Last week, in a profile of Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke, Vanity Fair reporter Joe Hagan wrote that being a white man in a party “longing for a woman or a person of color” is perhaps O’Rourke’s “biggest vulnerability.” NBC’s Chuck Todd also raised this possibility in an interview with O’Rourke last weekend. But the former Texas congressman dismissed the idea ― rightfully so.
The notion that white men, who hold the overwhelming majority of political offices around the country, are disadvantaged in a U.S. presidential race is patently absurd. While there are a lot of women in contention for 2020 ― five so far ― there’s little sign gender is giving any of them an edge. In fact, sexism is already bubbling up in the coverage.
Meanwhile, it’s white men who are getting an early boost in the Democratic campaigns.
O’Rourke announced Monday that he had raised $6.1 million for his presidential bid in just 24 hours ― the most of any of the candidates who’ve publicly disclosed their numbers. He narrowly beat Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who announced a $5.9 million haul in his first day. And polls show that the most popular Democrat for 2020 is former Vice President Joe Biden, who hasn’t actually formally said he’s running.
Of course, it’s way too early to make predictions. And some of the men’s early leads are due to their national name recognition ― something candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) are still building. Plus, O’Rourke and Sanders’ cash hauls aren’t simply due to big voter excitement around their campaigns: Sanders already has a robust fundraising apparatus on a national scale from his 2016 campaign, experts told HuffPost. And O’Rourke is benefiting from a fresh list of donors from his record-breaking if ultimately unsuccessful run against a senator most Democrats despise.
Still, even with all those caveats, it’s hard to say that women have an edge in 2020.
“Am I surprised that the oldest white man in the race and maybe the most famous white man have raised the most money? No, of course not,” said Jess Morales Rocketto, the executive director of Care in Action, a nonprofit for domestic workers. Rocketto, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, pointed out the obvious, that every U.S. president except one so far has been a white man.
Women did have success in the 2018 congressional races, though. And clearly there’s huge momentum for women’s voices in politics ― remember the Women’s March?
However, it’s a mistake to assume this kind of progress will translate to the presidential race, said Victoria Budson, founder and executive director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Men are so used to getting the field all to themselves that having to share with women clearly triggers anxiety.
While voters are getting more comfortable with the idea of women in Congress, the idea that a woman should be the ultimate decider is still seen as a stretch.
The idea of a female legislator dovetails fairly well with stereotypes about women, who are often perceived as more collaborative and good at working in groups. But those stereotypes fall apart when we’re talking about a woman calling the shots.
This is borne out when you look at statehouses: There are only nine women governors across the country.
“When one is examining the presidential election through the midterm, you may miss a key facet of what’s taking place,” Budson said. “Here in the U.S. we have become comfortable with women partaking in deliberative bodies. We haven’t demonstrated we’re comfortable with women standing at the podium and making executive decisions.”
You can also see the discomfort with women leaders in the corner office. The share of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 declined to less than 5 percent in 2018, even as more women were added to corporate boards.
Yet despite all that evidence, there is still this notion that men have somehow become “disadvantaged” in elections ― at least in the Democratic Party.
That’s partly due to stereotypes and, frankly, a little male fragility. Men are so used to getting the field all to themselves that having to share with women clearly triggers anxiety ― and questions from men like Hagan and Todd.
“For an interviewer to ask if men are at a disadvantage because women are participating in the electoral process [is] missing the point of democracy,” Budson said. “Men aren’t at a disadvantage just because women are participating. The U.S. will be stronger and have a healthier democracy because of the greater participation of men and women.”
That’s clear at this early stage with someone like Warren, whose policy ideas are obligating the other Democratic candidates to take positions on things like wealth taxes and child care.
“She is driving the conversation,” Rocketto said ― but she’s not getting as much coverage as someone like O’Rourke. “That is an example of sexism: not crediting the women who are putting forward the policy ideas.”
The fact that a lot of women are in the running may even put them at a disadvantage in a political race, said Elizabeth Stapp, a professor at the Leeds School of Business. She cited research showing that when there’s more than one female candidate in contention, voters may end up dismissing all of them.
“If there’s one woman, they get the woman vote,” Stapp said. “But if there’s more, they kind of cancel each other out.”
That’s not a problem male candidates typically have. And they’re always in plentiful supply.