It’s always November 8, 2016, in America’s anxious party. Traumatized by Hillary Clinton’s defeat at the hands of a certifiable misogynist, Democrats are suffering from a distinct lack of confidence in their fellow citizens’ willingness to vote for a woman for president. This week’s elections were a momentary reprieve for Democrats, but the hand-wringing persists.
The most recent panic attack was detonated by a New York Times and Siena College poll showing only Joe Biden beating President Donald Trump in a head-to-head matchup in battleground states. Pouring fuel on the fire, the Times highlighted a tiny sliver of Biden voters who would not support Elizabeth Warren, because “women candidates are not likeable.”
The poll seemed to confirm a fear that has simmered all cycle. While Democratic voters tell reporters that they would love to see a woman president, they worry that a woman cannot attract the white working-class men of the Blue Wall states of the industrial Midwest. The stakes are too high, many Democrats seem to think, so just give them what they want: a white man.
The notion that only a white man can beat Trump—subtext in reams of commentary when it’s not explicit—is a tacit confession that identity politics is A-OK for white guys, if not for anyone else. But that’s a subject for another day.
The more serious problem is that putting all their chips on swinging white working-class men in the Midwest is itself a dangerous electoral strategy for Democrats.
Not only does Trump remain popular with non-college-educated white men, but large-scale surveys show that they differ sharply from Democrats on policies and values. A majority of them want to build a wall and are hostile to immigrants and Muslims. A majority of them believe whites face as much discrimination as blacks and American society has become “too soft and feminine.”
Even more concerning, the picture that has emerged from a slew of academic studies of the 2016 election is that racial resentment, not economic anxiety, was the most significant determinant of vote choice for the blue-collar Obama-Trump voters. Nativism and sexism also played a role, and are both highly correlated with racial resentment.
So are Democrats doomed to lose in 2020, as so many fear? No.
Fortunately, there is an alternative to the white-man-or-bust strategy.
We saw it this week in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. We saw it on a national scale in 2018.
The 2018 midterms provided abundant proof that Democrats can win big in competitive swing-state elections when they nominate compelling and diverse women candidates.
Twenty-five Democratic women won GOP-held seats to flip the House. In Michigan, a must-win in 2020, Democratic women ran the table, picking up the governorship, all but one statewide office (won by a Democratic man) and two U.S. House seats. If you’re a coastal Democrat, you might not be aware that Kansas elected a woman Democratic governor, as did purplish Maine and New Mexico. But for Georgia’s devious resurrection of Jim Crow voter suppression tactics, it’s highly likely Stacey Abrams would now be the governor of Georgia.
Powered by grassroots mobilizations of women, 2018’s Democratic women candidates inspired enormous voter enthusiasm. Turnout was higher than in any midterm in over 100 years. Nonwhite turnout reached an all-time high for a midterm. The youth vote surged. In addition, Democrats improved their performance compared to 2016 among nearly all demographic groups, especially the young, the college-educated and women. Whites under 30 shifted their allegiance dramatically from a slightly pro-GOP lean in 2016 to a 13-point pro-Democratic vote in 2018. College-educated white women, many of them in the suburbs once reliably Republican, voted even more Democratic than in 2016 to favor Democrats by a 3-2 margin. Most important, these Democratic victories occurred despite non-college-educated white men largely sticking with the GOP.
All of the ingredients of the 2018 victories were in evidence in elections this week: Strong women candidates, legions of volunteers and suburban voters, especially women, pulling the lever for Democrats.
Nominating a woman would be a pragmatic choice for Democrats in 2020, based on the evidence of how the party won in 2018 and 2019. She would fuel voter enthusiasm and boost turnout among key groups in the Democratic base, as well as be able to mobilize 2020’s real swing voters, suburban women.
But what about sexism and the so-called likeability problem?
Likeability is a proxy for other attitudes. The problem women candidates face is less from traditional sexist beliefs—that a woman isn’t up to the job or belongs in the home—and more from resentment and hostility toward women who make feminist claims.
When voters say, “There’s something about women candidates I don’t like,” it isn’t that they are women, it’s that they bring up feminist issues and values, and a minority of voters are hostile to that. When Biden and Pete Buttigieg attack Warren for being “elitist” and “angry,” they’re playing into gendered stereotypes and stoking these hostile anti-feminist attitudes.
That’s counterproductive. Democratic voters and Democratic leaders agree on a wide range of basic of gender equality values and policies, including equal pay, reproductive rights, and advancing more women into leadership positions. Whoever prevails in the primary, man or woman, will be the standard bearer of America’s feminist party. We can trust Trump to drive that point home.
What are the odds voters holding these anti-feminist views will rally around the male Democrat but reject a female Democrat? Slight to none.
Any nominee of the Democratic Party who supports equal pay and other gender equality policies will not win the votes of those people who are expressing sexist reservations about the female presidential candidates.
In short, it’s about values, not identity. A man is not more electable than a woman with this slice of potential swing voters. The good news is the Democrats don’t need them to win.
Biden, Buttigieg or Bernie Sanders might win the nomination through superior campaigns, charisma or ideological fit with primary voters. But the implication that only white men are electable falls apart on close inspection.
A woman can win. In fact, we’ve seen that women, both candidates and voters, are instrumental to the Democrats’ victories in 2018 and 2019. So buck up, Democrats, and show a little confidence.
Nancy L. Cohen is an award-winning author, historian and national expert on the intersection of gender and American politics. She is the author of three books, including Breakthrough, Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America and The Reconstruction of American Liberalism. Follow her on Twitter: @nancylcohen.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.