PLYMOUTH, NH (AP) — In a perfect world, Susan Stepp, a 73-year-old retiree, would be voting vote for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in New Hampshire’s Democratic presidential primary tomorrow, she said. But that won’t be happening.
“I am not sure a woman is the best candidate to go up against Trump,” Stepp said recently as she stood in the back of a conference room listening to tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang as part of her hunt for the best candidate to challenge the Republican incumbent.
Stepp’s concern has coursed through the Democratic primary for months, registering in polling, interviews and, now, the first votes cast. In Iowa’s caucuses last Monday, many Democrats did not prioritise breaking the gender barrier to the Oval Office and they viewed being a woman as a hindrance rather than an advantage in the race.
Only about one-third of Iowa caucusgoers backed a female candidate. Topping the caucus field were two men, former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders,. Women were only slightly more likely than men to back one of the three women in the race, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 3,000 Iowa voters.
Most Iowa Democrats said it was important for a woman to be president in their lifetimes. But many voters, including about half of all women, said a female nominee would have a harder time beating Donald Trump in November.
“He will just use that against her, like he did Hillary,” Stepp said, looking back to Trump’s 2016 race against Hillary Clinton in 2016. “He doesn’t debate. He just insults. I don’t think he would have that same effect if he went up against a strong man.” Stepp said she plans to vote for Sanders.
Those perceptions present an undeniable headwind for the women in the race, who have spent months making the case that a woman can win. As they seek success in New Hampshire, both Warren and Minnesota Sen Amy Klobuchar must work to energise voters about the chance to make history and persuade them it is possible this year, in this race against this president.
“In 2020, we can and should have a woman for president,” Warren said at a CNN town hall this past week, days after taking third in Iowa. Klobuchar came in fifth. The Associated Press has not called a winner in the Iowa caucus because the race is too close to call.
Iowans appeared open to that message. Most Democratic voters in the state, 72 per cent, said they thought it is important for the US to elect a woman president in their lifetimes, and that included roughly two-thirds of men.
But most were resolved to put it off for another election. That was true of men and women. The survey found 34 per cent of women voted for Warren, Klobuchar or the longshot candidacy of Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, compared with 28 per cent of men.
Overall, many Democratic voters thought it would be harder for a woman to beat Trump. About half of women said they thought a female nominee would have a harder time, compared with about four in 10 men. Men who harboured that concern were significantly less likely to vote for a woman than a man.
Experts say the findings are in line with traditional patterns in voting by gender — women usually don’t coalesce around one of their own. “Nobody’s going to win an election by unifying women because women are not a unified bloc,” said Kathy Dolan, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “There’s no evidence that suggests for us that women candidates vote much more for women candidates than men.”
Analysts said it’s no surprise that women express more anxiety about a woman defeating Trump, given that through personal experience, they’re familiar with the barriers of sexism.
“Women are more likely to have experienced or observed gender discrimination or sexism,” said Jill Lawless, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.
Notably, experts said, there’s no data showing that women underperform or outperform men in general elections. But Lawless noted that having to fight that perception that a woman cannot win may actually work against the female candidates in this race.
“Anytime they’re trying to convince voters that a woman can beat Donald Trump, they’re not talking about health care or foreign affairs,” she said.