The Electability Trap: The unrelenting focus on whether a candidate is “electable” traps the political ecosystem into assuming that women or people of color really are less likely to be elected than white men.
August 17, 2020
With Responses From
Aug 17, 2020
7 Min read time
The dangers behind focusing on whether a candidate is “electable.”
Jennifer Piscopo’s argument that women have—and should fight for—the right to be elected is compelling. But in order to challenge the status quo, women must run in the U.S. political system as it exists today. Because of this, I want to talk about how this right often gets denied by the “electability” trap, and why pursuing a new normal is our best hope for getting more women elected. The goal of achieving an equal number of women and men in office is a good one; the goal of creating a society where women and men have true equal access and legitimacy in running for office may be a better one. If women have to run an obstacle course of sexism and double standards to get elected in equal numbers, then parity is not the only problem.
Tossed around as if it is an objective measure, “electability” is just code for “this candidate looks like what we’re used to.”
The focus of the 2020 Democratic primaries, which included four women, was electability. “Electability” is tossed around as if it is an objective measure, but electability—and its cousins “likeability” and “authenticity”—are just codes for “this candidate looks like what we’re used to.” Consider how flawed a metric electability is—and not just for women candidates. Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, for instance, were assumed to be unelectable up until they got elected. The reality is that electability is determined on Election Day by voters, and past results are not always the best indicators of future elections. No one is great at predicting electability, including pollsters. Off-year polls in previous elections had Gary Hart beating George Bush, Walter Mondale beating Ronald Reagan, and Bob Dole beating Bill Clinton.
The unrelenting focus on electability, however, traps the political ecosystem into assuming that women or people of color really are less electable than white men. And it ensures that women and people of color face an unfair disadvantage that has nothing to do with their campaigns or candidacies. Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand all showed extraordinary courage during the Democratic primary. None of these women had run national campaigns before, and they worked tirelessly to introduce themselves to voters across the country. But these women faced unfair assumptions and the dreaded electability trap. Despite recent political gains, marches, and the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, sexism is still part of women’s everyday lives. Women are judged on their appearance and tone of voice more harshly than men are. And as candidates, women face questions about children and family life that men do not. In the electability trap, sexism creates an additional challenge: polls and subsequent coverage of those polls foster a vicious cycle, making it even harder for women to break through.
The only way out of this cycle is to break down barriers. In my experience, which includes ten years as a Maine state legislator, running twice for Congress, and my current role as executive director of EMILY’s List, I have witnessed how women have changed our political landscape and are working to establish a new normal.
• • •
White women have had the right to vote since 1920, and a century later, after an election in which women made unprecedented gains, the U.S. House of Representatives is still more than three quarters men. Of the nearly 2,000 people who have served in the U.S. Senate since the founding, 56 (2.8 percent) have been women. And only 325 of the 11,040 members of the House (2.9 percent) have been women. It was not until 1981 that a woman (Sandra Day O’Connor) served on the Supreme Court. Now there are just three—a third of a court making decisions on women’s fundamental rights. There has been only one woman speaker of the House, one woman major party presidential nominee, and no woman elected president or vice president.
EMILY’s List has been working to elect pro-choice Democratic women since 1985. The first meeting of the group was in Ellen Malcolm’s basement; she was frustrated that there had never been a Democratic woman elected to the Senate. Her friends came over with their rolodexes, and they all wrote to their friends asking for commitments to supporting Democratic women early in their campaigns, because “Early Money Is Like Yeast”—E-M-I-L-Y. These women found strength in numbers and helped Maryland elect Barbara Mikulski to the Senate in 1986.
Fast forward to 1991, when Anita Hill, an African American law professor, spoke up about sexual harassment in a Senate hearing. Reaction to the all-male Senate committee’s treatment of Hill led to a wave that hit in 1992, “The Year of the Woman.” Women across the country were watching. They were outraged. Women voters were determined to make their voices heard in the halls of power, and women were inspired to run and win in record numbers. EMILY’s List helped elect four new women senators and twenty new congresswomen, and the organization’s membership grew by more than 600 percent.
These women have changed policies, and they have also changed Congress itself. They have claimed space for themselves and for future women leaders. Until Senator Mikulski led the Pantsuit Rebellion of 1993, women could not wear pants on the floor of the Senate. Even as recently as 2009, women senators couldn’t use the pool in the congressional gym because some of their male colleagues liked to swim naked. Thanks to former senator Kay Hagan, the “men only” sign was changed to a “proper attire required” sign. In 2018 Tammy Duckworth became the first senator to give birth while in office. Senators are required to vote in person, but Senate rules did not allow babies on the Senate floor—so she asked Amy Klobuchar, the senior Democrat on the Senate Rules Committee, to help change the rules so she wouldn’t have to choose between caring for her baby and casting votes.
Today EMILY’s List is our nation’s largest resource for women in politics and has raised over $600 million to elect pro-choice Democratic women candidates. With a grassroots community of now over 5 million members, EMILY’s List helps Democratic women win competitive campaigns across the country and up and down the ballot by recruiting and training candidates, supporting strong campaigns, researching the issues that impact women and families, and getting women to voter.
Since its founding in 1985, EMILY’s List has helped elect 150 women to the House, 26 to the Senate, 16 governors, and nearly 1,100 women to state and local office. Nearly 40 percent of the candidates EMILY’s List has helped elect to Congress have been women of color. During the historic 2017–18 cycle, EMILY’s List raised a record-breaking $110 million and launched an independent expenditure campaign. We helped elect 34 new women to the House, including 24 red-to-blue victories—enough seats to have delivered the U.S. House majority alone.
Since the 2016 election, more than 50,000 women have reached out to EMILY’s List about running for office, laying the groundwork for the next decade of candidates for local, state, and national offices. These women are our future, and at EMILY’s List, we are planting seeds and forcing the change.
The truth is that women are very electable. The United States did vote for a woman for president, with Hillary Clinton earning 3 million more votes than Donald Trump.
Because the truth is that women are very electable. The United States did vote for a woman for president. While she lost the presidency due to 80,000 votes in three key states, Hillary Clinton earned 3 million more votes than Donald Trump. The United States voted for more women in 2018. Women won statewide and flipped House seats in Minnesota, Arizona, and Nevada. The only Democratic victory in Florida in 2018 was a woman. Women candidates won in three key states that President Trump won in 2016. In Michigan Democratic women won every major statewide election but one, including a clear victory for Governor Gretchen Whitmer. In Wisconsin, despite millions of dollars spent on attack ads, Tammy Baldwin won decisively. And in Pennsylvania, formerly the largest state with no women in its delegation, four women were elected to the House. In 2018, 54 percent of voters in our battleground races were women, and we saw double-digit persuasion swings with those women, regardless of their level of education.
This changing political landscape means that more women are running for office, up and down the ballot, across the country. From here on out, we will likely always have multiple women running for president. That means that images of Congress that do not include a diverse group of women are becoming harder and harder to find, and we will not have legislative committees working on policy issues such as health care that do not include women. The new normal means women and girls can no longer be deterred by the belief that women are in a separate lane and will be judged differently. It means that they will be valued for who they are and what they care about, not by outdated gender stereotypes.
But the new normal cannot just be about women in politics. The momentum for a fundamental shift in the role of women needs to ripple across the private sector and communities around the country. The new normal means questioning business as usual everywhere to make sure women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, people of color, people of different religions, people who come from less affluent backgrounds, people with disabilities, and more all have a seat at the table. More women getting elected is just the start.
While we have you...
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
August 17, 2020
7 Min read time