A promising 2020 presidential campaign for women falls short
At her home in suburban Detroit, Jill Warren spent Thursday morning glued to her phone, searching for news about the woman she fiercely believed should be the next president of the United States: Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Voter Warren had known that candidate Warren (no relation) was lagging badly and would likely drop out. Still, the news of the Massachusetts senator’s departure from the presidential primaries was devastating — not only because of how the senator’s message had resonated with her but because the exit was a final blow to hopes, once so bright, that a woman would be chosen to face President Donald Trump in November.
“It’s a day for many people of mourning, just true mourning and grieving,” said Jill Warren, a 61-year-old semi-retired nonprofit consultant.
“The ascendancy of old white dudes is not over,” she said.
Elizabeth Warren’s exit, coming after the one-time front-runner couldn’t win a single Super Tuesday state, brought home a new and painful reality to some voters: If 2019 was the Year of the Woman, with a record number of women sworn into Congress and a record number launching presidential campaigns, 2020 was another Year of the Man in presidential politics.
Polling during a string of primaries has revealed the durability of doubts about female candidates and electability. At least half of Democratic primary voters believe a woman would have a harder time than a man beating Trump, according to AP VoteCast polling in four states that voted Tuesday. What’s more, women are somewhat more likely than men to say so. That comes even as solid majorities of those voters say it’s important to elect a woman president in their lifetime.
The message is clear: We want a woman, but not this time.
As she announced her departure on Thursday, Warren’s voice cracked when she talked about meeting so many little girls while campaigning around the country the past year, knowing they “are going to have to wait four more years,” at least, to see a woman in the White House.
And she addressed what she called the “trap question” of gender in the race. “If you say, ‘Yeah, there was sexism in this race,’ everyone says, ‘Whiner!’” she said. ”And if you say, ‘No, there was no sexism,’ about a bazillion women think, ‘What planet do you live on?’”
How different things had looked back in the summer, when Warren and five other women — a record number — appeared on the primary debate stage over two nights in late June, demonstrating the depth and diversity of the female field. Warren and California Sen. Kamala Harris earned top reviews for their debate skills.
At the time, Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, had ventured to hope the female candidates could shake up the age-old electability question left hanging by Hillary Clinton’s stinging loss to Trump in 2016: Is the country ready to elect a woman president?
But this week, Walsh was left to muse on how early Democratic primary voters were acting out of fear and caution and were buying “a false narrative out there that women candidates are too risky.”
“This was the year that the Democrats were hell-bent on winning,” Walsh said. “A woman was defeated in 2016. There was all this talk after that, trying to explain, ‘How did Donald Trump happen?’ And this caution and fear has largely motivated us to the place we are right now.”
All this, Walsh said, despite the great political success by female candidates in 2018, in Congress and in statewide races, showing that “as we have always said, when women run they win at about the same rate as men do in comparable races. We saw it across the board in 2018 and frankly in 2016, when more people voted for Clinton than Trump.”
But the women in the race this time could not compete. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar peaked with a third-place finish in New Hampshire but fell fast after failing to build the sort of racially diverse coalition needed to win a Democratic primary. Warren’s third-place showing in Iowa was her best, despite building a large national operation and surging last summer to the top tier. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard remains in the race but has picked up only two delegates, hundreds behind the two men leading the race, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Warren in particular came to embrace her role as the choice for voters, particularly female voters, who thought it time for a woman to be president. But there was little evidence that female voters were prioritizing gender this time around; Biden pulled ahead with female voters in most states Tuesday — including in Massachusetts, Warren’s home state.
As they carpooled over to a Klobuchar event earlier this week in Denver, next to the football stadium where the Broncos play, Linda Dee and Linda Rosales wondered when their candidate might leave the race.
By the time they arrived at Monday’s rally, Klobuchar had dropped out.
“It looks like we’re coming down to two old white guys,” said Rosales, a 64-year-old retired lab worker. “I’m disappointed.”
She and Dee left with a free green Amy 2020 T-shirt.
To be sure, many voters say progress still has been made, even though a woman won’t be at the top of the ticket. And there is a broad expectation that both Sanders and Biden will feel pressure to name a woman as their running mate.
Still, the frustration among some voters was palpable. A younger Warren supporter, LaShyra Nolen, the first black woman to be elected student council president at Harvard Medical School, said it’s not enough to have women on the ballot. Voters then need to step up and support them, she said.
“I still do believe we are living in a society that is ridden by patriarchal control and inequality,” said Nolen, 24, of Los Angeles.
For some, the dimming of women’s political fortunes felt like a marker of a fading movement. The #MeToo movement may have toppled powerful figures across industries, but some of the momentum behind gender equality is tapering off, believes Kaitlin Cornuelle, a 29-year-old director and writer in Los Angeles.
That may have an impact on how engaged women — voters critical to Democrats’ calculus in November — will be next fall, she said.
“It makes me really frustrated that we have three men who are in their late 70s, early 80s that cannot relate to me and cannot relate to most of the people in this crowd,” Cornuelle said, referring to those gathered around her at a Warren rally ahead of Super Tuesday.
Others were quick to point out one of Warren’s clear contributions to the race — a sharp confrontation with billionaire former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg over his treatment of female employees.
“Of course, she was the one to eviscerate Bloomberg,” said Iris Williamson, a 26-year-old teacher from Brooklyn, who noted with sadness that Warren didn’t seem to get credit with voters for the move. “Leave it to women to expose people for who they are and then not be rewarded for their work.”
Williamson worried how students at her all-girls school will process the results of the primaries. “I think they would question why there is such a bent toward choosing a white man all the time,” she said.
It’s not only women mourning the loss of female presidential candidates. Axel Marc Oaks Takács, a 36-year-old religious studies professor at Seton Hall University and Warren supporter, prompted an online debate as the results came in Tuesday evening, questioning why voters think Biden has a better chance against Trump than Clinton did in 2016.
“Let’s be honest, Biden and Clinton are both establishment Democrat candidates with effectively the same policies,” he wrote, asking if “patriarchy, sexism and misogyny” weren’t largely to blame.
Lucienne Beard, executive director of the Alice Paul Institute, a Mount Laurel, New Jersey, nonprofit, feels that female presidential candidates still struggle to attract the same money, visibility and media coverage as men. And when they do, the focus is too often on their delivery.
“It just seems like we can’t accept hearing a woman’s voice talking about these things. Instead we focus on her presentation: ‘Is she a nasty boss?’ Or being ‘too teacherly?’ It’s like we can’t win for trying,” she said.
“I wish I could say it surprised me,” she said. “The further we come, the goalposts just keep moving. We’ll elect anything before a woman.”
If anyone knows about painful losses it might be Clinton, who won popular vote in 2016 but not the job.
“There still is a double standard. There are still a lot of biases about women becoming president. But I made a lot of progress, and I was thrilled that so many women ran this time,” Clinton, who did not endorse anyone in the primary, told The Associated Press on Wednesday at a New York screening of an upcoming documentary on her life. “We just have to keep going until we crack that final big glass ceiling.”
Noveck reported from New York, Dale from suburban Philadelphia. Associated Press writers Nicholas Riccardi in Denver, John Carucci in New York and Kathleen Ronayne in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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