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Dissecting the Electability Puzzle

Research supports the notion that women must jump higher hurdles than men to get elected, but, as the 2020 U.S. presidential election approaches, voters’ biases are starting to receive pushback, particularly on social media.

Following Hillary Clinton’s shocking loss to Donald Trump in 2016, one of the most obvious issues facing female candidates is voters’ doubts concerning a woman’s electability. Half of likely Democratic voters said a woman would have a tougher time than a man running against Trump next year, according to a USA Today/Ipsos poll published Sept. 10.

While almost nine in 10 said they would be content with a female president, that percentage dropped to 76% when it came to the likely voter’s belief that his or her spouse or family member would vote for a woman president. And it fell again, to 44%, when the respondent was asked if his or her neighbors would be OK with a female commander-in-chief, according to the poll of 2,012 adults likely to vote in Democratic primaries.

Dissecting the Electability Puzzle 2020 Election

Double standards

“Electability is often a code word for sexism,” said Amanda Hunter, director of research and communications for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. The foundation, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based nonpartisan research firm, advances women’s equality and representation in American politics.

Two of the five women Democrats who continue to campaign for president — Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris — have won statewide elections, yet their electability appears to be questioned more than the Democratic male candidates they’re running against, Hunter said. Two other presidential candidates have shown similar staying power. U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, has won both a state legislative and a congressional election. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has been elected to her Minnesota seat three times and has never lost an election.

“For 20 years, we’ve heard people say, ‘I would vote for a woman, but not that one,’” said Hunter. “Now it’s five women running, so it’s harder to hide that bias.”

Such biases may be fading, however slowly. A new poll of Iowa Democratic voters, released Sept. 21, showed Warren edged out persistent frontrunner and former Vice President Joe Biden. Warren garnered 22% of the potential voters’ support versus Biden’s 20% – with a margin of error of 4 percentage points, according to The Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll.

“Men have been losing elections in this country for hundreds of years, and we don’t lump male candidates into one group or question their electability.”
– Amanda Hunter, director of research and communications, Barbara Lee Family Foundation

Yet many of the respondents said they’re still unsure of their final decision.

Bias is also being challenged by people on social media in a way that’s never been done before, said Kelly Dittmar, Ph.D., a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics. “Hopefully, [the social media pushback] makes the media think about the content of their coverage and the news they put out,” Dr. Dittmar said.

She noted that LeanIn.org, the organization influenced by Facebook executive and author Sheryl Sandberg, has launched a bias tracker, https://leanin.org/bias-tracker, featuring the hashtag #getoutthebias, aimed at calling out unfair media coverage and language use online.

Media coverage that’s considered “gendered” is unique to a candidate by being overly focused on the fact that the candidate is a woman and her ability to uphold certain standards in physical appearance and take care of her children, said Meredith Conroy, Ph.D., a political science professor at California State University, San Bernardino, who writes about sexist coverage of political candidates. “It differs from coverage that focuses on leadership standards and policy evaluations,” said Dr. Conroy, author of Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency, and co-author (with Caroline Heldman, Ph.D., and Alissa R. Ackerman, Ph.D.) of Sex and Gender in the 2016 Presidential Election.

A LeanIn.org poll uncovered yet another, more insidious hurdle: the likeability factor.

The poll of 2,052 registered voters showed those likely to vote Democrat or independent saw likeable candidates as more electable and presidential. Almost half of the voters said the male candidates are more presidential and electable. And few voters saw it the other way — less than 15% rated the female candidates higher on these traits.

One reason is that confidence is linked to likeability, and studies show political candidates have just 30 seconds to project confidence, Hunter said. Another troubling reason for the outcome is that people judge women who run for president based on previous women who’ve run for the job, while men get a pass, Hunter said.

“Men have been losing elections in this country for hundreds of years, and we don’t lump male candidates into one group or question their electability,” she said. “With women, that happens all the time. We saw this in the 2018 midterm elections when Gretchen Whitmer won election as governor of Michigan, yet she was constantly compared with previous governor Jennifer Granholm, who was first elected in 2003 — a full 15 years earlier.”

Encouraging signs

Yet Hunter sees reason to be hopeful. “When women win governorships, it breaks down the stereotype that a woman can’t fill a CEO- or executive leadership-type of role,” she said. Indeed, three states — Arizona, which has had four female governors; New Hampshire; and Michigan — have elected a woman as governor more than once. And nine women won gubernatorial elections in 2018, tying the highest number to serve in that role simultaneously, set in 2004, according to CAWP.

“Hopefully, [the social media pushback] makes the media think about the content of their coverage and the news they put out.”
– Kelly Ditmar, Ph.D., Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers University Eagleton Institute of Politics

The 2017 Women’s March, a worldwide event held the day after President Trump’s inauguration, and the #MeToo movement, have helped start a change in the conversation, she said. “Voters are fed up with the status quo and see women as change in a sea of white male politicians,” Hunter said.

Another positive is the record number of women who ran for office in 2018 — and whose campaigns focused on being “unapologetically themselves,” she said. “Voters are open to authenticity,” Hunter said. “They see the impact of an issue that’s directly affected their family or their community, rather than automatically electing men who’ve been groomed for a lifetime in politics.”

Hunter said the midterm election’s highlight of “360-degree candidates” — those who came across as human beings, talking about their personal struggles with addiction, personal debt, and gun violence — continues into the 2020 presidential election.

“We’ve seen Elizabeth Warren talk about being overwhelmed as a young mother, mentioning specifically her efforts at potty training her children, and Klobuchar discussing dealing with her baby being in the hospital,” she said. “Women aren’t lining up behind a single candidate, but they’re open to hearing personal stories and people who are true to themselves.”

That’s part of the strategy the Barbara Lee Family Foundation outlines in its newly released, 20th anniversary “Keys to Elected Office: The Essential Guide for Women.”

The guidebook’s suggestions, based on the foundation’s two decades of research, include:

  • Identifying three or four reasons you’d be an excellent leader, keeping those issues at the forefront of the campaign, and being ready to explain why you should be in office
  • Fielding tough questions from a reporter early in the campaign
  • Standing up for yourself, voters, and voters’ interests in debates
  • Embracing your family as part of the campaign
  • Overbudgeting time spent fundraising
  • Focusing on “action” phrases, such as citing that you’ve started a new business or led an initiative

Female candidates have a tough road ahead, but they’re getting help from committed blocs of voters.

“Voters are open to authenticity. They see the impact of an issue that’s directly affected their family or their community, rather than automatically electing men who’ve been groomed for a lifetime in politics.”
– Amanda Hunter, director of research and communications, Barbara Lee Family Foundation

Women of color also have proved to be formidable forces in elections, said Dr. Dittmar of CAWP. “Black women voted at the highest rates in terms of voters’ race and gender in both 2008 and 2012, with more than 90% voting for former President Obama,” she said. And Latinas are showing influence because they’re a growing population, Dr. Dittmar added.

Ultimately, the final responsibility is the voters’ — their vision and enthusiasm, Dr. Dittmar said. “And when media does present a bias, crowds of people are ready to say, ‘This is unfair or inappropriate,’” she said. “That’s different than in previous election cycles because of the advent of Twitter. The positive side is accountability and making sure there are diverse voices.”


“Dissecting the Electability Puzzle” was written by Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor. This article appears in the 2019 Conference issue of SWE Magazine.

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