Sexism affects voting and puts Joe Biden in bind for his vice president
Political observers have been deeply divided over the campaign strategy of Joe Biden. Should he stay in his basement and let the botched national coronavirus response of President Trump speak for itself, or should Biden mount an aggressive offense against his opponent, as James Carville has suggested and talk about what a “massive fat failure” he is?
One tool that campaigns have used in the past to lessen perceived risks associated with a candidate, or to compensate for apparent weaknesses, is to select a running mate who brings balance to the public image of the ticket. But research suggests that balancing act is much more fraught for a woman candidate as vice president in a country with as complicated a history with gender and political power as the United States.
The political landscape is a profoundly gendered space, especially at the White House level. Campaigning as a woman comes with roles, traps, and expectations that a male choice for vice president does not have to worry about. Given our track record in this country of holding female politicians to unfair double standards, Biden might have made the task of defeating Trump even tougher by doing what many Democrats consider to be the right thing in promising to select a woman as his running mate.
In the case of Biden, it is pretty clear what attributes need balancing and which do not. His direct knowledge of policy and how the machinery of government works, and the value which he places on expert advice, are welcomed departures from the haphazard style of leadership that Trump regularly exhibits. The weaknesses of Biden are his age and his tendency to embarrass himself or offend voters as he thinks on his feet.
His best decision for a running mate would be someone who is a much more nimble and energetic political attack dog than he is, and who also has government experience that reassures Americans that the person a heartbeat away from the presidency is up to the job. At first glance, the women on his short list for vice president, such as Susan Rice, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren, seem to fill both the criteria well.
Including a woman on the Democratic ticket also brings other important benefits. The possibility of a woman vice president is notably meaningful in the United States, where we often tell young girls that their hopes and ambitions are limitless yet cannot point to a single instance in our history when a woman occupied the first or second highest government office in the land. This is not the case in other Western democracies.
What we have learned from decades of research on gender and politics, and from recent history, suggests a more complex picture. Women are unevenly punished when they assert themselves or display aggression, something that seems fundamental to the task of defending Biden and campaigning against Trump. Hillary Clinton has since spoken at length how her gender was a constant consideration with her 2008 and 2016 campaigns, translating to more hours spent preparing and dissecting strategies, such as how much humility and emotion to show.
The tightrope that women candidates must walk is even more tedious for African American women, who must contend with racist stereotypes that further constrain their attempts to gain traction with voters and support for their policy messages. As political science professor Wendy Smooth writes, African American women candidates, who are often considered left of center, face the dual pressures of offering “crossover appeal” for white voters while staying connected to communities of color.
Research showing that many of these effects seem to be muted by party members in a general election, as well as my own research on celebrities seeking office, may seem comforting in this case for Biden, as does much considerable literature that concludes most candidates for vice president have little to no impact on the way voters pick the president.
But in this election, with Biden possibly not seeking a second term, voters are more likely to apply the standard for the president to the candidate for vice president. That makes concerns about overt bias against women and the many ways that gender affects our perceptions of credible leadership as relevant as they were in the last two Democratic primaries. Clinton may have ended the candidacy of Lincoln Chafee with her one word dismissal, and Warren may have defeated the campaign of Michael Bloomberg with her intelligence, but those powerful displays did not halt the concern that the losses of these women candidates were fueled by sexism.
In order to beat Trump, Democrats have to be aware of these pitfalls and take stock of them. Assuming gender will be positive for how the ticket is perceived is not an option yet neither is ignoring this. Biden has to call out gender criticisms about his running mate as fit, and account for the risks and benefits of a woman on the ticket with healthy pessimism.
Lauren Wright is an associate research scholar and lecturer in politics and public affairs with Princeton University. She is the author of “On Behalf of the President” and “Star Power.” Follow her on Twitter @DrLaurenAWright.
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