Americans Say They Would Vote For A Woman, But …

This article was originally published on FiveThirtyEight.

A record number of women are running for president in 2020, and now two women look like serious contenders for the presidential nomination — Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, both of whom rose in the polls after strong performances in the first Democratic debate. Joe Biden is still in the lead, but Warren and Harris may be starting to chip away at one of the central conceits of the 2020 race so far: the idea that Biden has the best shotat defeating President Trump.

For months now, voters have told reporters that they want to elect a woman — but after Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, they simply can’t imagine a woman winning against Trump. And this calculus is often justified by beliefs about other people’s sexism — an Ipsos/Daily Beast poll in June, for example, found that only 33 percent of Democrats and independents said they believed that their neighbors would be comfortable with a female president. But the performances of Warren and Harris in the first debate may have allowed some of those voters to envision a path to victory for these candidates for the first time.

Even with Warren and Harris on the upswing, though, it’s hard not to wonder if sexism will still make it more difficult for a woman to win the nomination. After all, the other women in the race — including Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar, who seemed at the outset like promising contenders — are still barely registering in the polls. Whether these women are struggling because of their gender is pretty much impossible to say right now; in part, this is because there is, of course, no research to tell us how six female candidates might fare against 17 male competitors in a presidential primary.

But that doesn’t mean we’re completely in the dark about how sexism affects women’s electoral chances. Political science research has established that women who run for elected office have to navigate a thicket of stereotypes and double standards that their male counterparts are unlikely to experience. And while most scholars agree that partisanship usually overpowers voters’ biases about female leaders, no matter how deeply held, a long and crowded presidential primary could be especially challenging.

So with the caveat that we will learn a lot about gender and elections over the next 16 months (not that we’re counting), here’s a link-heavy introduction to what we know already — and how that could influence the Democratic primary.

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Americans say they will vote for a woman, but they’re still influenced by stereotypes

These days, it’s hard to find voters who openly admit that they’re reluctant to support a woman for president. Only 13 percent of Americans believe that men are better suited for politics than women, according to the 2018 General Social Survey. And a Gallup poll conducted in May found that 94 percent of Americans say they would vote for a woman for president.

But many people’s assumptions about what it means to be a woman and what it means to be an elected leader still don’t line up, which can put female candidates at a disadvantage when they step into the political sphere. The traits most people associate with politicians — for example, competence, ambition, aggressiveness, confidence, toughness — are linkedto masculine behavior. And studies have found that as a result, men are often assumed to be viable candidates from the get-go, while women must work to be taken seriously. “Men have a leg up in politics because there’s a basic assumption that they’re qualified to run,” said Nichole Bauer, a professor at Louisiana State University who studies political psychology.

These stereotypes are mostly unconscious — these days they rarely emerge, fully formed, in our political discourse. But we can see them bubbling underneath the surface, like when female candidates are asked if they’re “likable” — a question that’s already in the air in 2020. (Gillibrand was asked this question within minutes of formally announcing her campaign.) And trying to seem “likable” can quickly morph into an impossible bind for female politicians because they’re trying to fill two roles with very different sets of expectations — “woman” and “leader.” Appearing both qualified and likable can mean walking a narrow tightrope between the stereotypically masculine qualities that are associated with political leadership and feminine qualities like warmth, kindness and empathy.

This can be a hard act to pull off. Research has shown that being liked has outsize importance for women because voters will support a man they dislike, but they will not support a qualified, unlikable woman. Take what happened in the 2016 presidential election: Trump and Clinton both had historically low favorability ratings, but Trump still eked out a victory despite Clinton’s political credentials. That speaks to another trap several political scientists told me that women often face: A long political track record can open a candidate up to more criticism, but without an established résumé, a woman might not be taken seriously at all. Men, meanwhile, can run with less experience and get away with talking more vaguely about their policy positions, according to Amanda Hunter, research and communications director at the Barbara Lee Foundation, a nonprofit group that has done research on gender bias and elections. “Women are judged more harshly if it seems like they’re learning on the job,” she said. “So that means they have to be uber-prepared to run, while men can kind of figure it out as they go.”

There are some stereotypes that can work to female candidates’ advantage — but they can be a double-edged sword. Women are more likely to be seen as having expertise on issues that are stereotypically associated with women, like health care or child care, which can give them a boost when those issues are at the top of voters’ minds — a nice edge until you learn that men have an advantage on issues like the economy or national security. Female politicians are generally assumed to be more liberal, too, which can be a good thing in the Democratic primary but can quickly go south in a general election. And studies have shown that women are generally perceived as possessing more honesty and compassion than men — qualities that many voters say are important for politicians. But Cecilia Mo, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, cautioned that even being seen as the more civil or morally upright candidate can become a liability because there’s more room for disappointment.

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