How are Democratic voters feeling about their prospects for regaining the White House in 2020?
Some clues can be found in a recent report by Avalanche Strategies, a public opinion research firm that works with progressive organizations. It took a peek inside Democratic voters’ minds and found a lot of confusion and anxiety. “Likely Democratic voters are currently experiencing a mix of extreme urgency, relatively low confidence, and unsettled emotions headed into 2020,” the report notes. It also concluded that “perceptions of electability” are a major concern among Democratic voters.
Avalanche claims to have unique expertise analyzing voters’ emotional states based on the language they use in their answers to polling questions. By Avalanche’s metrics, among Democrats, “42 [percent] feel negative emotions including Frustration, Anger, Doubt, Hopelessness, Overwhelm, or Sadness.” If the average Democratic primary voter’s emotional state had a soundtrack, it would be an Alanis Morissette album. By contrast, “Republican voters are feeling relatively more excitement, pride, and happiness.”
There are many possible explanations for Democrats’ anxiety and frustration—the confusion caused by the large number of candidates running in the primary, for example, or an ongoing hangover effect from Donald Trump’s 2016 victory. But Avalanche thinks another factor is at work: voters’ feelings about gender.
In a primary season that includes a record number of women running for the Democratic party’s nomination but one in which electability is also a major concern for voters, Avalanche argues, “The electability gap is driven in large part by beliefs about how gender is perceived in America today. Those who see gender as a barrier to electability consistently express beliefs that other voters will not vote for a woman.”
In other words, Democratic voters believe the real problem isn’t Democrats or their many candidates: it’s the rest of us. “Among those who raise gender as an issue,” the report notes, “62 [percent] express beliefs that American voters will not elect a woman. Their concerns are not about the capability of female candidates, so much as they are about the willingness of Americans to elect a woman.”
Avalanche came to this conclusion by asking those polled to rank the Democratic primary contenders without regard to electability; when they did so, the race tightened, and a woman rose to the top: “When choosing a preferred president absent considerations of electability, 21 [percent] chose Warren, 19 [percent] chose Biden, 19 [percent] chose Sanders, 16 [percent] chose Buttigieg, 12 [percent] chose Harris, and 4 [percent] chose O’Rourke” (bad but not surprising news for Beto, who is essentially running on his supposed “electability”).
Given that the point of running for office is to get elected, it’s an odd hypothetical—unless you want to explain away the so-far poor performances of the female candidates in the race, that is. As the Avalanche report argues, “This data suggests that at the time the survey was conducted, the preferred candidate by a small margin when electability is removed from the equation, is a woman.”
And not just any woman: Elizabeth Warren won the “magic wand” question posed to voters in the survey. It asked those polled whom they would choose as president if they could simply wave a magic wand and make that person president; Warren won by a slight margin. Nevertheless, those same Democratic voters remain pessimistic about her chances. As a 39-year-old woman from Texas told Avalanche researchers, “She’s a woman, so the media will never give her equal time or focus on her plans. They will distort her life, her work, her looks, her ambition, her voice, her passion.”
Really? As Noah Rothman noted in April, voters have been force-fed an up-with-Warren narrative for months, with little to show for it in her polling numbers. The most recent boosterish piece in the New York Times Magazine features Warren enthusiastically describing how she’s “moved the Overton window” on a range of issues and notes that her constant refrain, “I have a policy for that,” has become a T-shirt slogan on the left. Yet she still consistently trails Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in the race for the nomination.
According to Avalanche, Democratic voters think the reason Elizabeth Warren can’t win is that Americans don’t want to elect a woman—not, for example, because they doubt her claim that, if they make her president, a government she says is now a “tool for the wealthy and well connected” can be remade to benefit the middle class instead. Or that her campaign style leans toward lecturing her audiences rather than galvanizing them. Or that her proposed wealth tax is probably unconstitutional.
The Avalanche study also ignores other, more plausible reasons why voters might prefer not to gamble on Warren’s progressive policy ideas. A Fox News poll earlier this month found that among likely voters in the 2020 election, 72 percent said it was important to vote for a candidate who will “provide steady, reliable leadership” versus 25 percent who wanted a candidate with a “bold, new agenda.” Seventy-four percent of those polled said it was more important to vote for a candidate “who will unite Americans around shared beliefs.”
Whether you perceive Warren’s policy proposals as an effort to create a more conscientious capitalism or simply class warfare, the tone of her campaign has not focused on uniting Americans. To the contrary, Warren has embraced a populist message from the left much as Trump did from the right in 2016 that tries to convince voters the system is rigged against them.
The claim that Americans aren’t ready to elect a woman president is false. A Gallup poll taken just before the 2016 election found that 92 percent of voters said they would vote for a woman for president (by contrast, only 47 percent said they would vote for a socialist).
Why are Democrats willfully ignoring the evidence that their fellow Americans are fine with electing a woman president? In 2016, it was a way to process their disappointment that Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump. Now it’s a way to try to rationalize why female candidates like Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand are trailing far behind two old white guys. The cognitive dissonance is evidently too much for some progressives to bear; it’s easier to believe that their fellow Americans are sexist. As the Avalanche report notes, “Among those who see gender as a barrier to electability, the pervasive belief isn’t that female candidates are doing anything wrong—but that even if they do everything right, Americans won’t elect a woman.”
Perhaps this pessimism is the logical conclusion of the left’s longtime ideological commitment to the misguided idea that for women, the playing field is always unequal and that sexism and inequality are baked into the system. The problem for Democrats in 2020? This fatalism about female candidates risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, and its casualties are the Democratic women running for president.