It came as no surprise to Christine Jahnke that the chattering classes would instantly cast doubt on whether Elizabeth Warren is “likable enough” to be elected president in 2020.
What was new to Jahnke, a D.C.-based speech coach who trains female politicians, was the backlash: a collective howl raised by voters and political analysts who resisted the premise that the next promising female candidate for president could be critiqued and dismissed in precisely the same manner as the last one. Within hours, Warren’s exploratory committee seized on a swipe perceived as sexist to raise money for a possible presidential campaign.
“Two years ago or three years ago, would that have happened? No,” said Jahnke. “Because that was very typical news coverage. It’s like the key hurdle that all women candidates have to jump over.”
Women who work in and around politics harbor no illusions that the next woman who runs for president will have an easier time than her predecessors. Research for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which works to advance female officeholders, has found that Americans won’t vote for a woman they don’t like, though they’ll back an unlikable man they find qualified. Voters are even less comfortable electing a woman to an executive office, where she’ll be the sole decision maker, than to a deliberative body like Congress.
But at this time of feminist resistance and a pitched, even prickly awareness of gender disparities, women are pushing back against presumptions and narratives they might have endured just a few years ago. Warren, a scrappy politician who previously turned a scolding from Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell into a feminist mantra on persistence, greeted her detractors head-on, but with the sense of humor that campaign observers say is vital to female candidacies.
On Wednesday night, she posted shaky video of herself and her husband riding a train with the message: “I hear women candidates are most likable in the quiet car!”
And in an e-mail, her campaign asked supporters to donate $5 to $500 to the new “You Know It When You See It Fund,” saying: “If you get frustrated when commentators spend more time covering Elizabeth or any woman’s ‘likeability’ than her plans for huge, systemic change to make this country work for all of us, do something productive about it.”
The pushback began this week, soon after Warren declared her interest in the presidency, in response to a Politico story exploring Warren’s viability with the Twitter headline: “How does Elizabeth Warren avoid a Clinton redux — written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?”
“Change her gender?” offered Rebecca Niles of Acton.
“Next question: are all women exactly the same?” tweeted Louis Morgan, a Missouri music teacher and father.
Like it or not, likability is indeed a much greater factor for female candidates, acknowledged campaign specialists who hope to change that narrative.
“It seems like it’s an inherent bias,” said Amanda Hunter, research and communications director for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. “In an ideal world, women should be allowed to run as candidates and be judged on the same merits and their experience as men are. Seeing this type of dialogue literally a day after a candidate announces was not surprising when you look at previous conversations, but after such a positive 2018, it’s disappointing.”
The 2018 midterm election cycle saw legions of women running for public office following the 2016 defeat of Hillary Clinton, the first major-party female presidential candidate, to a man whose behavior and policies many viewed as misogynistic. On Thursday, Washington welcomed a record-setting group of women to Congress.
“Women have been so upset by Donald Trump through the campaign, his arrival at the White House, that they’re taking matters into their own hands,” said Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. “So when you see criticism of Elizabeth Warren or any other woman running for higher office? Everyone has just had it.”
When she entered politics seven years ago, Warren was something of a rock star, having soared to unlikely fame as a populist critic of Wall Street who proposed and developed the nation’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and riveted fans with her plainspoken style. A brainy, fiery speaker who could translate complicated financial policies to the masses, she emerged before the Occupy Wall Street movement and staked the liberal ground that would later be claimed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
But she didn’t run for president in 2016, when Sanders built a following of his own, and she has garnered much less fawning coverage as a leading Democratic foil for President Trump. The president calls her Pocahantas, dismissing her as a “fake Indian,” to deride her claims of Native American ancestry, for which she was likewise mocked during her first Senate run. But her efforts to silence that criticism with a DNA test last fall failed to satisfy many voters, with whom the caricature had already stuck.
Still, Warren’s qualifications are the “perfect response,” Jahnke said.
“Elizabeth Warren has ideas. She has policy experience. She has things she wants to get done. And she has a track record,” Jahnke said. “She’s not just lobbing bombs at [Trump]. She’s got a whole track record of accomplishments and success that she can run on. I think that’s one of the things that sets her apart.”
Indeed, when asked about her “likability issue” Thursday in D.C., Warren kept the focus on the issue she wants front and center: the plight of working families.
“The fight for basic fairness, for an opportunity for all, is the fight of my entire life,” she told reporters. “I was in this fight long before I got into politics.”
Asked repeatedly about whether she’s being treated in a sexist fashion, she said she would continue to “focus on the very things that pulled me into electoral politics to begin with. This isn’t about me. This is about what’s happening in our country.”
To campaign players like Marsh, the focus on “likability” feels depressingly familiar.
“There’s a certain kind of attack and criticism that is reserved for women in politics,” she said. “And that strategy should not be rewarded by voters or the media or anyone.”
She pointed to the longstanding attacks on Clinton (which abated when she was working for a president as secretary of state) and the more recent jabs lobbed at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat just sworn in at 29 as the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. (“I don’t see them doing that to any young congressmen,” Marsh said.)
And she noted that Nancy Pelosi, long a target of animus from the right, became the leading focus of Republican attack ads during the midterm election cycle. She also fended off a leadership challenge orchestrated by Representative Seth Moulton. But in another example of a voter backlash, Moulton attracted criticism from his Massachusetts constituents — many of them, women — who viewed his effort to edge Pelosi aside as a sexist power play.
“Women have had it,” said Marsh. “They’re done. Done, done, and done.”
In the past, many female candidates would have brushed off presumptions or lines of questioning they viewed as sexist, said Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers-Camden and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics.
“You let it go because you don’t want to be seen as ‘playing the gender card,’ or even less likable,” Dittmar said. “That’s a strategy that I think a lot of women have used going back to 2008. Imagine if Hillary Clinton had called Barack Obama out when he said, ‘you’re likable enough.’ But she didn’t. Because she couldn’t at the time.”
That notorious example came during a televised debate before the 2008 Democratic New Hampshire primary, when Clinton was asked to defend against the notion that voters found her less likable than Obama.
“Well, that hurts my feelings. But I’ll try to go on,” Clinton quipped. “He’s very likable. I agree with that. I don’t think I’m that bad.”
Even after Obama interjected, “You’re likable enough, Hillary,” Clinton responded graciously, bobbing her head and grinning.
“Thank you, Barack. I appreciate that,” she said.
Jahnke, who worked with members of Clinton’s campaign team, recalled: “She handled that beautifully — and didn’t really get much credit for it.”
“In that type of situation, if it’s possible, using humor is a really good deflector,” Jahnke added. “It shows that you don’t take yourself so seriously, which is a really important signal to send to an audience. That takes preparation.”
Warren, it seems, is calling out perceived bias, but “in a way that also allows her to use some humor to disarm people who might think that she’s too serious or too harsh,” Dittmar said.
“That’s a strategy that has seemed to work — or at least worked in the context of 2018 — and we’ll see if it works in the context of 2020,” said Dittmar.