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Why People Keep Asking Elizabeth Warren Whether She Can Win

At a campaign event in southeastern Iowa in December, a graduate student named Charlotte Moser was waiting to ask Sen. Elizabeth Warren a question. As we sat and talked in a crowded union hall before the event began, Charlotte told me she felt a little guilty that it wasn’t about Warren’s plans or policies. But what she really wanted to know, she said, was how Warren coped with sexism on the campaign trail. “She’s faced a lot of that recently — being called elitist and unlikable and angry,” she said.

The previous day, a similar version of Charlotte’s question had cropped up at another town hall, when a middle-aged woman named Kris stood and asked Warren why “so many Americans would rather see a man with a tie” in the Oval Office. And the candidate got another twist on the same query a few hours after I talked to Charlotte, at another event in a neighboring town overlooking the Mississippi River. This time, it was from a reporter in a scrum who wanted to know why Warren thought sexism was such a preoccupation for the voters who had come to hear her speak.

In both cases, Warren had an answer that amounted to this: It shouldn’t be. “I think a lot of the world changed after 2016,” she told Kris, going on to describe the flood of women’s protests in the days after President Trump’s inauguration and the wave of women elected to state legislatures and Congress in 2017 and 2018. “And I think in 2020, women are stepping up, friends of women are stepping up, and this is when we’re going to make it happen.”

It was a practiced response to a question that can turn into a trap for female candidates, even when it’s asked with the best of intentions. During the Democratic debate last week, Warren disputed on national television what she says Sen. Bernie Sanders told her in a private meeting in 2018: A woman couldn’t defeat Trump. Sanders denies ever saying this, but when asked about the exchange by a moderator, Warren used it as a moment to attack doubts about women’s electability. “Look at the men on this stage: Collectively, they have lost 10 elections,” she said. “The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women.”

Studies do show that when female candidates run for Congress, they win at about the same rate as men. That doesn’t mean the playing field is level — the women who win are generally more qualified than their male counterparts, and perhaps held to a higher standard by voters — but what often gets lost in the debate over electability is just how adept women are at responding to sexism in politics, whether it’s from their opponents, voters or the media. Still, it’s hard to know what will reassure voters whose fears mostly seem to be grounded in one specific election, and one specific candidate — 2016 and Donald Trump.

That tension is something I’ve been rolling around in my head ever since I got back from Iowa, because it’s hard to figure out how gender is shaping a race while it’s unfolding. What I saw in Iowa was far from an overwhelming consensus that Warren was doomed to fail. Nor was it especially reminiscent of the “you go girl!” excitement of the 2016 election. Instead, voters were grappling with a conundrum that felt very familiar to me: How do you acknowledge the reality of the challenges that women face without going too far and contributing to the forces that keep them from winning?

On the one hand, there’s evidence that in the last few years, voters are increasingly likely to identify gender discrimination as a major reason women are not elected to top positions. And people who study gender and politics still argue that voters’ biases remain a real barrier for women who run for office. But those factors don’t necessarily determine the fate of Warren or any other female candidates. Women win elections all the time. And there is a clear risk that if these doubts are given too much weight, concerns around a female candidate’s electability will become a self-defeating cycle where even the people who are most excited about the prospect of a female president are too afraid to vote for one.

On the campaign trail, Warren brings up her gender in subtle ways, like when she was fired from her job as a teacher after getting pregnant. But she still frequently gets questions from voters and reporters about how she navigates sexism in politics.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

“I thought Hillary would be our first woman president. I wanted her to be,” said Chris Moore, 70, at a town hall in a brightly lit school gymnasium as snow started to fall outside. It wasn’t her first time seeing Warren speak, and she told me that of all the Democratic candidates, she thought Warren would probably make the best president. “I guess the question is, is she electable?”

I asked Moore what she thought might harm Warren’s chances. “I hope being a woman isn’t a negative,” she said. “But it could be an issue for some people — maybe not for Democrats, but we need to attract independents in order to win.”

This was something weighing on many of the voters I spoke with. When the conversation touched on Warren’s gender, it seemed difficult for them to not at least briefly contemplate a future in which another woman went up against Trump and lost. Part of the trouble may be that while men’s failed presidential runs have become routine, Hillary Clinton’s loss was entirely novel and therefore harder for voters to move past. But some also recognized their own role in that process, and said they’re trying to resist the temptation to look to the past for clues about which candidate to support.

“Look, I get that people are afraid about what happens if Trump wins again — we’ve got to beat him,” said Matt Falduto, 48, who had brought his daughters to a Warren town hall on a chilly Sunday morning. “But you can’t let those fears make you second-guess your instincts about which candidate is the best.”

Few of the voters I talked to in December had fully committed to a candidate, and a month later, the race in Iowa still looks like a free-for-all. And as I moved through bunting-adorned elementary schools and knelt next to voters on the floor of a sandwich shop turned rally space, it was clear that anxiety about sexism was only one part of the equation. For some, Warren was too liberal; others thought she wasn’t liberal enough. I heard worries about whether she’d be able to connect with voters of color or people who were less educated. But this year’s election also seemed to be a reckoning of sorts for many voters who were struggling with how to wrap their heads around the reality of sexism in politics and figure out what — if anything — it should mean for their vote.

On the campaign trail, Warren doesn’t talk much about what it would mean to be the first female president. Instead, she brings up her gender in subtler ways, like when she talks about being fired from her job as a teacher when she got pregnant. Her affect is folksy and down-to-earth — she jokes about her snap decision to go to law school but delicately skirts her decades as a professor at Harvard Law School. When I saw her in Iowa, she was in the midst of an attempt to pivot away from the health care debate she’d found herself mired in and back to the bread and butter of her candidacy: her pitch to voters that economic populism and an anti-corruption agenda are what’s needed to beat Trump in 2020.

In some ways, being a woman could help her make that pitch. Research has shown that elected women are generally perceived to be more honest than their male counterparts, which could give Warren’s anti-corruption message extra heft. And there are other reasons to think that Warren should be more appealing to primary voters than her rivals at the top of the field, who are white, male and either gunning to be the first octogenarian president or the youngest to ever be elected.

An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll conducted in November found that 83 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say they would be enthusiastic about voting for a female candidate — substantially higher than any other type of candidate mentioned in the poll, including someone under 40 (62 percent), a white man (53 percent), and someone over 70 (31 percent). In surveys conducted recently, Democrats say they favor female candidates over male candidates, all else being equal.

Democrats are enthusiastic about a woman candidate

Responses to a November 2019 NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll of Democrats asking whether they would be enthusiastic about candidates with the following qualities

Type Percent
A woman 83%
Someone who is gay or lesbian 69
Someone under 40 62
A white man 53
A socialist 37
A business executive 34
Someone over 70 31

From a survey of 453 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents conducted Nov. 11 to Nov. 15, 2019.

Source: NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist

But there are also signs that in the aftermath of the 2016 election, voters are more cynical about women’s chances in the presidential arena — and especially against Trump. Surveys of Democratic voters by the left-leaning group Avalanche Strategy, for instance, have found that Warren is most popular when respondents are given the ability to pick a presidential candidate without having to worry whether they’ll beat Trump. In follow-up interviews, many of those would-be Warren supporters said the negative impact of gender was a big part of their calculus. Other polls have found that while most Democrats say they are comfortable with a female president, they think their friends and neighbors might be more reluctant to support a woman.

It’s not clear that these fears are entirely baseless. A survey conducted by The New York Times in October found, for instance, that Warren performed worse than Sanders or Biden in head-to-head matchups against Trump in key battleground states — a pattern that can also be seen in head-to-head national polls. Admittedly, Warren’s liberal views are a confounding factor. In that New York Times survey, 52 percent of voters who said they’d vote for Biden but not Warren in a matchup against Trump (Sanders wasn’t part of the equation) said it was because she’s too far to the left. But 41 percent also agreed with the statement that women who run for president “just aren’t that likable.” Those groups represent only a fraction of the electorate.1 But in a close election, they could make a difference.

Democrats think others wouldn’t support a female president

Responses to October 2019 Morning Consult/Politico poll of Democrats answering “Yes, definitely” to the following questions

Question Percent
Do you think you are ready for a female president? 71%
Do you think America is ready for a female president? 57
Do you think your neighbors are ready for a female president? 31

From an online survey of 736 Democrats conducted Oct. 25 to Oct. 28, 2019.

Source: Morning Consult/Politico

Whether it’s helpful to dwell on these fears or emphasize the barriers female presidential candidates face is up for debate, even among the people who spend their lives studying gender and politics. After I got back from Iowa, I called Kathleen Dolan, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, to get her take on how much gender bias really seemed to be hurting Warren. She told me she found the media’s focus on it exasperating. “I would give my eye teeth for a process where no reporter asks questions about what it’s like to be a woman in politics, how they deal with sexism, whether a woman can win,” she said. “Then we’d have a genuine sense of whether voters are actually worried about this.”

But other researchers have argued that sexism is probably hurting Warren and the other female candidates. Dan Cassino, a political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, concluded from a recent survey experiment that sexist views are fairly widespread among voters — particularly male voters — and many of those voters are less motivated to support a female candidate. “Eventually, we will get to a point where enough women have run for president that it’s entirely unremarkable,” he said. “But we’re not at that point yet, and I think the Democrats will probably lose some votes if they nominate a woman.” I asked Cassino how much of a difference it could make, compared to other factors that voters care about like age, ideology or political experience. “Could those lost votes be offset by a million other factors?” he said. “Absolutely. If it’s a choice between a worse male candidate and a better female candidate, you still want the woman. But it’s a calculation.”

The trouble is that weighing those trade-offs is hard to do in hindsight, and nearly impossible to do in real time. Case in point: Nearly four years later, political scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how much of an impact sexism had in the 2016 election. The consensus among most of the experts I’ve spoken with is that sexism does seem to have moderately helped Trump and hurt Clinton — but seeing the attacks on Clinton may also have galvanized some of her supporters. And all of this might not tell us much about how a different woman, with different policies, in a different year, would fare.

Warren speaking at a town hall event in Des Moines, Iowa, just days after the January debate.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

In Iowa, some of Warren’s supporters told me they were trying to resist the urge to compare this year’s crop of female candidates to Clinton. “I really hope people don’t assume that all women who run for office are kind of cut from the same cloth,” said Robin Flattery, 31. It would be a mistake, Flattery added, to allow Warren’s gender to obscure the aspects of her biography and candidacy that are very different from Clinton’s — her working-class roots, her unapologetic progressivism or the fact that she hasn’t weathered decades of scandal and controversy.

There is one inescapable similarity between 2016 and 2020, though: the Republican opponent. And while the research doesn’t suggest that a majority of American voters simply won’t accept the idea of a female president — the fact that Clinton won nearly three million more votes than Trump is pretty good evidence to the contrary — it’s not hard to understand why some voters are worried about another woman going up against Trump. “I think the conversation would be different if the Democrats weren’t facing the prospect of a scorched-earth campaign by a president who’s willing to use sexism and what had previously been socially unacceptable language and attacks against a woman,” said Danny Hayes, a political science professor at George Washington University.

As Warren is fond of pointing out, of course, the world has changed since 2016. The Women’s March happened; the #MeToo movement happened; a historic number of women ran for office and won in 2018. The problem is that it’s not clear how much those changes help her. There was never much reason to believe that female voters would coalesce around Warren simply because she was a woman. Plus, a general electorate may be less inclined to get behind Warren’s particular brand of liberal politics.

So it’s worth thinking about the lessons we’ll take from Warren’s candidacy, not only if she wins the Democratic nomination — but also if she loses. The risks in failing to confront sexism in politics may seem obvious. And if nothing else, the spat between Warren and Sanders brought the issue into plain view, perhaps forcing more voters to grapple with it as the Iowa caucuses draw closer. But there’s also a danger, Dolan said, in taking for granted that it’s a decisive factor, particularly as women running for president becomes more routine. “Yes, we need to call out sexism when we see it,” she said. “But we also need to avoid the assumption that when a woman fails, it’s because she’s a woman.”

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  1. Six percent of voters surveyed by The New York Times said they would vote for Biden but not Warren.

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