The 2020 Democratic primary’s historic field of women candidates just got a little smaller. On Wednesday, after failing to qualify for the September debate, two-term New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced that she was ending her candidacy.
It’s not hard to see why Gillibrand dropped out — the writing was on the wall. She still hadn’t met the donor threshold for the September debate, and had only hit 2 percent in one qualifying poll (she needed three more). Her debate performances didn’t do much to help her stand out from the other candidates — even on women’s issues, which she had made the centerpiece of her campaign. And although her name recognition rose over the course of the campaign, she didn’t become better-liked.
In the end, Gillibrand just couldn’t convince women voters — or most voters for that matter — that she was their candidate. But why her candidacy never picked up steam was always a little bit of a mystery. Of course, she had some hurdles to overcome. Like the other women running for president, she faced voters’ biases against women candidates. She also had the baggage of sparking Democratic Party heavyweights’ ire after she called on former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken to resign when sexual harassment allegations against him came out in 2017.
On paper, though, Gillibrand’s campaign didn’t seem especially quixotic. She was on the national stage for more than a decade before throwing her hat in the ring, and established herself as a strong advocate for women’s rights issues such as paid family leave and sexual assault in the military. She was also explicitly pitching her candidacy toward groups like white college-educated suburban women, whose political enthusiasm had just helped sweep a record-breaking number of women into office in the 2018 midterms.
So Gillibrand’s biggest problem may have simply been that there wasn’t a clear base for her in the Democratic electorate — at least not one for which there wasn’t also fierce competition in the rest of the primary field. After all, she was running against a number of other women who are also strong on issues like abortion rights and equal pay. Without another signature issue to help her stand out, she often got lost in the melee of the primary.
In those moments and others, her rivals seemed to harness policies that were key to Gillibrand’s candidacy more effectively than she did. It was Harris, not Gillibrand, who grabbed headlines for her plan to penalize companies for failing to pay men and women equally. And in a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, respondents said that Warren was best qualified to address gender equality, followed by Biden, Sanders and Harris — Gillibrand didn’t even crack the top 10.
In some ways, Gillibrand’s campaign may have also shown just how tricky outreach to women voters can be, even in a year where issues such as abortion and the #MeToo movement are prominent. Women make up about 60 percent of the Democratic base, but there isn’t a lot of evidence that they gravitate automatically toward female candidates because of their shared identity, or even because of shared priorities. In that Politico/Morning Consult poll, for instance, only 5 percent of Democratic women voters said that gender equality was a top voting priority. And Warren and Harris appear to be polling only very slightly better with women than men; that gap is actually bigger for Biden.
As the first woman to leave the race, Gillibrand’s departure is noteworthy, particularly since she could, in theory, have stuck around and tried to make it into the October debate — after all, the criteria to qualify isn’t changing. So her decision to drop out now may signal some strategic decision-making for candidates who are prominent within the party. and therefore have more to lose by staying in the race too long. It’s possible that even if the White House isn’t in the cards for Gillibrand this time, she may be thinking about running for another office, like governor of New York, and doesn’t want to fall out of grace with the party. Or she may be withdrawing with the goal of helping to pave the way for Harris or Booker — both of whom are friends.
The question now is whether other candidates follow Gillibrand’s lead. She is the sixth candidate to have dropped out this summer, and it’s possible that her departure could be a harbinger of more winnowing. Particularly for anyone else who is thinking about running for office in the future, and wants to stay on the Democratic Party’s good side by helping to narrow the field.
A record number of women are running for president in 2020, and now two women look like serious contenders for the presidential nomination — Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, both of whom rose in the polls after strong performances in the first Democratic debate. Joe Biden is still in the lead, but Warren and Harris may be starting to chip away at one of the central conceits of the 2020 race so far: the idea that Biden has the best shot at defeating President Trump.
For months now, voters have toldreporters that they want to elect a woman — but after Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, they simply can’t imagine a woman winning against Trump. And this calculus is often justified by beliefs about other people’s sexism — an Ipsos/Daily Beast poll in June, for example, found that only 33 percent of Democrats and independents said they believed that their neighbors would be comfortable with a female president. But the performances of Warren and Harris in the first debate may have allowed some of those voters to envision a path to victory for these candidates for the first time.
Even with Warren and Harris on the upswing, though, it’s hard not to wonder if sexism will still make it more difficult for a woman to win the nomination. After all, the other women in the race — including Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar, who seemed at the outset like promising contenders — are still barely registering in the polls. Whether these women are struggling because of their gender is pretty much impossible to say right now; in part, this is because there is, of course, no research to tell us how six female candidates might fare against 17 male competitors in a presidential primary.
But that doesn’t mean we’re completely in the dark about how sexism affects women’s electoral chances. Political science research has established that women who run for elected office have to navigate a thicket of stereotypes and double standards that their male counterparts are unlikely to experience. And while most scholars agree that partisanship usually overpowers voters’ biases about female leaders, no matter how deeply held, a long and crowded presidential primary could be especially challenging.
So with the caveat that we will learn a lot about gender and elections over the next 16 months (not that we’re counting), here’s a link-heavy introduction to what we know already — and how that could influence the Democratic primary.
Americans say they will vote for a woman, but they’re still influenced by stereotypes
These days, it’s hard to find voters who openly admit that they’re reluctant to support a woman for president. Only 13 percent of Americans believe that men are better suited for politics than women, according to the 2018 General Social Survey. And a Gallup poll conducted in May found that 94 percent of Americans say they would vote for a woman for president.
But many people’s assumptions about what it means to be a woman and what it means to be an elected leader still don’t line up, which can put female candidates at a disadvantage when they step into the political sphere. The traits most people associate with politicians — for example, competence, ambition, aggressiveness, confidence, toughness — are linked to masculinebehavior. And studies have found that as a result, men are often assumed to be viable candidates from the get-go, while women must work to be taken seriously. “Men have a leg up in politics because there’s a basic assumption that they’re qualified to run,” said Nichole Bauer, a professor at Louisiana State University who studies political psychology.
These stereotypes are mostly unconscious — these days they rarely emerge, fully formed, in our political discourse. But we can see them bubbling underneath the surface, like when female candidates are asked if they’re “likable” — a question that’s already in the air in 2020. (Gillibrand was asked this question within minutes of formally announcing her campaign.) And trying to seem “likable” can quickly morph into an impossible bind for female politicians because they’re trying to fill two roles with very different sets of expectations — “woman” and “leader.” Appearing both qualified and likable can mean walking a narrow tightrope between the stereotypically masculine qualities that are associated with political leadership and feminine qualities like warmth, kindness and empathy.
This can be a hard act to pull off. Research has shown that being liked has outsize importance for women because voters will support a man they dislike, but they will not support a qualified, unlikable woman. Take what happened in the 2016 presidential election: Trump and Clinton both had historically low favorability ratings, but Trump still eked out a victory despite Clinton’s political credentials. That speaks to another trap several political scientists told me that women often face: A long political track record can open a candidate up to more criticism, but without an established résumé, a woman might not be taken seriously at all. Men, meanwhile, can run with less experience and get away with talking more vaguely about their policy positions, according to Amanda Hunter, research and communications director at the Barbara Lee Foundation, a nonprofit group that has done research on gender bias and elections. “Women are judged more harshly if it seems like they’re learning on the job,” she said. “So that means they have to be uber-prepared to run, while men can kind of figure it out as they go.”
There are some stereotypes that can work to female candidates’ advantage — but they can be a double-edged sword. Women are more likely to be seen as having expertise on issues that are stereotypically associated with women, like health care or child care, which can give them a boost when those issues are at the top of voters’ minds — a nice edge until you learn that men have an advantage on issues like the economy or national security. Female politicians are generally assumed to be more liberal, too, which can be a good thing in the Democratic primary but can quickly go south in a general election. And studies have shown that women are generally perceived as possessing more honesty and compassion than men — qualities that many voters say are important for politicians. But Cecilia Mo, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, cautioned that even being seen as the more civil or morally upright candidate can become a liability because there’s more room for disappointment.
“We assume female political leaders are more of these good things — warm, honest, caring, smart,” Mo said. “But when women candidates are shown to be flawed in some way, voters are much less forgiving than they are of their male counterparts.” Mo’s recent research suggests that voters punish female candidates more than male candidates for scandals or political attacks, perhaps because voters have higher expectations for women’s judgment or integrity.
There are plenty of metaphors for the limitations female candidates face, but whether they’re on a pedestal or a tightrope, there isn’t much room to maneuver, and there’s a long way to fall. And all of these biases — helpful or not — end up narrowing the possibilities for how a viable female candidate can behave. Of course, the six women running for the Democratic nomination will navigate these stereotypes differently and won’t all be affected by them in the same way. Other factors like race, age and political ideology will also shape how the candidates are perceived by voters, which means that gender bias could have a bigger effect on some candidates than on others.
Stereotypes may not stop women from winning elections — but they probably make it harder
The question, then, is not whether women face gender stereotypes when they run for elected office — they do. But do women actually lose elections because of sexism?
It’s very difficult to get a definitive answer to this question when it comes to presidential races, since only one woman — Hillary Clinton — has ever run on a major party ticket. So instead, researchers have focused on lower-level races to figure out whether voters actually penalize women because of their gender. And they found that women do well at the ballot box, in spite of the barriers they face.
In congressional races, for example, several studies have shown that womenwin at about the same rate as men. To some political scientists, this suggests that the problem isn’t with voters, who seem entirely willing to elect women when given the opportunity. The logic here is fairly simple — if more women run, more elections will be like the 2018 midterms, in which a historic number of female candidates were elected to Congress.
Despite these promising statistics, some scholars still think sexism is fueling women’s underrepresentation, at least to some extent. For one thing, lurking within those studies of women’s performance in congressional elections is a revealing data point: Female candidates are generallymorequalified than their male rivals. “That’s actually a sign that voters may still be biased against women because why else aren’t the higher-quality candidates winning at a higher rate?” said Sarah Anzia, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley. And other researchers have found that when a man and a woman run against each other and are equally qualified, the woman is more likely to lose.
It’s also possible that gender bias still poses a significant risk, but women have just gotten better at figuring out how to neutralize it. “If you’re a woman in politics, you know voters are less likely to think you’re qualified or competent,” said Kelly Dittmar, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. “So your goal is to make sure that when Election Day rolls around, you’ve responded effectively to those concerns. But that means that on every other day of your campaign, gender bias is influencing your strategy and your experience.”
Presidential races are especially difficult for women, starting with the primary
So what does all of this mean for 2020 and, say, the chances of Harris or Warren in the Democratic primary? It’s hard to arrive at a definitive answer because the vast majority of the studies on how often women win look at general election matchups — not primary contests, in which the candidates are from the same party.
And Kathleen Dolan, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, said that while these studies tell us a lot about the power of party loyalty, they can’t signal how voters will act in all elections. “Your uncle Joe could think that women aren’t as good as men,” she said. “But there’s no evidence that he will actually cross over and vote for the other party’s candidate to avoid voting for a woman.” How uncle Joe will behave when he’s choosing between two candidates of the same party is pretty much anyone’s guess.
Several political scientists told me that gender could play a bigger role early in a primary than it does later on. When voters don’t have much information about the candidates beyond basic information like gender, they’re more likely to rely on stereotypes. Severalstudies have even suggested that voters who make their choice with little or no outside knowledge are more likely to support a man. “There’s more room for gender bias to actually influence your decision if you know very little about who someone is beyond the fact that they’re a woman,” Anzia said. This could help explain why Harris’s and Warren’s standing rose after the debate, when they were able to make a strong impression on millions of potential primary voters who may not have known much about them before tuning in.
But voters’ prejudices about women may also just be stronger when it comes to the presidency. Studieshavefound that voters may be more biased against women when they run for executive offices. So women in a presidential campaign will likely have to do more than their male rivals to convince voters that they deserve to sit in the Oval Office, even if those voters also say they’re fine, in theory, with the idea of a female president.
If you’re a woman running for president, Democratic primary voters will probably be an especially friendly crowd. A recent experiment conducted by CBS and YouGov looked at the qualities prioritized by Democratic voters in a series of matchups between hypothetical candidates, and it found that Democrats showed a clear preference for female candidates. One of the studies about executive leadership indicated that Democrats are more likely than Republicans and independents to see women as viable leaders, and a meta-analysis of multiple studies also found that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to support female candidates, all things being equal.
This enthusiasm for female candidates, though, has to contend in voters’ minds with the still-fresh memory of the sexism Clinton faced on the campaign trail and her ultimate defeat in 2016. And Democratic voters also aren’t wholly immune to sexism, and some do seem more reluctant to vote for women. One ongoing study suggests that gender bias hurt Clinton in her race against Bernie Sanders in 2016. Political scientists Erin Cassese and Kevin Banda looked at how Democratic primary voters in 2016 scored on a scale designed to measure sexism. They found that some Democrats held hostile views toward women, and those voters were less likely to vote for Clinton in the primaries. Cassese expects these voters will be especially open to the notion that women are less electable than men. A survey conducted just before the first debate found that support for Warren and Harris was, in fact, lower among voters with more sexist views.
Scholars, meanwhile, are still divided about the role that sexism played in Clinton’s downfall. But the fact that she lost a campaign defined by her gender — and by Trump’s sexism — could make it hard for voters to imagine another woman charting a different path, at least while Trump is the opponent.
But it’s also too early to know exactly how all of this will play out. Two months ago, Warren’s campaign still hadn’t taken off, and now she has out-fundraised Sanders and is pulling ahead of him in some polls. Harris, similarly, has surged in the polls only in the past few weeks. Their recent success certainly doesn’t mean that they have figured out the key to running for president as a woman — everything can (and probably will) change over the coming months. And, of course, it remains to be seen whether any of the other four women will be able to emerge from the crowded purgatory of candidates who average around 1 percent or below in the polls.
It’s clear that female candidates can win despite sexism, but as the research shows, they probably can’t escape it entirely. This time around, voters and candidates alike are acutely aware of the barriers that remain for women seeking the White House. But will gender biases assume their familiar shape with an unprecedented number of women in the race? We’re about to find out.
Despite losing a Senate election last November, Republican Martha McSally still became a U.S. senator. She was appointed to fill the seat held by the late Sen. John McCain,1 but to hold on to the seat, she will have to win a special election in 2020. Assuming she runs and wins her party’s nomination, McSally would be the 12th major-party candidate since 1984 to contest a Senate general election just two years after losing one.2 It’s a small sample, but the bad news for McSally is that although almost all of those second-chance candidates improved upon their previous performance, only four of them won on the second try.
Senate candidates looking for a second chance rarely win
Change in Senate vote margin for candidates who lost a Senate general election and then ran again two years later, since 1984
To be clear, we shouldn’t project too much about McSally’s chances from this data set, since this is a small sample — 12 elections across almost 35 years — and several of these candidates ran under unusual circumstances. For instance, Slade Gorton was a sitting senator running for a second term in 1986 when he lost his re-election bid; two years later, he came back and won the race for the other Senate seat in his state. Then there’s the very peculiar case of Scott Brown, who lost his 2012 re-election bid to Democrat Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and then ran in a different state two years later. He did a bit better the second time but still came up 3 points short.3 And Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell was something of a fringe candidate running at the height of the tea party movement. Although she did better in 2010 than in 2008, she still lost by almost 17 points the second time around, and she may have cost Republicans a pickup opportunity in a GOP wave year.
And even though most of these repeat candidates never made it to the Senate, for a few of them, the initial defeat was not a kiss of death, especially if the race was relatively close the first time they ran. The three who lost by the narrowest margins the first time around — Gorton, John Ensign and John Thune — all went on to win two years later. This might augur well for McSally, who lost by a little over 2 points in 2018.
But there is some evidence that changes in the electoral environment and the type of opponent a candidate faced can spur a successful turnaround — or at least this appears to be true in three of the four cases where the repeat candidate won on the second attempt.
Ohio’s Mike DeWine, for example, first ran unsuccessfully in 1992 against three-term Democratic Sen. John Glenn, who had always won more than 60 percent of the vote in past elections but garnered only 51 percent against DeWine. However, when DeWine ran again two years later, he easily won an open seat as part of the 1994 Republican wave. As for John Ensign of Nevada, he lost by just 428 votes to Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in 1998, which was an unusually good midterm for Democrats, who held the White House and so would be expected to lose seats in Congress under most circumstances. But two years later, Ensign had no trouble winning an open-seat race in 2000 while George W. Bush carried Nevada for the GOP at the presidential level. Like Ensign, John Thune of South Dakota lost by fewer than 600 votes in 2002 to incumbent Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson. But Thune then defeated Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle by 1 point in 2004 while Bush carried South Dakota by 21 points. As for Slade Gorton of Washington, he successfully mounted a Senate comeback attempt after losing as an incumbent in 1986. He narrowly won by 2 points during a presidential cycle in which Democrat Michael Dukakis carried Washington state by less than 2 points.
As for McSally, she’ll hope to benefit from Arizona’s Republican lean and a lift from the presidential coattails, but considering President Trump only won the state by 3.5 points in 2016, McSally may not be able to count on a baseline GOP edge in 2020.
What’s more, of the repeat candidates we looked at, only McSally was appointed to a Senate seat following a defeat. So she’ll be running as an incumbent of sorts in 2020, but that’s not necessarily to her advantage. Appointed incumbents have a mediocre re-election record compared to their elected counterparts: Prior to the 2018 election, 53 percent of appointed senators who ran for another term had won re-election, compared to 78 percent of elected senators.
McSally’s appointment may not promise much for her future electoral success, but appointments are an important method of getting women into the GOP caucus — and the Senate in general.
One-fifth of women in the Senate started as appointees
Female senators in the 116th Congress by party and the share who were appointed to their first term
In the 116th Senate, 11 out of 100 members first joined the Senate as appointees, although many of them were appointed years ago and are now serving elected terms. Five of those 11 — three Republicans and two Democrats — are women. Although both parties have about equal numbers of women in the current Senate who were initially appointed, those appointees account for 38 percent of all GOP women in the Senate compared to just 12 percent of Democratic women. This reflects the makeup of the two parties — women are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans — but also how each party’s electorate responds to women on the ballot.
“McSally was appointed in a political moment when we aren’t seeing Republican women running in large numbers,” Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told me. “Even when they do run, Republican women are struggling to get through GOP primaries.”
According to the center, in the 2018 cycle, 48 percent of women who ran for Senate as Democrats won their party’s nomination, while 36 percent of GOP women candidates won.4 In the House, 51 percent of Democratic women and 43 percent of Republican women won party nominations. In Senate races, about 40 percent more women sought office as Democrats than as Republicans, and in House contests, about three times more Democratic women than Republican women entered the race. The gap between Republican and Democratic women — where fewer women seek a GOP nomination, as the chart below shows, and those who do are less likely to win it — contributes to a growing partisan gap in female representation in Congress.
So appointments like McSally’s are an important part of increasing the number of women in the Senate as a whole, but especially the number of Republican women. Overall, 20 percent of women and 8 percent of men in the current Senate were appointed to their first terms, but close to half of all GOP women senators started out as appointees. Historically, appointments have provided the initial entrance for nearly one-third of women senators dating back to the first woman senator, Rebecca Felton of Georgia, who was appointed in 1922. The Democratic Party has sent more women to Congress in recent years, but Republicans are sending fewer women to Congress this year, even though McSally’s appointment helped bring the total number of women serving in the Senate to a record high of 25.
Five of the eight Republican women in the Senate are up for re-election in 2020,5 so McSally’s re-election success — or failure — will be play a major role in determining not only the overall success rate of repeat Senate candidates but also the relative diversity of the GOP caucus.