Why ‘Women win’ isn’t enough for many Iowa voters

January 28, 2020

The Christian Science Monitor:  Why ‘Women win’ isn’t enough for many Iowa voters

By Story Hinckley


Mike Roddy prefers to watch women’s basketball. 

He and his wife Nancy drove almost three hours from their home in Mason City on Sunday to watch the University of Iowa’s women’s basketball team play Michigan State on their home court in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes are in the middle of the second-longest active home game winning streak in women’s Division I basketball, and they’ve been breaking attendance records. 

Women share the ball instead of showing off – they “play the game as it’s meant to be played,” says Mr. Roddy. “It’s a skills game for them.”  

“That’s the same reason Amy will be better,” says his wife, referring to Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, whom the Roddys plan to support in next Monday’s Iowa caucuses. “She has the skills.” 

The Roddys aren’t alone in their belief that a woman may possess the best skill set to be president. Senator Klobuchar and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren have won some of the most coveted editorial board endorsements this cycle – The Quad-City Times and New Hampshire Union Leader for Ms. Klobuchar, and The Des Moines Register for Senator Warren. The New York Times, unable to decide, gave its nod to both of them.

Yet as is the case with basketball, much of the attention and money has seemed to flow to the men. After leading in the polls for a time this fall, Ms. Warren has slipped into fourth place in most surveys, while Ms. Klobuchar, despite showing hints of momentum, is even further behind.

In interviews, dozens of Democrats in Iowa cite electability, or the ability to beat President Donald Trump, as their top priority. And for many, that criteria seems to be steering them toward a male candidate – a way of thinking that experts on women in politics characterize as both unsubstantiated and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“In an era of Trump, we’re particularly vulnerable to that sort of narrative,” says Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications at Emily’s List, a political action committee that works to elect pro-choice Democratic women to office. Ms. Reynolds points out that the Democrats have already made history by having not one but two women who are considered viable at this point in the cycle. “I think what’s particularly impressive about what Senator Klobuchar and Senator Warren have done is they have pushed past that. They are still in there fighting.”

At the same time, many women voters, particularly younger ones, say gender simply isn’t a primary factor in their decision. While they’re glad to have women in the running, they say they’re less motivated by symbolism or identity than by the candidates’ platforms – which, they say, is actually a sign of progress.

“It seems normal that a woman is running for president,” says Maggie Smith, a performing arts student at Iowa State University, who’s waiting to hear Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speak in Ames with her friend and fellow student Joselyn Carrillo. They both like Ms. Warren, and Ms. Carrillo, an environmental studies student, muses about how empowering it would be to have a female president. But both plan to support Mr. Sanders when they caucus for the first time next week.

“Maybe that’s improvement, you know? That it’s coming down to the issues,” says Ms. Smith. 

How much of a hurdle?

Going into the 2020 presidential cycle, a female Democratic nominee seemed like a strong if not likely possibility. Women’s political activism had skyrocketed, with millions of women pouring into the streets in 2017 for the Women’s March, estimated to be the largest single-day demonstration in U.S. history. The 2018 midterm elections saw a record number of Democratic women entering the U.S. House of Representatives, and the 2020 Democratic presidential field featured a record number of female candidates. 

Since then, however, the road to the White House for women has seemed increasingly paved with obstacles. Two promising female candidates – California Sen. Kamala Harris and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand – were forced to drop out before the voting even began, after failing to gain traction.

Electability has long been a concern surrounding women, says Ms. Reynolds, even though statistically female politicians win their races at the same rate as men. And for many voters, those concerns seemed to grow in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss.

Despite the fact that Mrs. Clinton actually won the popular vote, and despite the fact that the Democratic Party’s sample size of previous female presidential nominees is exactly one, many Democratic voters say they’re worried that gender could be the difference between winning and losing.

“When Hillary lost so abruptly, it knocked the wind out of everybody,” says Jenni Yenger, a retired school secretary, at a rally for former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg in Fort Dodge. “I think Democrats would pull more for a woman [in 2020] if things weren’t so dire. I want to see a woman president, but not at the expense of losing to Trump.” 

Although she likes Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Klobuchar, Ms. Yenger has concluded she’ll probably caucus for former Vice President Joe Biden because she “feels safer” with his chances of beating Mr. Trump. 

“If I could vote with my heart, I’d vote for Amy [Klobuchar] or Yang,” echoes Lisa Etzel, waiting in line in below-freezing temperatures to see Mr. Sanders in Ames, Iowa. “But I’m caucusing for Biden. I’m voting for who can beat Trump.”  

Both Ms. Warren and Ms. Klobuchar have, at various times, tried to tackle the electability issue head-on – attempting to turn it into an advantage. Ms. Klobuchar talks repeatedly about how, in her last election, she won 42 counties that had voted for President Trump.

At a house party in Johnston, Iowa, Minnesota Rep. Angie Craig says she was able to defeat a male incumbent in 2018 in part because Ms. Klobuchar was running at the top of the ticket. “If you can win in my district, you can win the Electoral College,” Representative Craig told a living room full of a dozen or so Iowa Democrats. “It’s really good to have Amy Klobuchar on the ticket in my kind of district.”

Similarly, at the last Democratic debate in Des Moines, Ms. Warren pointedly noted that “the only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are women: Amy and me.”

“Can we just address it right here? Women win,” said Ms. Warren to a cheering crowd of voters in a middle school gym Sunday morning in Davenport. “We know that women candidates have been outperforming male candidates since Donald Trump got elected.” 

‘She stands on her record’

Yet Ms. Klobuchar and Ms. Warren have had to walk a fine line when it comes to making gender a part of their campaigns. Many voters don’t like it when female candidates “play the woman card,” notes Kelly Winfrey, a professor at Iowa State University and research coordinator at its Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics.

At a “hot dish” house party in Newton, Iowa, on Friday, Ms. Klobuchar’s daughter Abigail Bessler tells the Monitor that when her mother first ran for Senate, “she didn’t say, ‘Vote for me because I’m a woman.’” Ms. Bessler was campaigning on her mother’s behalf while the senator was stuck in Washington for President Trump’s impeachment trial. 

“She stands on her record,” says Ms. Bessler, “and that’s what she’s doing now.”

At other times, Ms. Klobuchar and Ms. Warren have highlighted what they see as a double standard for female candidates. Ms. Warren made headlines recently when she claimed that Mr. Sanders had told her he believed that a woman could not win the White House.

Ms. Klobuchar spoke candidly in December about voters being far more willing to give male candidates a pass when it comes to experience, in a pointed dig at Mr. Buttigieg.

“They haven’t been afraid to call it out, and I think that bluntness has been good,” says Professor Winfrey. 

Still, for some Democratic voters, the idea of a woman president is a strong motivating factor. Mabe Wassell drove across the river from Illinois to see Ms. Warren speak in Davenport.

“I worry about anyone going against Trump, but [Warren] has the gravitas to do it,” she says.