Is America Ready for an All-Female Presidential Ticket?
At a recent town hall event in Charleston, S.C.—the state that will hold, in just three months, the fourth nominating contest in the Democratic presidential primary contest—an attendee asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) whether Americans are “ready” for an all-female presidential ticket. (Apparently, according to The Associated Press, “In the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat, some Democrats have expressed hesitation about nominating another woman …”)
Pointing out the fact that female candidates “notched historic wins during the 2018 midterms,” Sen. Warren responded in the affirmative.
The senator is right that there are more women in Congress—and we will take a look at those numbers—but we also wanted to know what public opinion surveys tell us about Americans’ interest in a more diverse top of the ticket.
We found they show a definite openness to, and perhaps even eagerness for, a woman-led ticket. (We could not identify any polls, so far, that asked voters about their appetite for an all-female ticket.)
Before turning to the surveys, some history.
The Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University provides a comprehensive look at the history of women in Congress, in state governor’s mansions, the judicial branch, and state legislatures. A timeline of milestones in the quest for electoral equality begins with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was the first woman to run for the U.S. House of Representatives. She ran for a New York congressional seat in 1866—more than five decades before women were even eligible to vote in federal elections. The first female presidential candidate was Victoria Woodhull, who ran in 1872 under the Equal Rights Party banner. (As an aside, the “Equal Rights Party” is actually a catchall for a series of different new, relatively small political parties throughout the 1800s, all of which had equal voting and representation between the sexes as one of their primary policy objectives.)
Despite the movement beginning in the 19th century, it took until 1916 for a woman to be elected to Congress. Montana sent Republican Jeannette Rankin – the president of the Montana Women’s Suffrage Association – to the U.S. House of Representatives that year. Five years later, Oklahoma sent the second woman ever elected to Congress, Alice Mary Robertson, to Washington.
Today, there are 101 women in the U.S. House, representing 23 percent of the total number seats in the chamber. As Sen. Warren explained, that number was a major jump from previous years. In the two years before the 2018 midterm congressional election, there were only 84 women serving in the U.S. House. Twenty years ago, in the 105th Congress that served from 1997 to 1999, there were half as many women (48). Ten years before that, there were only 23 women in the lower chamber of Congress.
Today, exactly one-quarter (25) of U.S. Senate seats are held by women, but that number is better appreciated when put into context. Only 56 women have ever served in the upper chamber of Congress. In other words, about half of the women ever elected to the United States Senate in the history of the country are currently serving. (An interesting aside reminds us that the fight for gender equality was not always linked to the fight for racial equality: Rebecca Latimer Felton, a Georgia Democrat, was the first woman to serve in the Senate. She was appointed and served only one day in the Senate in November 1922. Her successor had been elected to take the seat during the next Congress, which began the following January. The Senate adjourned for the year less than 24 hours after Felton was sworn in. Though a suffragette, according to the website The Lily, Felton adhered to the worst of racial viewpoints held by Democrats in the post-Civil War era.)
While CAWP notes “many women have sought to become President of the United States,” only one—Hillary Clinton—has led a major party ticket, and only two (Sarah Palin and Geraldine Ferraro) have been major party vice-presidential candidates.
And there never, as the Charleston town hall attendee pointed out to Sen. Warren, has been an all-female ticket.
So, is the United States ready?
The news might be good both for Sen. Warren and the other women still seeking the Democratic nomination for president as well as their potential vice-presidential picks. According to a research inventory published by Political Parity, a project that seeks to elect more women to public office, “Voter prejudice against women candidates does not appear to be a major factor in limiting women’s election to office.”
Recent surveys support that conclusion.
A 2019 report by Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy said the number of Americans who say men are better suited for office has declined from about 50 percent in 1975 to “just” 13 percent.
While 93 percent of Americans told Gallup this summer that they are willing to vote for a female candidate for president, an August 2019 survey by LeanIn.Org tried to dig a bit deeper into this question by determining just how eager Americans are for a woman president.
The LeanIn survey found 53 percent of registered voters are either “very ready” or
“extremely ready” for a woman president. Digging deeper into the data shows that this support does not hold across both parties, however. Only 23 percent of Republicans said they were “very” or “extremely” ready for a woman president compared to 51 percent of independent voters and 78 percent of Democrats.
Another disappointing fact: while a majority of poll respondents said they personally are ready for a female president, far fewer thought their friends and neighbors are ready. What does that mean? Polling on this question could be inaccurate. It is much easier to blame the fact that we haven’t yet had a woman president on the biases of our friends and neighbors, not ourselves. Perhaps we are seeing a trend where the majority of voters tell pollsters they would cast their ballot for a woman, but, when safely ensconced in the anonymity of a polling booth, their stated interested in gender equality might not be so strong as they indicated.
Political Parity also pointed out that “most studies of the performance of women candidates demonstrate that women generally fare the same as, if not better than, their male counterparts in similar types of races.”
If Americans are ready, and women actually perform better than men when they do run for office, what is holding women back? Political Parity offers incumbency as its hypothesis. “Because most incumbents are male, the advance of women in politics depends on the existence of open-seat opportunities,” the report says.
That conclusion brings us back to the premise underlying the Charleston voter’s question to Sen. Warren—that Democrats are worried about putting a female candidate up against Donald Trump. Does running against a sitting president make it harder for a woman to win?
The Daily Beast answered this question back in 2012, noting that “contrary to a widely held popular belief, political history doesn’t anoint incumbent presidents as automatic winners or even presumptive favorites.” In fact, “The numbers show that most presidents fail in their efforts to maintain a long-term hold on the affections of the fickle public.”
Ten U.S. presidents—John Adams and his son John Quincy, Martin van Buren, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush—all lost their reelection efforts. Of the 44 men who served as president before President Donald Trump, only 16 won two consecutive elections.
So while incumbency might not be as advantageous to a presidential candidate, on the question of whether Americans are ready for an all-female ticket, Sen. Warren might be right.