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October 19, 2019

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It’s a question Democrats keep hearing: ‘Can a woman win?’

Kamala Harris Meet and Greet

Steve Marcus

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris talks with women during a meet and greet event at the Eclipse Theaters in downtown Las Vegas Friday, June 14, 2019.

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Some people whisper it, some apologize for it, and some are very careful to mention their neighbors — their neighbors would be the ones to ask.

“Do you really think a woman could be elected president?”

In ways subtle and overt, Democrats keep hearing that same question, even days after debates where Sen. Kamala Harris commanded the stage and Sen. Elizabeth Warren dominated the policy discussion.

It’s the anxiety of a party still carrying the scars of its 2016 defeat.

“My colleagues, some have said that to me, and I just have to push back and say, ‘Wait just a minute,’” said Rep. Barbara Lee, a California congresswoman, who worked as a young organizer for former Rep. Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 presidential bid. “I’m just quite frankly shocked to still hear them in 2019.”

Three years after nominating the first woman in history to head a presidential ticket, nearly six months after a wave of energized women swept Democrats into power in the House, and as a record number of women run for president, the party finds itself grappling with strangely enduring question of the electability of women — and with the challenge for the candidates of refuting it before it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Also, before real life descends into parody: “I Don’t Hate Women Candidates — I Just Hated Hillary and Coincidentally I’m Starting to Hate Elizabeth Warren” was the title of a satirical essay published late last year on the website McSweeney’s that circulated widely on social media.

Privately, Democratic strategists, candidates and officials say they’ve been alarmed by how deeply doubts about female electability have taken hold. In polling, interviews and focus groups, a portion of the party’s voters suggest they’re eager to see a woman on the ticket but fear that putting her in the top slot could cost them the White House — again. The question comes up frequently in early primary states, including at events organized for female voters.

Much of the concern centers not on what Democratic voters themselves say they want but a prediction of what they believe others will support.

That left the women in the race with a considerable challenge for last week’s debates: introducing themselves to voters while also finding a way to tackle the lingering doubt that this country would elect a female president.

Immediately after the debate, strategists said they succeeded, arguing the six women onstage left little doubt that a woman could win. The female candidates spoke, on average, more than their male rivals, and Harris’ performance was considered by many to be the best of either night. A poll conducted by CNN in the days after the debate showed both Harris and Warren making gains.

Yet echoes of the question persisted.

“Is it time for a female president?” a reporter asked Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, interrupting her attack on Biden’s position on gun control before a crowd of cameras in the spin room Thursday. She shot back, midsentence: “It is. It should be me.”

When asked whether she thought about the higher bar she faces to be seen as presidential while on the stage, Harris said simply: “I’m just being me.”

But the women running for president are not seen as just being themselves — or just candidates. They are women candidates. That can be infuriating to prominent female Democrats, who argue that their party is adopting a retrograde narrative based in little more than post-traumatic stress from the last presidential campaign.

“The fact that a woman hasn’t won yet does not mean that a woman cannot win,” said Sen. Patty Murray, the highest-ranking Democratic woman in Senate leadership. “I’m confident that, should one get through the primaries, she will do well.”

For the candidates, the question of whether a woman can win leads to the challenge of confidently projecting the idea that one can, while also hoping people simply stop asking.

Gillibrand, who has made female empowerment a theme of her candidacy, argued that the 2018 elections showed that voters are comfortable voting for women — whether or not the political class believes it.

“They just need more exposure,” Gillibrand said of the female presidential candidates. “I truly believe that.”

For years, organizations that promote women in politics argued that having multiple women running for president — rather than the one-and-only nature of Clinton’s campaigns — would demystify the idea of a female president. Now, with six women running, they are discussing how to more aggressively dispel questions around whether a woman could get elected president.

“I’m urging voters and activists, I’m urging donors and I’m urging the entire Washington press community that this race is wide open,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, which supports female Democratic candidates. “Don’t let yourself get limited by things like gender.”

In the early months of the contest to choose a candidate to unseat President Donald Trump, Joe Biden’s argument that he could woo white men in the Midwest seemed to hold considerable appeal.

“There are people who are not necessarily strong Biden people, but they think he’s the strongest candidate,” said Sara Riley, a 59-year-old lawyer from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who is a longtime supporter of Biden. “They love Sen. Harris or Sen. Warren, but they are concerned about whether they can win.”

Since Clinton’s 2016 defeat, more people have acknowledged the higher standards faced by female candidates, who research shows are disproportionately punished for traits that voters accept in male politicians, including ambition and aggression.

Kathy Sullivan, the former head of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said some voters are conflating the fact that Clinton lost with the fact that she was the first woman to get so far, and urged them to “snap out of it.”

Even some Republicans dismiss the idea: “I don’t believe gender plays a role in their ability to win,” said Jeff Roe, a strategist who ran the presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “I think how left-wing loony their ideas have become will be much more important.”

Yet a recent poll conducted by Ipsos for The Daily Beast showed that while three-quarters of respondents said they were personally comfortable with a female president, only a third believed their neighbors would feel the same — a question pollsters ask to get a sense of opinions that voters may be embarrassed to tell someone they hold themselves.

Another survey, conducted by Avalanche Strategy, a liberal communications firm, found that nearly a quarter of voters who initially picked a male candidate said that if they had a “magic wand” to crown someone president, they would pick a woman.

“Honestly, I love Elizabeth Warren, I just worry that we as a society are not ready for that,” said Ann Mason, 44, from Cedar Rapids, after hearing Warren and other candidates speak at a state party event last month. “This election is far too important. We just have to get Donald Trump out. From there on, I think the door is open to whoever.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii had a message for voters like Mason: “We should not do it to ourselves that a woman cannot be a president.”

Still, the widespread nature of the electability question has prompted many of the female candidates to address the problem.

At an event in Iowa earlier this summer, Gillibrand put it bluntly: “To the pundit class who still says, ‘Can a woman win?’ Yes, of course we can.”

Warren often mentions her 2012 Senate victory against Scott Brown, a well-liked Republican incumbent — a win that made her the first woman elected to the Senate in Massachusetts history. Her implicit message: She can win tough races.

Harris also highlights her barrier-breaking career as the first female district attorney in San Francisco’s history, the first black female attorney general of California and the second black female senator. On the campaign stump, she often recounts being asked to describe “what it’s like to be the first woman fill-in-the-blank.”

“I’d look at them and say, you know, I don’t really know how to answer that question because I’ve always been one. But I’m sure a man could do the job just as well,” she said.

To some voters, her ability to break barriers in the past may not be enough to dispel concerns about her future.

“I don’t think she can win. And I’m sorry to have to say that. She is a woman and she is black,” said Shantell Smith, 32, from Greenville, South Carolina, who is supporting Harris. “As a black woman myself, I think that as much as we would like to believe there’s been this huge shift in this country, we have seen the reality that people will fight back against change.”

In Nashville, Tennessee, this past weekend, at a convention of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, which Harris joined as a student at Howard, some of the attendees spoke of their pride in her run, praising her debate performance, but also of their concerns about electability.

“It’s just — is she going to be able to do it?” said Kayla Wilson, who works at a nonprofit in Dallas. “I’ve been in America long enough to know that we’ve come a long way, but maybe not that far.”

Strategists to the female candidates say they are studying how Barack Obama overcame skepticism of his 2008 effort to become the country’s first black president. In the fall of 2007, Obama lagged far behind Clinton, including among black voters. The campaign focused on Iowa, believing that the question “Could a black man win?” could only be answered there. His poll numbers changed rapidly after he won the Iowa caucus in January.

“In terms of electability, the best cure of that is winning,” said David Axelrod, a former top adviser to Obama.

And Democrats are focused on that cure. The obsession with predicting who will win has led to some strange dynamics at this stage of the race.

While the female candidates promote their ability to triumph in tough races, several of the male candidates, including Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, have all but promised to select a woman as their vice-presidential nominee.

Picking a woman for the second spot on the ticket comes up frequently at events for the male candidates. Sarah Barnes and her husband, Phil McGarvey, braved a cold mist — while wearing matching orange rain jackets — to catch Biden at an event in Nashua, New Hampshire. in May, a month before the first debate. Barnes, 74, suggested what she saw as the ideal scenario.

“We both want Kamala as a running mate,” she said.