Yes, A Woman Can Beat Trump

Democrats have learned all the wrong lessons from the 2016 election.

Kathleen Geier June 13, 2019

Democratic candidates Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand are all running on platforms to the left of Hillary Clinton. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Are women elec­table? A flur­ry of recent reports sug­gests that, for many Demo­c­ra­t­ic women, the answer is no. One 20-year-old told ABC News that, though she wants a woman pres­i­dent, America’s just not there yet.” Wash­ing­ton Post reporter Dave Weigel tweet­ed that numer­ous mid­dle-aged women” told him 2016 showed that vot­ers won’t elect a female pres­i­dent.” Polls show that defeat­ing Don­ald Trump is extreme­ly impor­tant to Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers, and that the can­di­dates they believe are most like­ly to beat him are white men like Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke.

Warren, the female candidate doing best in the polls, has run a robustly populist campaign steeped in policy and aimed at structural economic change.

It’s clear that Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers remain haunt­ed by the specter of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss. Frus­trat­ing­ly, we seem to have learned all the wrong lessons.

For starters, when it comes to a com­plex event like an elec­tion, it’s sim­ply not true that any sin­gle fac­tor — even gen­der — pre­de­ter­mines the out­come. In 2016, if any num­ber of fac­tors had gone the oth­er way — if the econ­o­my had been just a lit­tle bet­ter, if FBI Direc­tor James Comey hadn’t reopened the email inves­ti­ga­tion at the eleventh hour, if Clinton’s cam­paign had poured more resources into key Mid­west­ern states—Clin­ton like­ly would have won.

Of course, gen­der played a role — Clin­ton was sub­ject­ed to a tsuna­mi of appalling sex­ism from the media, Trump, slimy oper­a­tives and an army of inter­net trolls — but it’s sur­pris­ing­ly hard to prove her loss was because of gen­der bias. Yes, post-elec­tion stud­ies show sex­ist atti­tudes were asso­ci­at­ed with vot­ing for Trump, and a 2015 Gallup poll revealed 8% of Amer­i­cans wouldn’t vote for a woman pres­i­dent — but these were most­ly Repub­li­cans who would nev­er have vot­ed for a Demo­c­rat any­way. One study sug­gests Clinton’s gen­der could have won her more votes than it lost.

As polit­i­cal sci­en­tists Dan­ny Hayes and Jen­nifer Law­less point out (based on non-pres­i­den­tial elec­tions), women can­di­dates are not less like­ly to win pri­ma­ry and gen­er­al elec­tions than men; the issue is that not enough run in the first place. Men are more like­ly to con­sid­er them­selves qual­i­fied and more like­ly to be recruit­ed. Per­haps there is some­thing dif­fer­ent about pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, but as any social sci­en­tist will tell you, you can’t make broad gen­er­al­iza­tions based on a sam­ple size of one.

Clinton’s own focus groups showed the glass ceil­ing argu­ment was the least effec­tive pos­i­tive case” for her can­di­da­cy. Instead, what vot­ers cared about was whether the can­di­date could make their own lives bet­ter.” Clin­ton failed to make that case and instead focused on her qual­i­fi­ca­tions and biog­ra­phy (remem­ber I’m With Her”?) and the awful­ness of Trump.

Things might have been dif­fer­ent had Clin­ton craft­ed a strong eco­nom­ic mes­sage for work­ing peo­ple. When poll­ster Stan­ley Green­berg test­ed a Demo­c­ra­t­ic mes­sage attack­ing Trump’s char­ac­ter against a mes­sage demand­ing big eco­nom­ic changes” and attack­ing Trump for pro­tect­ing cor­po­rate spe­cial inter­ests,” the eco­nom­ic mes­sage per­formed dra­mat­i­cal­ly bet­ter,” includ­ing among key swing vot­ers like white work­ing-class women.

To their cred­it, sev­er­al of the 2020 female can­di­dates appear to have tak­en this les­son to heart and are run­ning on plat­forms well to the left of Clinton’s. Sens. Kamala Har­ris, Kirsten Gilli­brand and Eliz­a­beth War­ren are all co-spon­sor­ing bills in sup­port of Medicare for All, a fed­er­al jobs guar­an­tee and a $15 nation­wide min­i­mum wage—posi­tions Clin­ton avoid­ed. Even the most mod­er­ate woman run­ning, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, sup­ports a $15 min­i­mum wage. War­ren, the female can­di­date doing best in the polls, has run a robust­ly pop­ulist cam­paign steeped in pol­i­cy and aimed at struc­tur­al eco­nom­ic change.

War­ren clear­ly under­stands the moral stakes involved in the elec­tabil­i­ty argu­ment. At one can­di­dates’ forum, she asked: Are we going to show up for peo­ple that we didn’t actu­al­ly believe in, but because we were too afraid to do any­thing else?” If we are too afraid to vote for women, there’s a dan­ger of a self-ful­fill­ing prophe­cy, dis­cour­ag­ing women from run­ning and vot­ers from sup­port­ing them.

If the Democ­rats run the kind of cam­paign that Clin­ton ran (and that Biden shows every sign of run­ning), they are like­ly to pro­duce the same dis­mal results we saw in 2016. An obses­sion with elec­tabil­i­ty will like­ly fuel the same pol­i­tics of reac­tion and inequal­i­ty that made vot­ers cling so des­per­ate­ly to elec­table” can­di­dates in the first place.

Kath­leen Geier has writ­ten for The Nation, The Baf­fler and The New Repub­lic. She lives in Chicago.
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