Gender politics and the 2020 Democratic primary: A test case in lessons learned?

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“If that’s playing the woman card, then deal me in.”

This was a common refrain from Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election as then-candidate Donald Trump continually attacked her for relying on her gender to gain support. I thought it was smart to embrace the baseless attack and turn it into a way to amplify core messages: protecting women’s health, paid family leave and equal pay. I even ordered a few of Clinton’s “woman cards” and they remain some of my most treasured merchandise from 2016. 

These issues are still resonant in the 2020 campaign, but noticeably absent is any real talk of the “woman card,” or gender politics for that matter. What’s changed?

Though far too early to assess what lessons might have been learned from 2016, the conversation around what typically are understood as “women’s issues,” such as equal pay and reproductive health care, indicate that campaigns are doing things differently. And while there is safety in numbers, with many women running (whereas Clinton had to go it alone), as well as widespread support for women’s issues among the Democratic contenders, there is a marked shift in communication strategy as it relates to these policies. 

The shift is smart. Democratic candidates are focused on winning, and talking about gender and women’s issues isn’t a winning message. Bustle Digital Group conducted a poll of 1,000 American women in the lead-up to the 2018 midterms with VoteRunLead, a nonprofit that trains women to run for office, and found that 79 percent of respondents said they didn’t take gender into account when choosing between candidates. Seventy-eight percent reported that gender doesn’t affect their likelihood of voting for a candidate.

That surely doesn’t mean that women can’t win elections — the 2018 midterms certainly showed they can — but it demonstrates that highlighting gender and making it a cornerstone of campaign messaging is a dangerous gamble. 

Traditional feminist talk about “breaking the glass ceiling” has been replaced by intersectional feminist talk about “equity.” One isn’t necessarily better than the other, though I personally identify as a traditional feminist, yet the discourse shift is important for pols to note. Women’s issues can’t be labeled as such. It’s a turnoff and whips up anxiety about our chances of winning in 2020.

Consider that 75 percent of Democrats believe gender and sexism factored into Clinton’s 2016 loss, but 39 percent of Democratic and independent voters say female candidates will have a tougher time facing off against President Trump. To this point, Marianne Mason, an Iowa caucus-goer, told NBC: “I can hardly think about it. It makes me sick, thinking about how nasty this could get for a woman. How are they supposed to rebut someone like Trump? I want to see a woman in the White House, I really do. But I just don’t know if it can happen against him.”

This sentiment is pervasive in arguably the most important voting bloc for Democrats: African American women. Black women voted for Democrats in the 2018 midterms at the staggering rate of 92 percent, delivering key wins in Republican districts such as Georgia’s 6th for Rep. Lucy McBath. Cartrena Norris Carter, a black activist who helped Doug Jones win his Senate seat in Alabama, commented, “We really need to be taking the temperature of the entire country, not just people who think like us.

Therein lies the rub. While Democrats are ready for a female president and excited at the prospect of electing one, they’re wary. They’ve seen this movie before, and they didn’t like how it ended. 

As a result, analysts must dig a little deeper to see how traditional women’s issues are featuring in this race. They are still front and center, just cloaked in gender-generic policy talk so we can avoid the pitfalls of 2016. Same goes for how female candidates talk about their candidacies. 

Let’s just say, Madeleine Albright’s and Gloria Steinem’s brand of campaigning wouldn’t be welcome this time around. Look no further than Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s attempt to make Thursday night’s debate about women’s issues and reproductive rights — it fell flat and no one else on stage was willing to throw her a lifeline. 

Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) undoubtedly was right when she recently said, “I do think all of us who are running, particularly the women candidates, are standing on Hillary’s shoulders right now.” And one of the most important ways they’re standing on Clinton’s shoulders is what  they’ve gleaned from her about how to deal with gender on the campaign trail. 

Jessica Tarlov is head of research at Bustle Digital Group and a Fox News contributor. She earned her Ph.D. at the London School of Economics in political science. Follow her on Twitter @JessicaTarlov.

Tags 2020 campaign Feminism Gender equality Hillary Clinton Kirsten Gillibrand Political ideologies Women's rights

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