An August poll highlights a trend that’s emerged in the 2020 presidential cycle thus far: Voters favor Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as one of their top choices for the Democratic nomination when the focus isn’t on “electability.” When it is, they wind up picking former Vice President Joe Biden.
These dueling results, from a survey by Quinnipiac, underscore a conflict that some Democratic voters seem to be wrestling with. While many people have candidates they’re excited about, their top priority by far is beating President Donald Trump. And for some, because of Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, they’re not sure certain candidates — namely, women — can do it.
“Biden and Warren are our top two choices,” voter Connie Esbeck recently told Vox’s Tara Golshan in Iowa, adding, “I’m still afraid there’s going to be people that are prejudiced against electing a woman.”
“There are some old stubborn guys, they may not vote for a woman,” said her husband Glenn Esbeck, who had previously supported Clinton.
The Esbecks are far from alone in expressing this sentiment. It’s a fear driven by Clinton’s recent defeat, the high stakes associated with unseating Trump, and longstanding skepticism of women in politics, experts tell Vox.
To understand Bidenmentum, you've got to have some of the conversations I had yesterday: Middle-aged women explaining that 2016 showed that voters won't elect a female president, so they've got to be strategic.— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) April 30, 2019
“The default stature for voters ... is to question whether or not a woman can be successful or has what it takes,” says Rutgers political science professor Kelly Dittmar, who’s also a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics.
On their face, these doubts may seem rational based on the outcome of the 2016 election. But the evidence is mixed on just how big a role Clinton’s gender played in her loss. Though studies have found that gender bias was likely a factor, it’s seen as one of many, which include the degree of political baggage Clinton brought to the race.
Moreover, making 2016 the definitive case study asks voters to apply the performance of one woman candidate to every woman who comes after her, completely obscuring the individual strengths and positions of this cycle’s contenders, and the electoral success women have had in other races. It also discounts variables that differ across cycles, such as voter turnout.
Other recent trends — including the sweeping victories by women candidates in House races in 2018 — further counter the idea that sexism is the deciding factor in women’s electoral success. During the 2018 midterms, women candidates didn’t just win key races; they drove the “blue wave” that ushered Democrats back into the House majority.
All of this is to say that the idea that a woman candidate is not as “electable” as a man isn’t grounded in actual data. Certainly, it’s possible voters may have concerns about how a candidate’s policy positions would hold up in a general election against Trump, but those questions are worth applying to candidates of any gender.
While gender bias definitely continues to exist, voters are only exacerbating it if they discount women from the get-go. Here are five reasons the question “Can a woman win?” is the wrong one to ask.
1) Women candidates have a proven track record of winning, flipping the lion’s share of districts Democrats retook in 2018
Look no further than the 2018 midterm elections for ample evidence that women have no problem winning elections, including many races in battleground districts.
Of the 41 seats that Democrats flipped from red to blue last year, 23 were won by women, many of them in purple districts in states like Iowa and Michigan. Both Senate pickups the party had — in Arizona and Nevada — were also won by women. On top of that, four out of seven gubernatorial flips were won by women, including in Michigan, Kansas, and Maine.
Women candidates — many of whom were seeking office for the first time — were integral to the blue wave. In fact, non-incumbent Democratic women had the highest win rates of any congressional candidates in both parties, according to an analysis by Dittmar.
“The idea that it is women that are not electable is really debunked when you look at the fact that women have been successful,” Dittmar says.
An important caveat: Researchers note that women typically face more gendered skepticism when running for executive office than they do when running for deliberative bodies like Congress. The gubernatorial wins, however, further bolster the argument that voters are excited to support a candidate who resonates with them, in an executive role.
“In the case that we see a female executive successful in these states, these same voters could be just as comfortable with an executive woman at the national level,” Dittmar says.
2) The top 2020 women Democrats have never lost an election
As the New York Times’s Astead Herndon and Lisa Lerer pointed out, Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Kirsten Gillibrand all share a leg up over the leading male candidates: They’ve won every political race they’ve ever run.
If the concern is that a woman can’t win, well, maybe that same question is better posed to the men.
“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,” says Amanda Hunter, a policy director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.
With numerous House, local, and Senate races between them, the leading women in the 2020 race have not lost a single one.
On the other hand, former Vice President Joe Biden has mounted multiple failed presidential campaigns (one of which he was forced to withdraw from amid a plagiarism scandal), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) lost the Democratic nomination in 2016, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg lost a 2010 election for Indiana state treasurer, as well as a 2017 race for Democratic National Committee chair.
3) Voters are more excited about electing a woman
As was evident in 2016 and 2018, voter enthusiasm matters.
The 2020 election is already expected to see strong turnout due to how polarizing Trump has been as president, but a particularly energizing nominee could spur even more Democratic-leaning voters to participate.
In 2018, for example, voter turnout was the highest that it’s been of any midterm election in the past century. Democrats managed to win the House by a significant margin, due in no small part to anti-Trump energy. But Andy McGuire, a former chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, thinks that’s not all there was to it.
According to data from the Current Population Survey, there were spikes in turnout from several groups that traditionally trend Democrat, including younger voters and voters of color — likely thanks to the historically diverse field of candidates.
“Who had the excitement? Who had all the volunteers and power behind them? It was women,” McGuire told the New York Times.
4) There is no data to suggest a woman can’t win the Midwest — or other critical states
Because of Clinton’s loss, a myth has emerged suggesting that a woman wouldn’t be able to win certain geographic regions, such as states in the Midwest. According to experts, it’s one that’s blatantly untrue.
“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,” says Dittmar.
In fact, data from several Midwestern states in the recent midterm elections completely rebuts this theory. Michigan, a key state that Clinton lost, for example, recently elected Gretchen Whitmer as its new governor. Kansas, a longtime Republican stronghold, elected Laura Kelly. In Iowa, two women — Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne — were responsible for flipping Republican House seats for the Democrats.
Their wins speak to the fact that women can’t simply be painted with a broad brush but should be evaluated as individual, multifaceted candidates ... just like men would be.
“Making these grand claims at one level of office is inconsistent with the fact that you’ve had woman success statewide at other parts of office,” Dittmar says.
5) Electability is a misleading construct
Ultimately, electability is, simply put, a problematic construct. For one, it can fuel a self-fulfilling feedback loop: If we assume women can’t win, we likely won’t ever give those candidates the chance to try. For another, electability is quite hard to predict.
“The standard by which we determine electability is often unfair,” Dittmar says. “If we assume that proving electability requires a woman being president, we can’t use that as the measure to elect the first woman.”
As presidential candidates including Barack Obama have demonstrated in the past, electability is such a dicey measure because it can literally be questioned up until the moment someone wins.
In an interview with NBC News, Harris noted that she hasn’t been seen as “electable” in many races she’s run in, even though she ultimately won all of them. “Every office I’ve run for — no one like me had ever done the job,” she said. “Based on gender, based on race. Every time, pundits said the people weren’t ready for it. But I won.”
Most recently, Trump was widely viewed as unelectable in 2016.
Figuring out who fits the bill is like “nailing Jell-O to a wall,” says the University of Virginia’s Kyle Kondik. As a result, theories of electability often function more as a coded way to express existing biases about what a winning candidate looks like, rather than accurate predictions.
Head-to-head candidate matchups might be a helpful data point, says UCLA political science professor Lynn Vavreck, but even those aren’t necessarily foolproof.
“Is this person going to win the general election?” she says. “The only way to know that is if they win the general election.”