Female politicians are struggling, but could succeed with more faith from voters

Sen. Warren at Bertha's Kitchen in North Charleston, SC

By Shirin Ali
Medill Reports

In 2020, more women hold positions in U.S. political office than ever before. Survey data reveals that 69% of adults believe female political leaders would improve the quality of life for most Americans. The public sees benefit to female leadership, but struggles to convey that faith in the voting booth.

Despite positive statistics in favor of women, the U.S. political landscape suggests a much bleaker reality of female leadership. Despite voters having more comfort electing females to legislative positions, when it comes to the Oval Office, women time and time again face significant obstacles.

“There’s a comfort level with women as legislators, whether it’s at the federal level or state level. They work well up the aisle, but to be the chief executive to be the place where the buck stops, that’s the next, big hurdle,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Though year-over-year data produced by CAWP shows a steady increase in the number of women choosing to run for office, they still face more struggles in winning votes than their male counterparts. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 48% of Americans say men will continue to hold more high political offices in the future, even as more women run for office.

Mary McGrath, assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University and a faculty fellow at Northwestern’s Institute of Policy Research, recently conducted voter choice experiments and found that people generally didn’t exhibit explicit bias against female candidates but instead based their vote on assumptions about what other voters would do.

“So even if you have an entire population of people who themselves have no preference for a male candidate or female candidate, if they think others do, then that is going to create a bias against female candidates,” McGrath said. “You see this really unfortunate circumstance of creating a bias based on a presumed bias that isn’t actually there.”

McGrath’s experiments revealed a distinct, self-fulling prophecy among voters, fueled in part by the hesitation around voting for something they’ve never seen before, in this case a female holding executive office.

“We don’t see women in office and then voters may take that as a sign that other voters aren’t willing to put women in office. So, it’s the same sort of unfortunate feedback loop,” McGrath said.

Data tells us that if, collectively as a country, people not only mentally shift their notion of what a U.S. president should look like, but earnestly voted for the candidate they would like to see as president, the United States could see its very first female president.

Women candidates end up having to constantly defend their place on the ballot, proving their “electability” by assiduously pointing to their qualifications and legitimacy. This has fueled the media’s constant dialogue around the electability of female politicians. It also inevitably created an association within voters’ minds between female politicians and risk.

“If everybody’s talking about it, then it becomes an issue where there’s nothing there at the foundation, except for the repetition of this fear,” McGrath said.

During an event organized by Pete Buttigieg’s campaign in Orangeburg, South Carolina, local artist Ashley Jordan illustrated the point She said the country may be ready for a female president, but not enough people will actually vote for one.

“Honestly and personally, I feel that it’s time. Do I see that happening, knowing all the people that it takes to make a world? No. But I do think it’s time and I think that it is in the near future,” Jordan said.

Jordan admitted she was leaning towards voting for Joe Biden in South Carolina’s primary, but that she also liked 38-year-old Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii).

How the media gets it wrong

The media’s influence on voter behavior has been undeniable. Coverage of electability can cost female candidates votes, dictating the outcome of candidates’ campaigns.

“If the narrative around your candidacy over and over and over again is questioning the electability of women or women candidates of color, eventually the people who are very enthusiastic about those candidates will start to question their judgment or question the judgment of others around them,” Walsh said.

The Democratic Party has been operating in desperation throughout the 2020 election, determined to do whatever it takes to beat President Trump in November. Walsh pointed to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who announced the end of her campaign in early March, as victim of this mentality.

“Earlier on if there hadn’t been this drumbeat of, ‘the women aren’t electable,’ the women could have risen in a different way,” Walsh said.

During Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’s rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Feb. 14, Jennifer Naddler discussed the internal conflict many voters feel. She said she mostly aligned with Sanders, but probably liked Warren better. However, she acknowledged Warren’s performance in the early primary states would dictate how she would vote.

“If she [Warren] is at 8% or 9%, no I would probably not do that,” Naddler said. “I’m really in a quandary, to be honest, as to who I’m going to vote for.”

With Warren out, only the 78-year-old Sanders and the 77-year-old former vice president, Joe Biden, remain in the Democratic race.

“You have a battle between two white, old men where Joe Biden is the young candidate. I think a lot of folks who are falling in line behind Joe Biden, it’s not that they love Joe Biden, not that they’re enthusiastic about him. It’s just that they’ve been told over and over again this is the one that can win,” Walsh said.

This is despite the fact that voters expressed strong support of many of the female candidates, which typically carries tangible energy that motivates critical voter turnout. In a HuffPost/YouGov poll taken after the second Democratic primary debate in Miami, on June 27, 45% of voters surveyed thought Elizabeth Warren, if nominated, was capable of winning the general election. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) followed closely with 44%.

Women have had some success, helping Democrats win back the House during the 2018 midterms. Out of the 232 House seats won by Democrats, 89 were won by female candidates, a record high. Even in 2016, Hilary Clinton won the popular vote with 3 million more votes than Donald Trump.

“We are trying to tell the story of the reality of women candidates, that they run and they win. They’ve been a good investment for the Democratic Party,” Walsh said.

A gendered partisan divide

Women play distinctly different roles in the Democratic and Republican parties. While 89 women won seats in the House in 2018, only 13 Republicans did. Walsh suggested that this is the result of differing stances on identity politics, where various groups feel they must represent a particular set of ideals, interests and behaviors in order to feel heard.

Republicans have historically held an aversion to identity politics, assuming that women and other people of color can be well-represented by politicians with other identities. Democrats have held the opposite view, pushing for women and other minorities to run for office.

“It matters to have African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and women at the table, not just because it’s fair or equitable,” Walsh said, “but because those folks bring different experiences to the table and they will look at issues differently and they will raise things that wouldn’t get raised if it were just a group of white men sitting at the table.”

Pew Research Center’s 2018 survey of voters matched much of Walsh’s analysis. Of the voters surveyed, 79% of Democrats said there are too few women in high political offices while only 33% of Republicans felt the same way. In a similar vein, 64% of Democrats surveyed felt gender discrimination was a major reason why women are underrepresented in political office, while only 30% of Republicans thought so.

The future of female leadership

With no clear-cut solution in sight, Northwestern’s McGrath believes that an important first step is to recognize the progress that women have made. The idea is to make it seem “normal” for women to win, and to hold high office.

“It’s just a fear about what others would do. But if people aren’t themselves harboring those prejudices, then it really is just a matter of appropriate information getting out there and communication about dispelling those fears,” McGrath said, adding that people don’t generally carry deeply rooted prejudices against women.

Media and journalists play a critical role in disseminating accurate information, including carefully censoring hot takes on electability, in order to prove to voters on both sides of the aisle just how viable a female candidate can be.

During a press conference on March 5 outside of her Massachusetts home as Warren announced the end of her presidential campaign, she acknowledged the perceived risk thousands of voters took in supporting her candidacy.

“I say this with a deep sense of gratitude for every single person who got in this fight, every single person who tried out a new idea, every single person who just moved a little in their notion of what a president of the United States should look like,” Warren said.

Photo at top: Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks with voters at Bertha’s Kitchen in North Charleston, South Carolina, in the lead up to the Feb. 29 Democratic primary. (Nirmal Mulaikal/MEDILL)