Punditry has focused lately on Democratic voters’ desire for an electable presidential candidate with the suggestion that the electability criterion biases them against women candidates. Some of the discussion has been silly: The random Bernie Sanders staffer declaring with more arrogance than evidence that Senator Elizabeth Warren is unelectable; the challenger the popular Mayor of Duluth, Minnesota announcing that voters don’t want a Mommy (which likely helped Mayor Emily Larson as I hear there are many Mommies in Duluth). On the other side, any number of women have tweeted that individual women presidential candidates have never lost an election, clear proof of nothing at all especially as our last Democratic president had been through the learning experience of an electoral loss.
The problem is not punditry alone. Voters, also, are uncertain that a woman is equally electable as a man (Pew Study on Women in Leadership), which may make the matter somewhat relevant to which candidate they choose. I say only somewhat because I question whether electability will matter as much – or be framed the same way – as we all get closer to actual voting. Further, Iowa prospective caucus attendees have now told the Des Moines Register poll that women may have a very slight advantage over men in defeating Trump.
The reality is that there has not been a test of whether women, writ large, are less electable. In the one circumstance in which a major party nominated a woman, she lost. Further, she lost to someone many women believe is an embodiment of toxic masculinity. That experience may have created doubt but not a reality.
The loss of one woman in a particular election year is insufficient data to draw the conclusion that women are less electable. The 2016 election had unique dynamics that will not replicate in 2020. Hillary Clinton was an imperfect candidate (as all candidates are) and had a complex individual history (as all candidates do). She is not a generic woman – and neither is anyone else. Additionally, she won the popular vote and narrowly missed an Electoral College win (by some 70,000 votes) across three states. Since the 2016 election, Michigan elected Gretchen Whitmer Governor, Wisconsin re-elected Tammy Baldwin Senator, and Pennsylvania sent four new women to Congress in a national wave that elected more women than ever before.
Indeed, the 2018 election results suggest that interest in increasing women’s political leadership role has continued unabated and perhaps has grown. Polling, including the Pew study cited above, suggest that voters want to increase the number of women in leadership and believe women generally work harder, are more compassionate, and perhaps more honest than men. These advantages are stronger among women voters who are not only a majority of the electorate but the overwhelming majority of the Democratic primary electorate. The first stage to being elected is being nominated.
Having a woman head of state is still rarer than not – most countries have never elected a woman. More than 50 (59 is the most recent figure I could find) have done so, however. Sri Lanka led the way in 1960. Currently, there are women heads of state in every continent except Antarctica and here in North America.
Despite the growth in women’s political leadership it would not be intellectually honest to argue the advantages for men have been eradicated. Some advantages for men candidates rest in institutional support and most certainly in the nature of media coverage (See Jess McIntosh and Alexandra Rojas on CNN). There are also differences in how men and women are perceived and how those perceptions interact with campaign messages for women candidates.
Next week, I will launch the second part of this post which looks at some of those differences.