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Will a Democratic woman break the glass ceiling in 2020?

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Despite being more than a year out from the Iowa caucuses, women already have made history in the 2020 election. Four Democratic women — Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (New York), Kamala Harris (California), and Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts) — have announced they ether are running for president or forming an exploratory committee. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) also is said to be seriously considering a presidential run.  

That brings the number to five. Not only is that more than double the number of women who ran in 2016 (two), but it is larger than the number of women who ran in the last three presidential cycles combined (four, and that’s counting former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton twice). Certainly that “highest, hardest glass ceiling,” which was so notably cracked a little more than a decade ago, has begun collapsing. And it’s about time.

{mosads}But the question remains, can one of these Democratic women win the presidency?

Although my past research on presidential aspirants leads me to concur with much of FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver’s analysis of the 2020 field and his conclusion that Sen. Kamala Harris is well-positioned to win the nomination, I also am deeply cognizant of how risk-adverse party activists traditionally have been when it comes to women and the presidency.

More specifically, despite Clinton’s presidential nomination in 2016, Democrats have not selected another woman to serve as their vice presidential nominee since Rep. Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. Republicans never have chosen a woman to serve as their party’s presidential nominee, and only once have they chosen a woman, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008, to serve on the ticket as their vice presidential nominee.

What’s worse than the implicit patriarchal views of the presidency that often underlie the decisions of the two major political parties is that the three women who have been on  presidential tickets also have been blamed for the losses. As I explained in late December 2014, when imploring Clinton not to run for president, the historical “fundamentals” were not on the side of the Democrats in 1984 or the Republicans in 2008.

They also were not on the side of the Democrats in 2016. Simple math suggests that going into the 2016 contest, the Democratic candidate only had about a 17 percent chance of winning the presidency. (From 1952-2012, there had been six “heir apparent” candidates who sought to win a third presidential term for his party, and only one — George H.W. Bush — managed to win.) In other words, Clinton ran fairly well given her predicament.

Comparing Clinton to the other “third-term” losers, she earned a larger percentage of the popular vote than Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Gerald Ford in 1976 and John McCain in 2008. She earned nearly the same percentage of popular votes as Al Gore in 2000, and slightly less than Richard Nixon in 1960. Like Gore and Nixon, she and her campaign failed to realize how much of an underdog she was and where she needed to direct her efforts (i.e., she should have been targeting these competitive districts from 2012). That said, her losing the presidency evidently has made some in the party wary (Democratic frontrunners in the polls are white men) about putting up another woman.  

Now, 2020 is a different type of election — no candidate is running for a party’s third term. Still, at the outset, Republicans are favored to win. (Since 1968, there have been six incumbents who sought reelection and their party’s second term in office, and only one — Jimmy Carter — lost.)  While it appears that President Trump may well be headed down the perilous path of Carter, Democrats should not overestimate their chances.

Despite all of this history and unfavorable odds, it’s hard not to believe that 2020 may well break the mold. Women ran and won in record numbers in 2018. And two African-American Democratic gubernatorial candidates (Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida) upended the party hierarchy, won their primaries, and came close to victory in the general election.

And now, less than 30 days into the “invisible primary,” four women have jumped into the presidential contest. Clearly today’s Democratic Party is not the same as it was in your grandmother’s day. Aside from the changes in leadership, the composition of the party has changed significantly over the past two decades. In short, if ever there were a time for a woman to win the Democratic nomination and oust an embattled incumbent president, 2020 looks to be about as good as this type of nomination and election can get.

Said another way, watch out for falling glass. The ceiling looks like it is about to give way.

Lara M. Brown, Ph.D., is an associate professor and director of the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University, and formerly was an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University. She frequently appears on TV and radio programs as an expert on American political history, party development and national elections. Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.

Tags 2020 Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore Amy Klobuchar Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton John McCain Kirsten Gillibrand Tulsi Gabbard women candidates

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