How the “Electability” Issue May Have Hurt Women Candidates in 2020

Elizabeth Warren, one of the candidates who unsuccessfully ran for President of the United States in 2020.

Quite a few people were devastated when Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for President of the United States ended early with disappointing results on Super Tuesday. Following her departure from the race, there has been much talk of how sexism, not the substance of what she was advocating for, may have affected her campaign.

And, there seems to be truth to the belief that sexism hurt Warren’s candidacy, as well as the candidacies of Senator Amy Klobuchar and Senator Kamala Harris. However, it seems like that sexism is playing out through the veil of a word that has been used time and time again by many a progressive activist in 2020: electability.

There is much terror in progressive circles over what has happened during the Trump administration, particularly with regard to a number of civil rights issues. In response, most Democrats want to nominate someone who can beat President Trump in November…someone who is, well, electable. In fact, the top priority among Democratic voters is beating Trump—a solid majority of respondents in a poll from last November prioritized a candidate who could beat Trump over a candidate who they agreed with ideologically.[1]

This electability argument seems fine and innocent for many progressives…until you consider how that argument likely undermined the female candidates such as Warren, Klobuchar, and Harris. According to an Ipsos poll done in mid-2019, the plurality of Democratic and Independent voters thought that a woman would have a harder time beating Trump than a man would, and only a third of Democratic and Independent voters thought that their neighbors would be comfortable with a female president.[2]

In summary, even Democrats and Independents, who themselves, on average, are ready for a female president,[3] think that female candidates have an electability problem. In an election where electability is by far the top priority of voters, the perceived lack of electability of female candidates put the likes of Warren, Klobuchar, and Harris at a disadvantage from the beginning.

But what should we do about this problem, as this may not be the last time that electability may come up as an issue in primaries at the national level?

It seems like two options tend to be suggested: we either need to stop making electability a priority, or else somehow convince ourselves and others that women are electable.

Suggesting that people should stop making electability a priority is probably the more unpopular of the two options among many progressives; after all, many progressives desperately want to defeat President Trump and would likely feel the same about many prominent Republicans if they were president. At the same time, if people want electability to be a priority, that’s a measurement that, as I have shown, puts all female candidates at the national level, even female candidates in a Democratic primary process, at a major disadvantage even if they had the best policies ever.

However, even if people stop making electability a priority, there’s still that nagging problem that women are often viewed as less electable than men (even if electability is a secondary or tertiary priority). Not making electability the priority doesn’t take away the problem that women are often viewed as inferior presidential candidates because they’re viewed as less electable than men; it only attempts to minimize the problem. Therefore, the better option might be to work towards the point that women are viewed as every bit as electable as men.

But how do we get to a point that women are electable, too? I propose a few ideas, but am open to others:

  1. We need to convince ourselves (and others) that people are, in general, more ready for a female president than many of us realize. That Ipsos poll I cited earlier says that 74% of Democrats and Independents are comfortable with a female president. Yet, only 33% of Democrats and Independents say that they think their neighbors are comfortable with a female president. Some of the other polling I cited earlier notes that 53% of Americans (encompassing all political affiliations) are either “very ready” or “extremely ready” for a female president, yet only 16% of Americans believed that most fellow Americans were ready for a female president. Let these statistics show that most Americans really are ready for a female president.
  2. We need to understand why those who feel “moderately ready” for a woman to be president feel that way. 53% of Americans either feel “very ready” or “extremely ready” for a woman to be president, but there’s another 25% of Americans who feel “moderately ready” (leaving only 22% of Americans who feel only “slightly ready” or “not ready at all”). Namely, we need to understand what makes that 25% feel hesitant about having a woman president, because if those hesitations can be addressed, you then have an overwhelming majority of Americans feeling ready for a woman president.
  3. We need to examine our own biases about women in power. I could probably dedicate a whole post to the topic of biases against women in power, but criticisms such as “bossy,” “strident,” and “abrasive” are levied against powerful, successful women much more than against powerful, successful men.[4] We need to be honest with ourselves and see whether we tend to levy such biases disproportionately on successful women, because if we do, we are making it less likely that we will vote for women (and potentially less likely that we would view women as electable). I say this from experience, because I used to think that Warren was abrasive, and I did not consider voting for her until I realized that this belief came from my own biases about women in power.[5]

“Electability” arguments probably did hurt female candidates this year. However, moving forward, if we want to have the first Madame President of the United States, we need to do all we can to make sure that pro-electability does not result in anti-female attitudes towards candidates.


[1] https://news.gallup.com/poll/268448/democrats-thinking-strategically-2020-nominee-choice.aspx

[2] https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2019-06/daily-beast-gender-topline-2019-06-17-v2.pdf

[3] https://leanin.org/data-about-gender-bias-and-electability-in-the-2020-election

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/womens-blog/2014/oct/03/when-will-we-stop-calling-successful-women-abrasive

[5] Ultimately, I couldn’t vote for her because she dropped out before my state’s primary.

10 Replies to “How the “Electability” Issue May Have Hurt Women Candidates in 2020”

  1. I think electability will always be a key issue, since really, that’s what politics always comes down to. But I like your suggestions, particularly the one about the “moderately ready” segment of people. Attitudes can’t be changed unless we really understand where they’re coming from.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m guessing that electability will always be a key issue, as well. Therefore, I do think we need to look at ways that women can be viewed as more electable. Hopefully, that can change if the “moderately” ready crowd can gravitate towards the “very ready” or “extremely ready” crowds.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I suspect it has something to do as well with a “celebrity thought”. You look at the majority of woman leaders throughout the world and how they are viewed. Americans seem to think differently. Merkel, Arden. People love them, except for those little old white men. (not ALL of them). Even NOW Bernie “Bros” are still calling Warren a snake, even though she’s not running.
    It’s a very big challenge, but I think it can be done.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It would be interesting to study whether or not there’s a correlation between genuine willingness to vote for a woman candidate and being raised in a single-parent household.

    I interact with many people, of all ages, that will tell you that women and girls are equally capable, but there’s always a caveat with it. There is very little genuine acceptance that males and females are truly equal. Equal in most respects, like running day-to-day operations, sure, but when electing a president, they collapse back onto their ingrained belief that when push comes to shove, a man might be a little more capable.

    I have a theory that some of that comes from how we raise our kids, how family decisions are made, which parent has the final say in an argument over major purchases, which parent sacrifices something more often for the sake of the other, right down to which parent has their “special chair”, etc… Many more kids are being raised by single mothers which teaches those kids that not only are women capable, but arguably more capable because they’re the ones ultimately responsible for themselves and their kids.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmmm. That’s an interesting theory. I’m not sure whether there is a correlation between genuine willingness for a woman president and being in a single-parent household (particularly when the single parent is the woman).

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  4. I was very interested in Senator Warren when she announced her campaign and generally supportive of her.

    However, the Senator performed very poorly in the Democratic debates, alienating my wife, a professional administrator in a major university and who herself has a degree in business administration.

    Also, during the aftermath of Quad Commander Suleimani’s death, Senator Warren’s attitude and indecision toward the event made me wonder if she was up to the strategic thinking combined with split second decision making required by the US chief executive.

    IMHO, Senator Warren had her opportunity and her performance in the campaign warranted her not receiving the Democratic party nomination for 2020.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Robert-Yes, one of the big questions with Warren campaign was how much of her struggle was her performance and how much of it was the electorate’s perceptions of others’ attitudes towards a woman in the White House. My hypothesis is that it’s probably a bit of both, while your hypothesis leans heavily towards her performance. Even I will admit (even as someone who was strongly considering voting for Warren in the primary) that she struggled in a couple of debates. At the same time, it doesn’t help when it’s a contest about electability and the plurality of the electorate does not think women are electable.

      Like

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