The recent allegations about Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) telling Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), during a 2018 conversation, that a woman could not win the presidency in 2020 has raised the question of women’s electability.
Some point to the 2016 election arguing Donald Trump triggered sexism within certain voters, costing Clinton the election.
The reality is that sexism exists in the electorate, as does racism, nativism, and almost every other type of “ism” imaginable. That reality does not prevent a woman from being elected president. Campaigns are uniquely different, the electorate is changing, and there is increasing evidence that overt sexism backfires against the candidate or party appealing to it.
Trump’s victory over Clinton in 2016 was a result of many factors, not simply gender. Clinton herself often stated that she did not want people to vote with her because she was a woman. According to polling research from the Pew Research Center and the Meredith Poll, voters indicate women possess several characteristics they favor over men candidates, including the idea that women understand and relate to people more than do men and that women are more honest. Clinton, according to polls possessed neither of these traits. In an April 2016 YouGov poll, Clinton trailed Sanders on the traits of honesty and authenticity.
Clinton’s issue was not that she was a woman, but that she did not possess or demonstrate the qualities voters favor in women candidates. Framed by Donald Trump as fundamentally dishonest, “Crooked Hillary” Clinton and her campaign did not find a way to rhetorically dismiss those claims and, with few exceptions in her political career, Clinton has rarely shown empathy in ways often associated with her husband’s often quoted line “I feel your pain.”
Even some Democratic voters — up to one-quarter of them — are more sexist than the average American, according to two recent surveys conducted by YouGov’s director of scientific research Sam Luks and his colleague from Tufts University Brian Schaffner. They do say that 75 percent of Democratic voters are below the average of all Americans on the hostile sexism scale.
The most powerful evidence for the argument that a woman could be elected president in 2020 and beyond comes from the changing electorate. Political scientists, such as Gary Jacobson, argued Gen Z and millennial generations have been socialized into politics differently, especially during the Obama presidency, so that they view politics differently than previous generations.
In research with my colleague Whitney Manzo, we have found that members of the Gen Z and millennial generations are about 20 percent more favorable to women as political leaders. Even more significantly, voters in these groups are more interested in the qualities they see women as possessing more than men — such as empathy and the ability to compromise— even more than older generations of voters. Given that members of these generations will make up about 37 percent of the electorate in 2020, according to Pew, these attitudes about women leaders are significant.
Because the electorate is changing and younger voters with their more progressive attitudes are becoming a more significant force in electoral politics, the overt sexism used in the 2016 campaign may damage Republicans and Donald Trump in 2020. Evidence from the 2018 elections suggest that Trump’s sexist campaign and statements he has made in the White House may have cost Republicans races that they could have otherwise won. Tufts’ Brian Schaffner argues that this sexism has created a branding problem for the Republican Party among some Republican and Republican-leaning voters. Recent polling by CNN and other organizations suggest that the gender gap is growing for Trump and may reach historic levels in 2020. Even Republican and Republican-leaning women, particularly those with college educations, appear turned off by Trump’s constant attacks on women.
With three women remaining in the Democratic presidential process, there is the possibility that the 2020 general election will have another matchup between a man and woman representing the major political parties. Each of the remaining Democratic women —Warren, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) — have their particular challenges in a potential matchup with Donald Trump. This year, gender is not one of them.