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Did Gender Keep Democratic Women From Winning The Presidential Primary?

Democratic presidential rivals Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar say goodbye to each other after Warren's speech at a Martin Luther King Day rally on Jan. 20 in Columbia, S.C. Both women dropped out of the race in early March.
Meg Kinnard
Democratic presidential rivals Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar say goodbye to each other after Warren's speech at a Martin Luther King Day rally on Jan. 20 in Columbia, S.C. Both women dropped out of the race in early March.

Elizabeth Warren has now fully thrown her support behind former Vice President Joe Biden in the presidential race. She has even said, without question, that she would serve as his vice president.

It has been a little over a month since Warren dropped out of the race. At the time, only Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, two older white men, were left as the viable candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, highlighting that the Democratic Party would not diversify the top of the ticket this year.

The party had had its most diverse set of candidates of all time this cycle, including the largest group of women ever. That six-woman wave of candidates came after four years of buildup – years that featured Democratic women getting mad, getting organized, getting on the ballot and getting elected in record numbers in 2018.

And Democrats sure seemed excited about women in the abstract: As of November, 83% of Democrats said they were "enthusiastic" about voting for a woman. Only 53% said they were "enthusiastic" about white men.

But then, it was never assured, or even widely assumed, that a woman would win the nomination. Biden and Sanders went into the race with high name recognition among Democrats and with significant bases of support, whether among party activists or the establishment.

And as it turned out, the race came down to those two white men. So ... what happened? Gender was definitely a factor in this year's Democratic primaries. How could it not be after what the party has seen over the past four years? But the ways in which attitudes about gender impacted the outcome are varied and, of course, more than a bit complicated.

What we know: Democrats' electability "freakout"

When Warren bowed out, she was explicit in calling out sexism.

"If you say, 'Yeah, there was sexism in this race,' everyone says, 'Whiner!' " Warren said. "If you say, 'No, there was no sexism,' about a bazillion women think, 'What planet do you live on?' "

I've spent more than a year asking voters about gender and sexism in this presidential race, and I can say with confidence that Democratic voters who don't want to vote for a woman (or, at least, who will say such a thing out loud) are rare to nonexistent.

In a January Ipsos/USA Today poll, 84% of people who planned to vote in Democratic primaries said they agreed with the statement that they would be "comfortable with a woman president."

But that leaves 1 in 6 potential voters in another category. That group includes the 5% who said they disagreed.

Perhaps 5% is a sliver, but especially in tight primaries, it is meaningful if 1 in 20 voters are biased against the female candidates. (Furthermore, there is the question of what the other 11% of voters meant when they said they "neither agree nor disagree.")

And then there's this: Only 33% of likely voters of any party said they thought their neighbors would be comfortable with a female president.

A woman dressed as Sen. Elizabeth Warren for the annual Village Halloween parade in 2019 in New York City.
Johannes Eisele / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
A woman dressed as Sen. Elizabeth Warren for the annual Village Halloween parade in 2019 in New York City.

This is something that many journalists (myself included) heard over and over in interviews with voters – not sexism itself driving voters' choices, but fears about other people's sexism.

"I have a friend at work — she's like, 'You're not progressive.' She thinks that I don't want a woman president," Anita Burgess told NPR in March 2019. "I do! But I don't think they're going to do it! And so I can't waste my vote either, because we have to get the orange man out. I'm sorry — orange man got to go," she said, mocking President Trump's appearance.

And that feeling persisted in the Democratic electorate through the primaries.

"I really like Elizabeth Warren, but I just don't think a woman is going to win this election, unfortunately," UCLA student Brook Rosenberg told NPR as she stood in line to vote in California's primary. "Also, I don't want Trump to tear her down."

Polling showed how widespread this fear was. In that January poll, 50% of people who planned to vote in the Democratic primaries said they agreed that a woman would have a tougher time running against Trump than a man. Half as many — 24% — disagreed.

It's important to keep in mind that while a wide field of female candidates is a relatively new phenomenon, this kind of amateur political strategizing is nothing new.

"The Democrats always freak out about electability," former presidential contender and Democratic Rep. Pat Schroeder told me (with a heavy sigh) in December. "I mean, I remember every single primary, everybody starts, [gasp] 'Who are we going to get?'"

"Of course," she added, "this year, we're having a bigger freakout than normal just because people are so obsessed about, 'How do we get rid of Trump?'"

It's not just that Democrats desperately want to unseat Trump, though. For some voters, the very fact not just that a woman lost in 2016, but that this man won – someone with a track record of insulting and objectifying women, who also has a long list of sexual misconduct claims against him (all of which he denies) – is a sign of how much sexism their fellow voters are willing to put up with.

"I don't think it's right, but I think that the fact that we have the person in the White House that we do, it is evidence that the country is not quite totally ready for a woman," New Hampshire voter Patti Rutka told me in March 2019.

Or as Mother Jones' Pema Levy more pithily opined, "Trump's greatest trick was convincing voters women can't win elections."

And so, as Democratic organizer Karine Jean-Pierre explains it, voters thought about who seemed like they could be president.

"They're thinking, 'We have to beat Donald Trump. What's the best way to do it?'" she said. "OK. Maybe someone who is of his age, someone who has been the closest to being presidential, if you think about being a vice president, being the No. 2 to the president being in the Oval Office, having all of those visuals."

At the 2019 Iowa State Fair, a woman takes a selfie near Sen. Kamala Harris and former Iowa Democratic Party chair Sue Dvorsky.
Alex Edelman / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
At the 2019 Iowa State Fair, a woman takes a selfie near Sen. Kamala Harris and former Iowa Democratic Party chair Sue Dvorsky.

On the Democratic side, Biden has grappled with gender in ways that have disappointed some feminists. Early in his campaign, multiple women accused him of invading their personal space. He eventually apologized ... around the same time that he joked about the matter onstage at a campaign event.

In addition, some news outlets have reported more recently about a more serious allegation against the former vice president.

Biden also reported early in 2019 that he had apologized to Anita Hill for her treatment when she accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in his Senate confirmation hearings. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, Biden chaired those hearings.

Hill told The New York Times that she didn't feel Biden had apologized to her for his own role in her treatment.

"I cannot be satisfied by simply saying, 'I'm sorry for what happened to you,' " she said. "I will be satisfied when I know that there is real change and real accountability and real purpose."

The "hostile sexism" factor

Here's one more thing we know: that higher levels of sexism were associated with a greater likelihood of supporting Biden and Sanders, as well as a lower likelihood of supporting Warren.

Political scientist Brian Schaffner attempted to measure sexism by having pollsters ask Democrats if they agreed with phrases including "women are too easily offended" and "most women fail to appreciate fully all that men do for them." In a separate interview, pollsters asked those same people whom they preferred in the primary.

Kirsten Gillibrand waits to speak during the official kickoff rally of her campaign for president in March 2019 in New York.
Johannes Eisele / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Kirsten Gillibrand waits to speak during the official kickoff rally of her campaign for president in March 2019 in New York.

"There is a very strong relationship between how people responded to the questions that are meant to measure sexism and whether they were likely to vote for Elizabeth Warren," Schaffner said. "And it was the least-sexist Democratic voters who supported her the most. But her support dropped off very quickly among those who registered higher levels of sexism."

Schaffner found something similar in the 2016 general election – that there was an association between sexism, as he defined it, as well as racism – and voting for Trump. But he says that these associations mean something different in a Democratic primary.

"In a primary election, you take party out of the equation," he said. "You have a bunch of candidates who have very similar positions who are running against each other. And people tend to rely on what they can, that differentiates these candidates who otherwise look fairly similar to them. And gender is definitely one of those things."

Furthermore, while Schaffner found this correlation – and, to be clear, attempted to control for a range of factors, like ideology – his study doesn't mean that a bunch of voters walked into the voting booth with straightforwardly sexist ideas driving their votes. He recognizes that the relationship is subtler.

"I think a lot of this plays at a subconscious level for voters," he said. "They may not be really aware that the things that they think grate on them about Warren are actually things that wouldn't bother them if it was a man doing the same things."

The presidency may be different

But then, hold on. We do know that female candidates often do just fine at winning races — in fact, studies show that female congressional candidates win at roughly the same rates as men do. ("When women run, they win" is a common refrain among groups that work to elect more women.)

One possibility, as Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told NPR last year, is that voters treat the presidency different from other offices.

"Voters are very, very willing to send women, younger candidates, people of color, LGBTQ candidates to Congress," she said. "But for president or executive office in general, we know from the data that people are much, much more cautious and tend to second-guess themselves much more."

In addition, there's evidence that women face a "performance premium" in running for office — that, yes, they may win at similar rates to men at the congressional level, but that they have to be better candidates to do it.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said something to this effect at the November debate, contrasting the female candidates to the then-37-year-old South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg: "Do I think that we would be standing on that stage if we had the experience that he had? No, I don't. Maybe we're held to a different standard."

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg participate in the November Democratic primary debate in Atlanta.
Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg participate in the November Democratic primary debate in Atlanta.

Of course, it's impossible to know on an individual basis whether any particular candidate is more successful because they're a man (or less so because they're a woman).

But there was another memorable debate line, this one from Warren, that threw this into relief. At a January debate, Warren noted that she and Klobuchar were the only two candidates onstage who had never lost a race.

In addition, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and California Sen. Kamala Harris had never lost an election until this year's primaries, either.

It is, of course, possible to become president with a loss or two on one's record. But this cycle, America only saw competitive female candidates with long resumes and perfect down-ballot records.

Unanswered questions

Knowing exactly how much gender played into voters' decisions this year may never be possible because it's so deeply mixed into how people think.

"We know that what's really happening in most cases is gender is informing a lot of the different aspects or predictors of a candidate's success," says Kelly Dittmar, professor at Rutgers University's Center on American Women and Politics. "And so to try to pinpoint how much sexism mattered becomes much more difficult. Instead, I try to think about it as, 'What are the ways in which gender shapes the dynamics of the race?' "

Dittmar uses Kamala Harris as an example: When she dropped out, the California senator said one reason was that she didn't have enough money to carry on.

"Was that solely because she was a woman or because she was a black woman? No. There were other challenges at play, in terms of the strength of support for her candidacy," Dittmar said. "But were gender and race and the interaction of those things probably a factor in how much she was able to gain support, interaction with donors? That's very likely."

Jean-Pierre also evidence of a higher standard in Harris' rise and fall.

"She started off with 20,000 people at her at her rally in Oakland. She raised tons of money very early on, and she never made it to Iowa. She never made it to certain early states," Jean-Pierre said. "I do believe that there is just a different way that women are treated. There is a different way that women of color are treated. And there are these barriers that are so much higher that they have to jump over and cross."

Of course, no candidate lost purely because of their identity (just as Biden didn't win purely because of his). Voters raised substantive questions of all of the female candidates in this race: Harris' record as a prosecutor angered some progressives. Klobuchar was too moderate for some progressives, and she also faced allegations that she was abusive to her staff. Gillibrand has swung from moderate positions to progressive ones during her career. Warren's early answers on how she would pay for "Medicare for All" struck some as evasive.

But it's possible that women were punished more for these things than men would have been.

"I think it's compatible to think both that it was sexist and that there's really some substance to those criticisms," says Kate Manne, Cornell University philosophy professor and author of Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. "And here, it's not that the criticism is illegitimate because it's sexist. It's that we're soft-pedaling the criticism, albeit unwittingly, when it comes to a male counterpart who's done something very, very similar."

The comparison between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on paying for Medicare for All is an excellent example of just how difficult it is to tell what was driving voter attitudes and expectations.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at the unveiling of Sen. Bernie Sanders' "Medicare for All" legislation on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in September 2017.
AFP Contributor / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at the unveiling of Sen. Bernie Sanders' "Medicare for All" legislation on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in September 2017.

On the one hand, Sanders put forth a list of funding options, but never came out with an exact way to pay for his own Medicare for All plan. Warren, meanwhile, faced heavy scrutiny over how she would pay for his plan, which she backed. To Manne, that is plainly unfair.

"Reasonable minds can disagree about whether her plan for implementing Medicare for All was a good plan," she said. "[But] it's kind of remarkable that she got lambasted for the content of her plan while his non-plan played much better."

Then again, Warren had made "having a plan for that" her brand. So one could also argue that she naturally had additional expectations here.

But on top of that, there's another potential layer: Was Warren forced to run as the hypercompetent, plan-for-everything candidate because she's a woman? Or, put another way: Could a woman candidate run as a revolutionary, the way Sanders did, and get as far as he did?

Gender still matters

The presidential race will be one white, straight man versus another white, straight man. But that doesn't mean gender, as well as other parts of a candidate's identity, is no longer a factor, Dittmar points out.

"The more that you see candidates move away from simply masculinity as the sort of measure by which presidentiality is determined or valued, we see that then leads to hopefully some progress in which women don't have a distinct set of challenges," she said.

She points to a 2006 memo strategist Mark Penn wrote for Hillary Clinton's first presidential run, in which he warned her against being seen as too soft and nurturing: "[Voters] do not want someone who would be the first mama... But there is a yearning for a kind of tough single parent."

These conversations have largely centered on the Democratic Party, which has had more — and more successful — female presidential candidates than Republicans have.

And when Republicans do have another opportunity to nominate a woman, those women might run differently than Democratic women. That's because Democratic voters tend to be more receptive than Republican voters to identity-based campaigning.

In 2018, and again in the 2020 Democratic presidential field, women ran more firmly as women, with more overtly feminist messages tailored to speak to women's experiences. Warren's story of struggling to find child care as a law student was a standby on the stump. Similarly, Klobuchar told voters the story of being kicked out of the hospital 24 hours after giving birth.

However, Republican strategist Alice Stewart, who has worked on multiple presidential campaigns, including Michele Bachmann's in 2012, says that it's nevertheless telling that her party has yet to nominate a woman.

"I truly believe Republicans will say gender doesn't matter: 'I would vote for the person based on their qualifications, whereas others might say gender is a factor.' But they evidently are not following through with that," she said.

Even though a woman will not win the presidency this year, the 2020 field represented progress, with a diverse range of female candidates finding a range of ways to be themselves on the trail.

And progress could still come from the men in the race, Dittmar adds.

"I think it's just important to remember that the gender dynamics of the race are still very much at play," she said. "And so in terms of the value we place on masculinity, it's something for us all to be continually evaluating with the men who are left. How do they navigate gender?"

The question is doubly relevant considering that Biden's opponent is someone who weaponizes masculinity in his campaigning. Biden has done so himself on occasion – "If we were in high school, I'd take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him," he said of Trump in 2018.

Female candidates also aren't out of this campaign yet: Biden has promised to put a woman on the ticket with him. Were Biden to win the presidency, that woman would be the highest-ranking female elected official in American history.

It would be progress. Just slower than some Democrats would have hoped.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Corrected: April 16, 2020 at 11:00 PM CDT
In a caption on a previous version of this story, we misspelled Kirsten Gillibrand's first name as Kristen.
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.