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Did Sexism — And Fear of Sexism — Keep Warren From Winning The Nomination?

cwick: To mark the end of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, I’ve gathered some of FiveThirtyEight’s finest thinkers on the topic that has dogged the Democratic primary for months: electability. Warren’s campaign had a slow and steady rise last summer, but seemed to peak when her opponents took issue with her support for Medicare for All. From there, her support dropped as Sen. Bernie Sanders’s rose, and now Sanders is again the standard-bearer for the progressive wing of the party.

Clare, Amelia, Maggie: Much will be written about how Democrats didn’t think Warren was electable. But if needed, let’s dispense with euphemisms right away. In this case, were voters’ “electability concerns” really just sexist concerns?

clare.malone: Let’s talk about sex(ism), baby.

I think we should define “electability” first.

maggie: Basically, for the 2020 cycle, we’re talking about “can this person beat President Trump.”

clare.malone: There’s a political science definition of it where you can say, “Oh, women are actually really electable when they run for office.” And then there’s the 2020 pundit definition that makes it a shorthand for “Who will appeal to white male swing voters in six states?” That brought us to a lot of national handwringing over what these voters like, don’t like, and on and on. By the way, voters probably aren’t wrong at all to assume some sexism is in play.

ameliatd: Right, Maggie, which is just voters making a lot of guesses and assumptions about what will make someone a strong opponent for Trump. I think voters’ concerns about “electability” were largely — but not entirely — about sexism. Some people thought Warren was too liberal to get elected. Which isn’t unrelated to her gender — there’s research showing that voters generally think women are more liberal than they actually are. But it seemed like a different bucket of worries than “Will sexism doom a woman against Trump?” which is also something I heard a lot on the campaign trail.

cwick: Maggie, you wrote about whether electability is real. What was the verdict?

maggie: The basic gist is that some people are more likely to be elected than others. But if you’re trying to mentally strategize which of several candidates will be able to win a general election months down the road … you’re probably playing yourself.

ameliatd: And then there’s the question of whether “electability” is just a polite cover for a voters’ personal unwillingness to vote for a woman, or their genuine concern about whether other people would vote for a woman. (Or a little bit of both!)

clare.malone: That’s the most interesting part to me. On Super Tuesday, TONS of liberal voters decided to cede to the electability argument. Thereby bolstering … sexism!

maggie: I kind of love the fact that you get these polls where people say, “Well, I have no problem voting for a woman, but I know all my neighbors would.” They remind me of the surveys of doctors that are like, “I can take a sandwich from a pharma rep and not be compromised. But all the other doctors would be.”

cwick: And we know — or at least some data shows — that many Democratic primary voters are sexist themselves, and that may have held Warren back.

ameliatd: Is “electability” the “likability” of 2020? I think people have mostly figured out that “likability” is a pretty sexist conceit.

cwick: You’re electable enough, Elizabeth.”

ameliatd: I think we can say pretty confidently that outright sexism did hurt Warren with some voters. Whether it doomed her candidacy, though … that’s the million-dollar question.

clare.malone: From my inbox just now:

People are fascinatingly, stubbornly against entertaining the idea that societal sexism trickles down into voter preferences.

ameliatd: And also, based on what I’ve heard on the campaign trail, getting people to understand that sexism is a factor could inadvertently make them less willing to vote for a woman. It’s a weird, self-defeating conundrum. You get people to accept that sexism in politics is real and it shakes their confidence in whether women can win.

cwick: Delaney definitely did not lose because he was bald.

maggie: Well, I mean, given what we know about people’s preferences for who they think “looks presidential,” all those things could actually be true. Including Delaney and his vote-losing pate.

Amelia, I’m curious about the dichotomy between the data that shows women who run for congressional office do just as well as men in elections and these big, executive elections where the pattern from congressional races doesn’t seem to hold.

ameliatd: Yeah, that’s such an interesting question, Maggie. Part of the issue is that with presidential elections, we’re kind of flying blind because there have been so few. But there is evidence that gender stereotypes align better with legislative races (people tend to be more comfortable with women in collaborative roles, for example) than executive races. The presidency is kind of the last frontier — it’s much harder to get people used to the idea that a woman could inhabit that role.

Also, I think what people don’t understand is that 1) there is sexism in politics, but 2) women candidates have gotten pretty darn good at responding to voters’ sexism, to the point where they do mostly win at the same rates as men. The sexism is there. It’s harder for women to run a campaign. But that doesn’t mean they can’t win.

maggie: I think that’s a pretty good encapsulation of some of our oversimplified ideas of what sexism (and racism) must look like. It doesn’t have to be blocking someone out completely. It just means making it harder.

cwick: Amelia, how much of this is also about Trump, since Democrats have seen how Trump runs against a woman?

ameliatd: I think a lot of it has to do with Trump, and Democrats’ sense that Trump somehow managed to tap into the country’s sexist id during the 2016 election, and that he’ll do it again this year. Which isn’t wrong — there’s plenty of research showing that Trump appears to have motivated more sexist voters in that election. But it also makes the assumption that all female candidates are the same, and that with Warren you’re just getting Clinton 2.0.

clare.malone: Right, this is where I throw in the “Clinton and Trump were each historically disliked candidates” line.

ameliatd: It’s not even clear that Clinton lost because of sexism! It was a weird election, and there’s evidence that some Democrats were motivated to vote because of Trump’s sexist attacks.

But I think it’s hard for a lot of Democrats to shake the visceral feeling that Trump did something akin to sexist black magic to defeat her, and that he can do it again to another woman.

cwick: Sexist black magic conjured up Comey’s letter.

clare.malone: I think it was also the demonstrated capacity of GOP or independent, conservative-leaning women to still vote for Trump despite the sexism and the “Access Hollywood” tape. That also jarred Democratic voters.

maggie: Which comes back to the inherent mystery of who is electable. If former Vice President Joe Biden wins in November, that doesn’t prove he was more electable than Sanders or Warren. It just proves he was more electable than Hillary Clinton.

cwick: And maybe not even that, Maggie! Given this is a whole different cycle.

maggie: True!

cwick: How much does Sanders’s treatment tell us about Warren? Take, for example, that he was not punished at the polls — at least noticeably — for his support for Medicare for All. Does that tell us something about whether a woman running for president has to be “just right?” Not too liberal, not too impractical, not too shrill.

ameliatd: I have heard many a Warren supporter complain about Sanders’s yelling. Why should he get to yell when Warren can’t?

clare.malone: Well, lemme start with this fact: Biden tends to do better with women voters than men (or about the same between groups), whereas Sanders does better with men, according to the exit polls.

ameliatd: That’s right, Clare — Sanders consistently gets more support from men than women. Including in states where he did well (like New Hampshire) and states where he lost (like Minnesota).

clare.malone: And I think some of that has to do with the perception that Sanders’s campaign and its supporters — not necessarily the man himself — are sexist and are critical of Warren in particular in a gendered way.

ameliatd: I think it might go back even further than that to the way some of his supporters refused to coalesce behind Clinton back in 2016.

And I’ve also seen some signs that women are especially likely to prioritize beating Trump over choosing a candidate they align with on the issues, which could also help explain why they’re moving toward Biden.

maggie: I think issues like Medicare for All really get into the subtle ways that unconscious bias can affect how you view the candidates. We know people assume female candidates are more liberal than male counterparts, even when that isn’t true on a policy basis. Was Warren punished because voters didn’t like women, because she seemed waffly on Medicare for All, or because people assumed she’d be to the left of Sanders and were then even more pissed off when she was a little waffly?

clare.malone: A great point to bring up. I do think Warren had the electoral baggage of being actually pretty damn liberal. And generally we see more centrist people elected as president.

So she was pushing the envelope on a couple of fronts.

maggie: She was! And yet I kept hearing anecdotally people complain that she wasn’t lefty enough. Which, once I found out about the “women are more liberal” assumption, seemed more about what people thought she should be.

ameliatd: What I will say is, a lot of people consistently liked Warren. And continue to like her. That’s very different from Clinton. And I was actually surprised by how few voters compared her to Clinton in my conversations with them. Or when they did, it was to say how different she was. So even though I’ve seen a lot of depressed Warren supporters talking about sexism in my Twitter feed today, I think Warren probably did expand voters’ views of what a woman candidate can be.

clare.malone: She styled herself as a candidate — and like, literally styled herself — as a person who wasn’t “of the elite,” which was the big Clinton critique. Target runs, sweaters, not the power suit. “Look at my cute dog!” Her persona was all about accessibility.

ameliatd: Warren was always wearing sneakers on the campaign trail! That made me happy every time I went to one of her events.

cwick: We’ve been focusing on what Warren didn’t win, but what did she earn through this campaign? What power has she now amassed? And how can she potentially use it for the rest of the campaign or a new administration?

ameliatd: I think she still has a lot of power, even though she’s out of the running for the nomination. The wealth tax is her baby, and it’s extremely popular. She’s got a zillion plans for the taking. I will also be interested to see how Biden and Sanders try to appeal to her voters. Because, as we were discussing earlier, I don’t think it’s obvious at all that her supporters will automatically flock to Sanders.

clare.malone: I think her voters tend to be more establishment-leaning, so Biden voters more than Sanders ones.

maggie: Which is interesting, given that the policy positions between her and Sanders are much closer.

cwick: It’s clear what Sanders needs from her (her voters). But what does Biden need from her, given his coalition and momentum?

clare.malone: Right, Maggie. But I guess if this primary is turning into a pragmatic one — beat Trump above all else — voters whose preferred candidates have already dropped out might just turn to the “electability” metric once more.

ameliatd: And now it might be Sanders’s turn to get burned by “electability” as Warren’s supporters look for an alternative. It would be ironic if Warren supporters who were upset about how the “electability” narrative hurt their candidate rejected Sanders for similar reasons.

maggie: I think it’s really interesting that both Sanders supporters and Biden supporters right now seem to think the other side is making an obvious and idiotic mistake in choosing a clearly unelectable candidate. At least if my Facebook feed is any indication.

clare.malone: Intraparty polarization.

maggie: And also goes back to what the scientists told me about electability. When figuring out who’s electable, people first figure out who they like more, then say they like them because they’re more electable.

cwick: If only there was a third candidate to split the difference, Maggie.


cwick: Now there’s a good electability chat.

clare.malone: I would most like to get a beer with Tulsi … to ask her what’s going on???

maggie: Out of all the candidates, a night drinking with Tulsi feels like it has the most potential to be memorable. I mean, now that Marianne Williamson is out.

ameliatd: This gets back to what we were discussing earlier, Maggie — how much of the “electability” worry for Warren was really just a socially acceptable cloak for sexism? Maybe even an unconscious cloak?

maggie: Exactly, Amelia. And there’s just no way to quantify that. Because even the people who did have sexist reasons for not liking her, most of them probably feel like it was just, “Well I don’t like her as much.”

clare.malone: Here’s my theory of sexism and the presidency and why it’s different from women running for office at lower levels: When you vote for your female member of Congress, you don’t actually ever see her that much. She probably doesn’t have enough money to do tons and tons of TV ads, etc. You probably don’t watch her debate. But with the presidency, you’re CONSTANTLY exposed to the woman candidate. You analyze her every move in debates, what she looks like, what she wears, how she talks to other people. And either you relate to her and like her or she just brings out every sexist pet peeve that’s been ingrained in you societally. She becomes home to all your projections, “likeability” tropes about librarians and teachers and on and on. She becomes every woman in your life you’ve liked and disliked.

ameliatd: I also really do think that growing awareness of sexism in politics — because of Clinton, because of #MeToo, because there are more women in politics talking about their experiences — spooked some voters this year, and those fears had a lot of power because many people are extremely risk-averse. So I wonder what the next presidential race will look like, hard as it is to imagine life after 2020. Do voters put less emphasis on their fears and awareness of sexism?

That is, assuming a woman runs of course.

maggie: Does whoever gets the nomination have to choose a woman for vice president at this point?

ameliatd: I would think yes?

clare.malone: I mean … Biden probably will.

ameliatd: A female VP would be interesting for your theory of sexism in politics, Clare — would four years of exposure to a woman almost at the top of the government make people less inclined to judge and analyze her? I’m genuinely not sure. In some ways the presidency feels kind of sui generis.

clare.malone: Yes, totally, an interesting thought experiment, Amelia.

cwick: Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of state suggests people are OK when women are in high-profile positions of power for several years, it’s just different when they seek those positions of power.

OK, I think we can wrap it there. Anything else, everybody?

clare.malone: Nada

maggie: Nope

ameliatd: We have solved electability.

maggie: I just checked twitter to find a video of Bailey the dog stealing someone’s burrito. Vote Bailey.

ameliatd: Ugh, yes, pets for president. No more people. Too unelectable.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Chadwick Matlin was a deputy managing editor at FiveThirtyEight.