Understanding Women’s Chances in the 2020 Primary

For the first time, there are several viable female candidates running for president. In past elections, we’ve watched as Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin lost their vice presidential bids and Hillary Clinton infamously fumbled the presidency. Only a few more women have jumped into primaries. The past three months have seen an explosion of powerful female politicians declare their 2020 candidacies: Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Tulsi Gabbard. These women are instead running serious and strong campaigns on issues from economic reform to criminal justice to healthcare.

However, a quick glance at any reputable 2020 polls suggest that the top three front-runners at this early stage are Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke (and Joe Biden hasn’t even officially declared his candidacy yet.) It’s not to say that these men aren’t accomplished and skilled; they held the titles of Vice President, Senator and Representative, respectively. However, most of the women they’re up against are senators from some of the biggest states in the country, including California, New York, Massachusetts and Minnesota. It’s worth asking why these women aren’t automatic front-runners for the presidency the way many of their male colleagues are. To answer this question, I’ll break down some of the potential reasons the 2020 female candidates are underperforming in the polls and what that means for the eventual primaries.

Recency bias & the Clinton comparison

Recency bias is a great explanation for the current state of the primary polls. Recency bias is a psychological term that refers to the tendency to focus more on an event that happened recently, even if it is an outlier in general. Research concludes that women do not perform worse than men in elections, but a recent and catastrophic event to many has a greater impact. The sting of the Hillary Clinton loss has an outsized impact in the minds of many Democratic primary voters. The memory of this painful defeat is likely affecting early polls as voters looking for the best opponent to Donald Trump prefer older and whiter candidates. Furthermore, female candidates who share some qualities with Hillary Clinton may perform worse because of this comparison. For example, Elizabeth Warren is a white woman of a similar age to Clinton with a few superficial similarities. While their policy platforms and personal backgrounds are quite different, Warren is likely to suffer from the reminiscence in the minds of some voters. Similarly, Kirsten Gillibrand is a white women who holds Clinton’s old New York Senate seat and has evolved from more conservative views. Kamala Harris, like Clinton, has borne criticism for her role during the “tough on crime” era of the 1990s which had the effect of harming many communities of color irreparably. Biden, Bernie and Beto don’t suffer from the Clinton comparisons the way the female candidates do and thus have an inherent advantage in the polls.

Electability (or whatever that means)

The 2016 election saw the continuation of a long-term trend of white, rural working-class voters voting Republican. While this is nothing new, these voters were instrumental in electing Donald Trump in the Electoral College. In the aftermath of the election, this trend became a major point of contention in explaining the results. Research suggests that this view is more conjecture than fact; there is a strong argument that low turnout among certain communities in a few states was the key factor in Clinton’s loss. However, this belief is still pervasive among many Democrats. In their hearts, it’s likely that many voters who love Kamala Harris’ speeches or Kirsten Gillibrand’s message may put those preferences aside for the sake of “electability,” or picking a candidate with the best chance of winning the election. Political scientists don’t have a single definition of electability as it tends to mean wildly different things to different people. There are indications that Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders seem like safer choices in the effort to recapture the white working voters who enabled Donald Trump’s 2016 win. Do people say Beto O’Rourke is their top choice because they agree with his policies and believe he would be a great president, or do they see a handsome, white, young alternative to Trump? The argument for selecting a candidate who is most “electable,” or most like the kind of candidate who usually wins a presidential election (white men have won 98 percent of the time and men in general 100 percent  of the time) automatically excludes the female candidates in the race.

Media coverage

The media is inextricably part of our political decisions. In a competitive primary like the one we’re entering now, the media has an incredibly influential role. Even comedic outlets such as The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live can shape the image we hold of candidates in our minds. Case in point: the Saturday Night Live portrayal of Democratic candidate Al Gore in 2000 showed him as out-of-touch, humourless and disdainful of his opponent, George W. Bush. This portrayal stuck in the minds of millions of voters and Gore went on to lose the election by less than 600 votes. Clearly, the way the media frames candidates can define their legacies in the election and for decades after. There is some research that suggests that while media coverage of women in politics is improving, there is still a clear gender disparity. News articles about female candidates are more likely to focus on aspects of their personalities and personal lives instead of their policies. Women’s “likability” is constantly questioned; they can’t be seen as too ambitious or nice, attractive or frumpy, shrewd or vapid. Male candidates, in comparison, receive a greater proportion of coverage on their policy platforms, speeches and electoral strategy. In other words, they are taken more quickly as serious and formidable candidates. In such an early stage of the election season, a single negative story could stick in the minds of millions of voters and affect their preferences. The early polls reflect early perceptions of the candidates and momentum in the early polls and primaries is a good indicator of success. If the male candidates have the advantage of more positive and substantive coverage in general, it could squash several women’s chances before the primaries even begin.

The job itself

In polls, voters prefer candidates with qualities such as “intense,” “competitive” and “visionary.” These qualities are typically masculine and women who embody these qualities are usually seen as angry, emotional and power-hungry. The actual job of president, including roles such as “commander-in-chief” and “leader of the free world” are imbued with gender dynamics about men and leadership. The existence of a “first lady” reinforces the notion that the president is just supposed to be a heterosexual man. The symbolism and mythology surrounding the presidency is rooted in the president’s perceived masculinity. Presidents’ most iconic moments are usually projections of masculine traits: think Reagan demanding the Berlin Wall come down or Bush addressing the country after 9/11. Presidents are usually associated with strength, power and vigor--traits that typically aren’t (but definitely should be) applied to women. Because of this institutional bias, people often struggle to imagine a woman in the Oval Office.

What does it all mean?

Politics are an exercise in human psychology and this campaign will be no exception. Biases and memories have an important role to play in decision-making and we should expect that perceptions of women will have an outsized impact in who is chosen to face off with Donald Trump in the election. Simple probability makes it clear that it is now more likely than ever that that person will be a woman, but there are significant hurdles facing female candidates in the primary. In spite of this, voters should seek to make choices with the clearest understanding of the issues. They should select the person who they believe can both win in a general election and serve the presidency honorably.

Time will tell whether that person will be one of the many women running. However, sheer numbers tell me that we’ve come a long, long way in the quest to shatter the glass ceiling.