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.