To anyone paying attention to presidential politics, the news that Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) expressed doubt about a woman’s ability to win the presidential election is far from surprising. If Sanders raised this concern to Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) – something Warren confirmed, but he denies – he would join the company of many political elites, commentators, and voters who have perpetuated a falsehood about women’s capacity to succeed at the highest level of American politics.
Before I debunk the claim that a woman cannot be elected President this year, it is worth exploring why skepticism about women’s ability to win persists. First, other than in fictional representations, we have yet to see a woman hold presidential office in the United States. If seeing is believing, then asking people to see the possibility of a woman president means asking them to do more work than asking them to see a (white) man in that role. Former Democratic candidate and Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) addressed this directly on the campaign trail, telling crowds, “I have faith in the American people to know that we will never be burdened by the assumptions of who can do what based on who historically has done it.” Unfortunately, Harris’ belief is aspirational, as we know that some Americans are burdened by what has been in envisioning what can be. A June 2019 Ipsos poll demonstrated these doubts; while 74% of Democrats and Independents said they were comfortable with having a female president, just 33% believed their neighbors were just as accepting of a woman in the Oval Office. Reports from media or political elites that doubt women’s electability – often without basis in facts – only make these concerns seem more legitimate.
A second source of skepticism may well be rooted in much of the work that organizations like mine do to illuminate and address the gendered hurdles that women face en route to elected office. In detailing the stubbornness of political institutions to women’s full inclusion and empowerment, we might unintentionally stir fear among those who perceive those hurdles to be insurmountable. However, our research – and that of many scholars in gender and politics – demonstrates the opposite; that despite gender biases, women are just as politically successful as men. While there is potential for even greater success among women if they were not burdened with doing more work to achieve the same results as men, the resilience of women in politics should be viewed an asset, not a liability, in electoral politics.
Finally, a more pessimistic take on why some perpetuate the myth of women’s unelectability is that they seek to maintain a status quo that works to their advantage. In simpler terms, men benefit from perceptions that nominating women is too risky a proposition for presidential success. Apart from Sanders’ alleged comments, former Vice President Joe Biden appeared to use these concerns to his advantage at a recent campaign event. After explaining how Hillary Clinton faced unfair sexist attacks, Biden added, “That’s not going to happen with me.” While his campaign pushed back against claims that Biden was feeding into fears of women’s electability, his statement – intentionally or not – implies that this perceived liability of nominating a woman can be avoided by nominating a man.
Whether rooted in legitimate fear or cynical strategy, perpetuating the belief that women cannot win the presidency is not only bad for women, it is factually incorrect. Here’s why:
1. A woman won nearly three million more votes than Donald Trump in election 2016. Consistent with polls showing that the large majority of voters are comfortable voting for a woman for president, the majority of U.S. voters did vote for a woman candidate – Hillary Clinton – in the 2016 election.
2. Women can win (and have won) in swing states. Despite winning the popular vote, Clinton lost the presidential race in the electoral college. But there is no evidence that gender was (or is) a determinative barrier to success in the battleground states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania – states that could have pushed Clinton over the 270 electoral vote total she needed to win. In fact, Democratic women dominated statewide executive elections in Michigan in 2018, winning three of four posts including Governor, Secretary of State, and Attorney General. In Wisconsin, Senator Tammy Baldwin (D) has won statewide contests since 2012 as the first openly LGBT person elected to the U.S. Senate. And while Pennsylvania’s record for women in statewide office has not been great, 2018 witnessed the state’s largest increase in women’s congressional representation ever in that state, from zero to four.
3. Women won at higher rates than men in the 2018 election. Non-incumbent Democratic women candidates for the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, and statewide elected executive offices (other than governor) won primary and general elections at higher rates than non-incumbent men in election 2018. Most notably, Democratic women were responsible for the majority of U.S. House seats that flipped from Republican to Democrat in election 2018, thereby playing a key role in changing partisan control of the chamber in 2019. Women also flipped 4 of 7 governorships from Republican to Democrat in the last election. These successes indicate that women are not only capable of winning elections, but have outperformed men overall and in the most competitive races in the latest election cycle.
4. Research consistently shows that gender is not a disadvantage for women at the ballot box. The data on win rates and seats won are helpful, but limited, in identifying the influence (or lack thereof) of gender in shaping electoral outcomes. Gender is just one of many pieces of the electoral puzzle, informing candidate and voter behavior at various phases of the electoral process. While gender stereotypes persist in perceptions of political candidates, Kathy Dolan’s research shows “no evidence of any direct, consistent, or substantial impact” of gender stereotypes on evaluations of, or voting for, women candidates. She concludes, along with others, that partisanship overwhelms gender in real-world campaigns, even if gendered attitudes among voters persist. My own work has shown how women candidates and their teams navigate gender on the campaign trail in order to ensure that it is not a liability at the ballot box. As political consultant Mary Hughes told me, “Gender really ceases to be an important factor if you do your work well.” While this can yield different and/or additional burdens placed on women candidates, their political success has shown that they are more than able to bear them. And, in recent elections especially, women candidates have shown that they can use their gender as an electoral advantage by tapping into voters’ desire to disrupt the male dominance in perspectives, experiences, and power in our political institutions. Finally, making universal claims of gender advantage or disadvantage is problematic. Women who run for office are equally diverse to the men, but they are still too frequently viewed through a monolithic lens of gender in ways that men are not.
Each of these data points refutes claims that a woman cannot win the next (or any future) presidential election due to the liability of her gender. But you know what makes it harder (but not less likely) for a woman to win? The unwillingness of people, especially political elites, to, as Senator Harris explained, “believe…in what can be, unburdened by what has been.” Those who withhold support from women and/or foster doubt about women’s capacity for success, rooted in dated notions of what is possible, only interfere in the project of women’s political progress. So when it comes to the non-believers, don’t believe them.