The Paradox of Electability: Gender and the 2020 Democratic Nomination
By Kayla Wolf, Laura Brisbane, and Jane Junn | February 11, 2020
As the 2020 election approaches, the word circulating in many Democrats’ minds is electability. Political conversations and media coverage have shifted focus from identifying the best candidate for the job to identifying who would be most likely to beat Donald Trump in the general election.
Electability is a word often used but rarely defined in political discourse, particularly in conversations about the 2020 election. Sometimes implicated with likeability, electability refers to how a candidate is perceived by a voter and whether or not that voter believes they can win an election.
Electability: Who Can Win?
Electability is in the eye of the beholder, and it is a dangerous frame of analysis in that it is most frequently applied to women and people of color. According to a 2019 Ipsos/Daily Beast poll, 76 percent of respondents believed that sexism and gender played a role in Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump. Even today, one in five Democratic and Independent men believe that women are less effective in politics (this, despite evidence that female representatives outperform their male colleagues in securing federal funds for their congressional districts). Discussions of electability in 2020 hint at the assumption that since Clinton lost to Trump in 2016, any other woman candidate would face the same fate.
While electability concerns present an obstacle to overcome for female candidates, both Bernie Sanders and Trump may have benefited from these concerns early in the 2016 election cycle: neither faced direct opposition because other candidates counted them out as unelectable. Electability certainly affects different candidates in different ways and may be more costly for some than others. With most of the candidates of color dropping out of the race before the Iowa caucus, one has to wonder how much electability concerns undermined fundraising efforts.
In any presidential primary for the Democratic party, the question of electability will include whether a nominee can mobilize Democratic voters as well as whether that nominee can win over Republican voters.
In any presidential primary for the Democratic party, the question of electability will include whether a nominee can mobilize Democratic voters as well as whether that nominee can win over Republican voters. In the context of the 2020 election, these two dimensions of electability are complicated by perceptions of gender bias among voters. The perception that voters will not support a female nominee creates an idea of electability based on both ideological appeal and historical gender norms linked to the presidency.
Questioning Other Voters’ Willingness to Elect Women
Thanks to recent polling, we can more concretely gauge how this dynamic may play out in the 2020 Democratic primary. This polling provides insight into how Democratic and Independent female voters feel about electing a woman to the presidency, and further, how women perceive the attitudes of their own neighbors on the matter.
The electability paradox, in essence, takes place when voters strategically change who they vote for in order to match what they believe the rest of the electorate thinks. If a voter believes that a large portion of the electorate is not ready for a woman president, they may choose to vote for a male candidate who they believe has a greater chance of winning. Importantly, they may do so for that reason alone.
If a voter believes that a large portion of the electorate is not ready for a woman president, they may choose to vote for a male candidate who they believe has a greater chance of winning. Importantly, they may do so for that reason alone.
How women’s perceptions of their neighbors compare to the attitudes they themselves hold gives us a hint as to how gender-based electability concerns may influence female voters in the 2020 Democratic primary.
In a 2019 Ipsos/Daily Beast poll, 75 percent of Democratic and Independent female respondents claimed that they are comfortable with a female president, while only 29 percent responded that they believe their neighbors would be comfortable with a female presidency.
Uncertainty and pessimism about whether fellow voters in the neighborhood are ready for a female president is significant given the preeminent priority placed on beating Trump among female Democrats and Independents. According to the same Ipsos poll, 81 percent of Democratic and Independent female respondents say it is important that the Democratic Party nominate someone who can beat Trump. While not necessarily antithetical, only half as many respondents (43 percent) in this same voting group say the nomination of a female candidate is important.
When it comes to perceptions of their neighbors’ attitudes, uncertainty outnumbers downright pessimism among Democratic and Independent female respondents. Most female respondents report that they do not know (30 percent) or neither agree nor disagree (33 percent) with the statement that their neighbors are comfortable with a female presidency, with only 9 percent disagreeing outright.
A poll by think tank Third Way offers important insight into the question of whether a given candidate can assure potential Democratic voters of their electability on nominally partisan grounds. In a question asking respondents who they believed could best unite the Democratic Party, neither of the female candidates remaining in the race polled very highly, with Elizabeth Warren at 5 percent and Amy Klobuchar at only 1 percent. In comparison, both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders were believed to be far more unifying figures, polling at 39 percent and 11 percent respectively. It remains unknown as to what extent the lack of confidence in Warren and Klobuchar can be explained by gender-based electability concerns.
Warren, Klobuchar, and Voters Who Want a Female President
Given the dynamics that underlie electability concerns among partisan and independent voters, the question of electability perhaps means something different for Warren and Klobuchar. Warren is seen as a progressive and Klobuchar is seen as a moderate, a dichotomy that is encapsulated well in their dual endorsements by the New York Times Editorial Board.
Klobuchar’s moderate reputation may inspire faith among some voters in her ability to gain the votes of disillusioned Republicans in a general election. Warren, however, came out of Iowa with the third highest number of delegates, demonstrating her ability to mobilize the Democratic Party in a way that Klobuchar has not. Insofar as the two candidates may appeal to left- and moderate-leaning voters differently, perhaps they are situated to overcome electability concerns in distinct ways.
The conundrum of electability is perhaps most worrisome for progressive female voters who long to someday see a woman as president.
The conundrum of electability is perhaps most worrisome for progressive female voters who long to someday see a woman as president. We know that 52 percent of white women did not vote for the female presidential candidate in 2016, and research demonstrates that sexist attitudes were predictive of voting for Trump among white women.
With this in mind, women who support Warren and Klobuchar may second-guess the strategic value of their vote on the basis of electability concerns. Indeed, the desire to elect a female president is not shared by all women. Whether Democratic voters will mobilize to elect one anyway remains to be seen.