klobuchar had demonstrated their electability after solid debate performances. Multiple voters used the words “confident” and “qualified” to describe both women, a characteristic they were looking for in a candidate.

“Gender should not be an issue. I don’t think that question should be raised, but I know that it is,” said East Kingston voter and Warren supporter Mary Nickol.