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Of course a woman can beat Trump

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/14/2020 Philip Bump
Carole Zak, 63, from Rochester, Mich. participated in the Impeach Trump rally in Detroit. (Nick Hagen for The Washington Post) Carole Zak, 63, from Rochester, Mich. participated in the Impeach Trump rally in Detroit. (Nick Hagen for The Washington Post)

A broadly genial Democratic presidential primary hit turbulent water on Monday with reports from CNN and the New York Times indicating that, at a meeting between the two in 2018, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) that he didn’t believe a woman could beat President Trump in 2020.

Sanders vehemently denied the allegation to CNN and insisted that he believed a woman could, in fact, win next year. Warren’s campaign released a statement from the candidate in which she confirmed the reporting, writing that she told Sanders, “I thought a woman could win,” and that “he disagreed.” But, she said, she had “no interest in discussing this private meeting any further because Bernie and I have far more in common than our differences on punditry.”

It’s possible that there was some breakdown in communication either at the meeting or in its transmission to the news media. It’s also the case that the emergence of the story at this point clearly overlaps with the imminence of the Iowa caucuses.

It is not, however, the case that a woman couldn’t beat Trump.

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The most obvious piece of evidence supporting that idea is that, in 2016, a woman got nearly 3 million more votes than Trump. Sure, those votes were distributed in a way that meant Trump won the electoral vote, but it’s hard to argue that Trump’s 78,000-vote margin in the three states that handed him the White House was somehow inherently insurmountable for a woman. Trump himself has said that the margin came down to where Hillary Clinton campaigned, one bit of argumentation from the president that’s hard to dispute.

Particularly since Warren has generally led Trump in national polling, just as Clinton did before winning the popular vote four years ago. In fact, for much of the past few months, Warren has enjoyed a larger lead over Trump relative to November than Clinton did at the same point in 2015 and 2016. Warren’s position against Trump plunged in RealClearPolitics’s average last month, a function of one poll showing her trailing Trump by a wide margin. That poll also showed other leading Democrats, including Sanders, trailing Trump by a similar margin.

a close up of text on a white background: (Philip Bump/The Washington Post) (Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

Perhaps more importantly, RealClearPolitics’s current averages have Warren leading Trump by small margins in Michigan and Pennsylvania while being essentially tied with the president in Wisconsin. It was those three states, you’ll remember, that gave Trump the presidency.

It was also those states in which state polling suggested a Clinton win before 2016, leading forecasters to assume that she would win the electoral vote as well. But, again, that doesn’t mean that the polls were off the mark because Clinton was a woman or that they will be similarly off the mark in 2020.

It’s very fair to raise an eyebrow (or, should you wish, two) at general-election polling before the Democrats have settled on a nominee. So let’s instead look at polling on the specific question at hand: How would a Democratic nominee who is a woman shift the 2020 race?

In September, Fox News’s polling arm asked Democratic primary voters a version of that question: What demographics might disadvantage the eventual Democratic nominee?

Democrats were broadly in agreement that nominating an older white man, someone over the age of 70 or a nonwhite candidate wouldn’t disadvantage the party. (On the graphs below, bars that extend above the center line indicate a greater concern about the demographic characteristic.) Nominating a woman, a strongly liberal candidate or a gay candidate, on the other hand, was seen as disadvantageous to some extent.

a screenshot of a cell phone: (Philip Bump/The Washington Post) (Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

Notice, though, that white male Democrats weren’t worried about nominating a woman. White women were split on the idea, while nonwhite Democrats were concerned about it. White men were most concerned about nominating a fervently liberal candidate. White women were most concerned about nominating a gay candidate.

It’s impossible to separate those responses from the context of the question. Democrats are very concerned about beating Trump; asking voters what disadvantages might exist against the president seems as though it’s bound to result in some pessimism.

Contrast those results with an affirmative question posed to voters from across the political spectrum in November. NPR, “PBS NewsHour” and Marist asked voters which demographic characteristics would make them enthusiastic about casting a vote in November.

The characteristic that inspired the broadest enthusiasm? A female candidate.

a close up of a map: (Philip Bump/The Washington Post) (Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

That was more true among Democrats than Republicans, but even among Republicans, more than half of respondents said they’d be enthusiastic about a female candidate. Interestingly, Republican men were more likely to express enthusiasm about a female candidate than were Republican women (60 percent to 52 percent). Among independents, two-thirds of men and three-quarters of women said they’d be enthusiastic about having a woman on the ballot.

This is not an irrelevant issue. Some 4.4 million voters who’d supported Barack Obama in 2012 didn’t vote in 2016. The more enthusiastic voters are about a candidate, the more likely they are to go vote.

In fact, it’s impossible to assess views of the 2020 election outside the context of gender largely because of how Trump’s presidency has polarized political views by gender. In particular, college-educated white women have moved away from the Republican Party since Trump’s candidacy, a trend that continued into his presidency. The Democrats retook the House in 2018 on the strength of picking up a number of districts in suburban areas, places where college-educated white women played an outsize role. Those voters preferred Democrats by 20 points in 2018, according to exit polling.

So we have a situation where Trump was outperformed by a woman in 2016 by nearly 3 million votes; trails Warren in national polling; in two of the three key states that gave him the White House that year, a situation in which voters say they’d be broadly enthusiastic about having a woman on the ballot; and a political environment in which women have been turning away from the GOP in part as a function of Trump himself.

Yeah, it seems safe to say that a woman winning in 2020 is not outside the realm of possibility.

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