Democrats puzzle over whether a woman candidate can beat Trump
Joyce Cusack would love to see a woman as president in her lifetime. But she is not sure it should happen in 2020.
“Are we ready in 2020? I really don’t think we are,” said Cusack, 75, a former Democratic National Committee member from Florida. Too many Americans may not want to “take another chance” on a female candidate, Cusack said, after Hillary Clinton was met with mistrust and even hostility in swing states.
But Andy Mcguire, former chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party, sees a different reality after a record number of Democratic women won races in the 2018 midterms. “I’d go back to this last election – who won?” said Mcguire, who, as a superdelegate like Cusack, supported Clinton at the 2016 convention. “Who had the excitement? Who had all the volunteers and power behind them? It was women.”
As the 2020 primary competition gets underway with Elizabeth Warren’s entry into the race, and with several other women likely to be early contenders, two competing narratives have emerged about the possibility of another woman leading the Democratic ticket, interviews with more than three dozen party officials, voters and pollsters showed.
The year of the woman and the midterm gains that followed electrified Democrats, who have eagerly promoted themselves as the party of diversity. That success has inspired some of the most powerful women in politics to consider running for president. And it has boosted expectations that the political calculus for women has changed in the past two years, and that gender could become an asset, even in a presidential contest. Clinton, after all, won the popular vote by almost 3 million.
Yet at a time of ascendancy for women in the party, there’s a lingering doubt in some quarters about whether there is a risk involved in nominating a woman to take on President Donald Trump, whom Democrats fervently want to unseat.
The specter of Clinton’s defeat in 2016 still haunts some Democratic officials, voters and activists. There is widespread recognition that women in politics are held to a different standard than men on qualities like likability, and toughness, and that voters have traditionally been more reluctant to elect women as executives than as legislators.
Some women see bias in the excitement surrounding a potential presidential run by Beto O'rourke, the Texan who energized the left in a losing Senate bid, while Stacey Abrams is not mentioned as a possibility even though she had a much narrower loss for governor of Georgia.
“There’s a real tension,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress and a former policy adviser to Clinton. “On one hand, women are leading the resistance and deserve representation. But on the other side, there’s a fear that if misogyny beat Clinton, it can beat other women.”
Much of the debate is grounded in the question of whether Clinton’s loss represented a rejection of women as president, or of one specific woman. How significant a role sexism played in Clinton’s defeat is difficult to separate from the other liabilities that hindered her campaign. Clinton struggled to deal with decades of political baggage and a Republican attack machine that cast her as aloof, elitist and disconnected. Her reliance on a tight-knit inner circle isolated her from tough political challenges, and she struggled to win over working class white women and men.
If Democrats nominate a woman in 2020, she will most likely face an onslaught of gender-based attacks from Trump, who did not hesitate in 2016 to mock the physical appearance and stamina of his female opponents. As the Republican nominee Trump carried more vulnerabilities on gender than any other modern candidate, facing allegations of sexual assault and harassment and having a record of lewd comments about women.
Still, exit polls indicated that a majority of white women voted for Trump, helping him seal crucial Electoral College victories in traditionally Democratic states like Pennsylvania and Michigan.
As Democrats look toward 2020, the conversation is particularly relevant because the 2020 primary season could prove to be as historic as the 2008 and 2016 races; in those years, Clinton became the first woman to become a toptier candidate and then a nominee.
For the first time, multiple women may be serious contenders: Warren is in, and Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota are seriously considering running. A female front-runner would become a norm if a woman wins the nomination four years after Clinton did.
Women’s political mobilization – as volunteers, candidates and donors – fueled the Democratic Party’s gains in the November elections, and Democrats still far outpace Republicans in elevating women to party leadership and representation in Congress. Female politicians now head all four of the Democrats’ campaign committees.
A cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton with memorabilia from the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Oct. 13. The presence of multiple female entries in the race could help Democrats move past a set of political expectations for women largely defined by Clinton.