Will Democrats risk choosing a woman?

Democrats face a real conundrum in the candidate they pick to run against Donald Trump. Peter McKenzie explains why.

The race to win the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States is a circus. 

By the time the campaign ends it will have lasted for over two years (not including the general election, where the nominee will compete with President Donald Trump). There are at least 23 serious candidates (depending on what your definition of ‘serious’ is), including a former Vice President, a self-help guru, a socialist senator and a billionaire activist. Together the candidates have already fundraised more than $224 million to fuel their campaigns. 

Staying up to date with the campaign’s twists and turns requires a daily scan of polling results and Twitter fights, financial returns and policy announcements. For political nerds, that’s an informational feast. For everyone else, it’s a nightmare. 

Thankfully, most of those facts and figures don’t matter. In fact, the entire 2020 Democratic race can be explained in two numbers: 97 percent and 62 percent.

The first, 97 percent, is the percentage of likely Democratic voters who think defeating President Trump is “very or extremely important”. Trump’s litany of once-disqualifying defects drive Democrats wild. They would do practically anything to remove him from office. 

Then there’s the second number: 62 percent. That’s the number of likely Democratic voters who believe the American public would not elect a woman to be president. That too is unsurprising, given the defeat of their previous nominee, the eminently qualified Hillary Clinton, to the chauvinistic misogyny which Trump symbolises. 

These two numbers are drawn from a single Avalanche Strategy poll, but they are supported by numerous others. For example, an Ipsos/Daily Beast poll in June found that just 33 percent of Democrats and Independents think their neighbour would be comfortable with a female president. 

American voters perceive women as weaker on central issues like national security and the economy, hold them to a higher standard of ‘likeability’, and often dismiss them as ‘too pushy’, ‘too aggressive’ or ‘too ambitious’.

In other words, Democrats are desperate to remove Trump from office and they think choosing a female nominee would make that much harder. 

That’s probably fair. It is much harder for women to succeed in American politics. American voters perceive women as weaker on central issues like national security and the economy, hold them to a higher (and sometimes impossible) standard of ‘likeability’, and often dismiss them as ‘too pushy’, ‘too aggressive’ or ‘too ambitious’. But regardless of whether it is true or not, what matters is that Democratic voters genuinely believe it. 

That’s interesting because the Democratic race is boiling down to four major candidates: Joe Biden, President Obama’s centrist Vice President; Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor and the current senator for California; Bernie Sanders, a self-professed democratic socialist and senator for Vermont; and Elizabeth Warren, an ardent liberal and senator for Massachusetts. 

These four can be split into two pairs: Biden and Harris, and Sanders and Warren. The first pair are relatively centrist, ‘establishment’ candidates supported by leading Democratic Party officials, the darlings of large political donors, with significant appeal to African-American voters. The latter pair are both liberal politicians who are championing major progressive reforms to American politics, from introducing public healthcare to raising taxes on the super-wealthy. 

Given these remarkable similarities, there are really only three good ways to distinguish between Biden and Harris, and between Sanders and Warren. The first is by competence: Harris and Warren have better political skills and greater political appeal than Biden and Sanders. 

At 76, Biden would be the oldest president ever elected. He has a long history of conservative policy positions, most particularly on abortion, which Democratic voters dislike. He has been strongly criticised for his treatment of women. He fondly recalled working alongside segregationists while he was a senator. At the first Democratic debate, he was clumsy and ill-prepared, and was directly confronted by Harris over his racially insensitive comments. 

Harris, meanwhile, launched her campaign with a 30,000-person rally which demonstrated her potential appeal. She is a highly accomplished black woman of Jamaican and Tamil descent who could appeal both to minority communities and to mainstream Democratic voters. She has a relatively, but not overly, liberal pedigree. And she perfectly demonstrated her intelligence and political skill when she blasted Biden in the first Democratic debate. Harris is a better candidate than Biden. 

Similarly to Biden, Sanders is a poor candidate. He is extremely liberal relative to American politics, and his commitment to democratic socialism is likely to scare potential swing voters in a presidential election. He is 77 years old, even older than Biden. He angered many Democratic establishment voters with his never-ending challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016. Finally, though many of his big ideas poll well, he has provided little detail on what they would involve or how he would get them passed into law. 

Warren, by contrast, is both a remarkably talented politician and a brilliant policymaker. She oversaw both the post-financial crisis bailout and the creation of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, two of the biggest policy successes of President Obama’s time in office. She then ran against and beat an incumbent Republican senator by an eight-point margin, winning again by a 24-point margin six years later. She is a liberal sensation, but she has a conservative family background and phrases her rhetoric in a way that appeals to the middle American. Her catchphrase - “I have a plan for that” - is accurate; she has detailed, smart and (most importantly) popular policies on everything from breaking up technology monopolies to introducing a tax on the super-wealthy and using it to pay for university tuition. 

The second way to differentiate these pairs of candidates is on their polling. Despite their similar backgrounds and differing competence, Biden significantly outpolls Harris (Biden is supported by 28.4 percent of Democrats on average, Harris is supported by just 12.6 percent). Sanders and Warren poll evenly (both are supported by about 15 percent of Democrats on average), and until recently Sanders had a significant lead.

Which brings us to the third way in which these pairs of candidates can be distinguished: gender. Biden and Sanders are both men. Harris and Warren are both women. And in the eyes of Democratic voters, that makes Biden and Sanders more electable. That fact has overcome the otherwise stark differences in political competence and appeal.

This is particularly clear with Biden, the current Democratic frontrunner. Biden’s supporters are significantly less enthusiastic than other voters. One Democrat summed up the mood best when they explained that, “I'd love to vote for a woman. I'm not sure that any of the women candidates will make it to the top in the way that I think Biden [will].” 

That might be changing. The source of those two crucial numbers, 97 percent and 62 percent, was a poll conducted in late May. At that point, Biden was polling at 34 percent, Sanders was second at 16 percent, and no other candidate was polling above 10 percent. 

It's quite different now. As of mid-July, Biden has dropped to 28 percent, and Harris, Sanders and Warren are all fighting for second place at around 14 percent. If that trend continues, and Harris and Warren keep rising, it may be enough to give other Democratic voters enough confidence to swap their support as well. Maybe. 

The race to win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination will go on for months. It will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. It will involve a choice between dozens of candidates. But at its heart, the choice confronting Democratic voters is simple: will they ‘risk’ choosing a woman?

And if they had to make that choice right now, the answer would be no. 

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