Are Women Electable? Even Democratic Voters Who Don’t Want Another White Male President Have Doubts

By Todd J. Gillman The Dallas Morning News

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr)  As Todd Gillman reports, some voters are wary of putting a woman at the top of the ticket. Gillman adds, "The fact that Trump defeated Hillary Clinton is top of mind for many Democrats. Would another woman fall short against him, or is breaking the gender barrier only a matter of time?"

DES MOINES, Iowa

Like lots of Iowa Democrats, Kelsey Bell would love to see Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the White House but worries a woman can't get enough votes to win.

"It is hard for people my grandparents' age to accept the idea of a female president," said Bell, 36, an accountant from Johnston, Iowa. "My grandpa can't even go to a female doctor. That generation is just so closed-minded."

Warren also tops the list for her friend Sondra Schreiber, 36, a college administrator from Des Moines who's wrestling with the same quandary as she weighs whether to throw herself into the Warren effort.

Her own grandfather is a staunch Republican who hates Donald Trump, she said. There's only one Democrat he's willing to support, Joe Biden, and he would never cast a vote for a woman. She wonders if that's enough reason for her to back the former vice president, too, because like the vast majority of Democrats, finding someone who can beat Trump is the paramount consideration.

"I mean, yes, I will happily vote for him against Trump if that's how it is, but I'd be disappointed," Schreiber said. This is the "electability" quandary facing Democrats.

Even voters who'd be miffed to see a white male win the nomination harbor serious doubts about whether a woman could really win. Electability is in the eye of the beholder, and voters don't base their assessments solely on their own views of Warren, Biden and the rest.

"People look around and they think, well, I'm willing to vote for a female candidate, but there's no way that Neanderthal who lives next door to me is," said Jennifer Lawless, a University of Virginia professor and former director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University's School of Public Affairs.

The fact that Trump defeated Hillary Clinton is top of mind for many Democrats. Would another woman fall short against him, or is breaking the gender barrier only a matter of time?

"Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote. So that tells me that we're there," Schreiber said.

A flurry of six recent polls show Biden maintaining a double-digit lead, trailed by the progressive rivals Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, with Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg far behind.

Harris surged after the first debate in June, when she attacked Biden's stance on desegregation four decades ago. She since has dropped back into single digits, leaving Warren the only woman in the top tier.

Out of two dozen candidates, only 10 made the cut for the third debate in Houston on Sept. 12. Three are women. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York dropped out after failing to hit the polling threshold by Wednesday's deadline.

"It's a huge field and a lot of the men aren't getting traction, either," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "It's hard to carve out a spot for yourself."

That said, Walsh added, "We are not living in a post-racial or a post-gender world."

It was only three years ago that pundits were carping about Clinton's failure to smile enough, or about the tone of her voice sounding too much like shouting, as if her rival in the primaries, Sanders, was known as a soft-spoken grinner.

"There are clearly double standards," Walsh said.

Warren, for instance, has addressed questions of whether she's qualified by issuing more detailed policy plans than anyone else.

Yet that draws criticism that she comes off as a "schoolmarm, or she's lecturing us. ... Trying to be both qualified and likable is something that women have to struggle with more than male candidates," Walsh said.

In the last two decades, women have won and lost congressional races at roughly the same rates as men, when they run.

Last fall, Democrats retook the U.S. House with a big investment in female candidates and candidates of color.

Yet questions persist at the presidential level, and those may not go away until the barrier is broken.

"And then we'll say, Oh, look, they're electable," Walsh said. "We're seeing an evolution." Texas has elected women at the highest levels.

Ann Richards won the governorship in 1990, defeating oilman Clayton Williams, though she lost to George W. Bush four years later. Kay Bailey Hutchison fought her way through a crowded field in a 1993 special election to win a U.S. Senate seat, winning reelection three times, fending off male and female challengers.

"There were people who had a bias against having an African-American president and yet Barack Obama was successful not once but twice in winning the presidency," said Carol Donovan, chair of the Dallas County Democrats.

"It would be naive to say there's no bias against women," she said, but "there are also a lot of people, including a lot of women, who really, really want a first female president."

Donovan recalled her run for student body president at the University of Texas in 1975.

"One of the arguments was can a woman do this job, because a woman never has," she said.

Victory put that issue to rest.

"The majority of the voting public was ready for Hillary Clinton to be president. She won the popular vote by a lot," said Royce Brooks, Fort Worth-based executive director of Annie's List, a group formed in 2003 to support progressive women seeking office in Texas. "I can't wait to have a woman president, and I think that voters feel the same way."

But voters factor gender into how they assess electability even if they don't want gender to be held against a candidate. In a late August poll by The Economist and YouGov, voters picked Biden, Sanders and Warren as the most likely to beat Trump, that is, the most electable. The ratings closely tracked those candidates' support.

Brooks noted the circular logic.

"If everybody votes for Joe Biden, he is the electable person. If everyone votes for Kamala Harris, then she is the electable person. ... A voter who is inclined to vote for Donald Trump is not going to be fooled into voting for Joe Biden because we're trying to nominate someone who is palatable," she said.

Erin Baer, 32, a Houston designer who's been spending 20 hours a week volunteering for Warren, said gender never comes up when she pitches the Massachusetts senator.

"If there was a male who had Elizabeth Warren's same policy profile and background and (who also) stays ruthlessly on message, I don't think the odds would be that different," Baer said.

Still, she wonders about the Clinton loss.

"What 2016 clearly illustrated to me is we have no idea what people will be willing to vote for," she said. "There's a lot of armchair punditry that a lot of us try to play around the electability question. 'Is this person electable? Well, certainly for me but definitely not for my Uncle Bob.'"

However they define electability, for most Democrats it's the attribute that overshadows every other. They may disagree on climate policy or immigration but they're united in the desire to push Trump out of office.

Asked if they'd rather have a nominee they agree with on most issues even if that person would have a hard time beating Trump, or a stronger candidate they disagree with on most issues, it's no contest: Democrats picked the winner over the ideological heartthrob 56% to 33% in a February Monmouth University Poll.

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