Creston, Iowa: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York had a request: Before anyone mocked her claim that she was the Democratic presidential candidate best positioned to take on President Donald Trump, at least listen to the evidence.
Gillibrand won her first House race in an upstate conservative district that had “more cows than Democrats,” as she likes to say. She ran on Medicaid expansion as early as 2006, long before it had become a litmus test for the progressive flank of the Democratic Party, which often derides her as inauthentic.
In her 2018 Senate re-election campaign, she flipped 18 counties that had voted for Trump just two years earlier, and in 2012 she received a higher share of the vote in New York than any statewide candidate before or since — better than Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, better than former Senator Hillary Clinton, better than former President Barack Obama.
While many voters do not know much about Gillibrand yet, she also sees a set of assumptions about male and female leaders at work.
“The first-blush analysis is inadequate,” Gillibrand said in an interview. “This is what makes me the best person to take on Trump — electability. Experience. Track record.”
“I’m the most elect --” she stopped. “I have the type of experience they’re looking for.”
At this early stage of the Democratic presidential primary, much of the discussion among voters has focused on the singular desire of defeating Trump, and selecting a nominee who is best suited to that task. But while that line of thinking has largely been associated with well-known veteran male politicians, particularly former Vice-President Joe Biden, the women running in the historically diverse Democratic field, several of whom have a demonstrated track record of winning over Republican voters, have been telling anyone who will listen that they, too, are equipped to beat the president.
In addition to Gillibrand, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has drawn on her electoral success in red counties to position herself as a bridge-builder in increasingly polarised times. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — who soundly defeated a popular Republican incumbent in her first election — has focused recently on addressing concerns that she’s simply an “ideas candidate,” combining her rhetoric about economic inequality with a more explicit pitch on her ability to beat Trump. (A fourth leading female candidate, Senator Kamala Harris of California, has enjoyed most of her success thus far in Democratic strongholds.)
As these politicians now campaign for president, they are encountering some of the same misogyny that Clinton faced when she ran in 2016. They are running up against assumptions voters and pundits have about what presidential leadership looks like, battling a presidential archetype where men are the only touchstones.
As a result, they are frequently asked to explain why they believe they have paths to victory, and to prove they can win over prized working-class voters in critical states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. This has come even as polls have consistently found that numerous Democrats — including multiple women — enjoy an early edge in head-to-head matchups against Trump.
“We have 45 presidents who have been men. And seeing a woman in that role is still something that we’re not used to,” said Kimberly Peeler-Allen, a co-founder of Higher Heights, a national organisation building the political power and leadership of black women.
She noted that the Democratic women running for president had been forced to answer for Clinton’s defeat in 2016, and to allay concerns from voters about whether a woman can win the presidency. The men in the race do not face such burdens.
She also pointed to last year’s midterm elections, in which more than half the House districts that flipped from Republicans to Democrats were won by women.
“We have to, as an electorate, change our mindset on what executive leadership looks like,” Peeler-Allen said. “Women lead differently. And that’s not a bad thing.”
Gillibrand has addressed the question head-on. She kicked off her recent “Rural Listening Tour” throughout southwest Iowa with a clear focus on highlighting her ability to win Republican votes. “Secretary Clinton and I, while I admire her, are very different people and we have very different stories,” she said at one stop. “I’m from the upstate part of New York. She’s from the suburbs of Illinois.”
In a race defined by early uncertainty, Democratic candidates such as former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, have garnered significant attention and high first-quarter fund-raising totals, outraising all the women in the Democratic field except Harris, who has relied on the liberal donor circuit in her deep blue home state. But their success has also fuelled a backlash, as critics say their rise, despite their comparative lack of experience, is indicative of a presidential landscape that prefers male figures.
When asked in a phone interview if she believed her candidacy was being hampered by gendered notions of “electability,” Warren demurred.
“I can’t talk about everything in this race,” she said. “I can just tell you what I’ve done and what I plan on doing.”
In an interview in Iowa, Gillibrand specifically alluded to Buttigieg and O’Rourke, saying, “I don’t think either of them have won red and purple areas. I have.”
She also added a warning for the Democrats trying to occupy a more moderate lane, as Biden has since entering the race.
“If your ideas aren’t progressive or bold enough, you will not win the respect of the grass roots,” Gillibrand said. “You will not win young people. You will not win black women — all the people who were responsible for electing a Democratic majority this last election cycle in the House of Representatives.”
The themes represent another fault line for a Democratic Party at an existential crossroads. After the surprise election of Trump, a sizeable portion of Democrats began to voice concerns that the party’s embrace of gender and racial diversity had put it at odds with some of the electorate, and that Trump’s willingness to use racist and sexist political rhetoric had put Democrats at a disadvantage, especially in rural America or among Republican-leaning independents.
“We were not heard in ‘16,” said Patty Judge, a former lieutenant governor of Iowa who started an organisation called Focus on Rural America. “People did not understand the frustration and the anger that is out there in rural Iowa.”
When asked in surveys, most voters say they could support a woman for president. A recent poll found that 84 per cent of Americans said they are comfortable with a female candidate, more than those who said they were accepting of a candidate who is a Muslim, an evangelical Christian or over the age of 75.
But when pressed on the issue in interviews, Democratic voters in early primary states point to Clinton’s Electoral College defeat as a sign that others — their family, friends or large swathes of the country — will not back a female candidate.
During Gillibrand’s listening tour, voters who were asked to explain what it meant to be an “electable candidate” were fairly clear. They said Trump’s presence may require a man to lead the Democratic ticket.
“You’ll always hear ‘there’s no way a woman can win this,’ and they go back to Hillary,” said DeAnne Butler, who attended Gillibrand’s campaign stop in Clarinda, Iowa. “Even among my female friends.”
Warren, Gillibrand, Harris and Klobuchar can all claim an interesting distinction: They have never lost an election in their political careers. All of the most prominent male Democratic candidates, including Biden, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, have lost at least one.