A historic number of women will be on the presidential debate stages later this month — women will make up six of the 20 candidates who qualified for the June 26 and 27 Democratic presidential primary debates.
That’s awesome, say advocates for women in politics. But for women in politics, it’s not always as simple as just showing up. Research shows that women running for office have to meet more exacting standards than men, and there is already evidence of gender bias shaping the primary.
I called up Christine Jahnke, a debate coach, about how she’d coach the female candidates through all this. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
First, what’s your reaction to having so many women on the debate stages?
We always talk about debates in terms of winners and losers, and the big winner is the audience, because for the first time ever we are going to have this record number of women candidates onstage. They come in all shapes, sizes and colors, so there is great diversity among themselves, and because of that they are tremendous role models. Let’s not overlook the historical nature of this.
The thing I’m most excited about is we will see this authentic women candidate.
What do you mean by “authentic women candidate”?
The 2017-2018 elections were really the first time women could run as themselves. [Editor’s note: Jahnke specifically mentioned moments in the 2018 midterms like Illinois congressional candidate Sol Flores sharing how she has worked to recover being sexually assaulted as a child in a campaign ad, above.] One of the ways that directly impacts the debates is that some candidates will be raising issues that don’t necessarily come up on their own — yes equal pay, but also things like maternal mortality, sexual harassment.
On maternal mortality, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris had great answers on that, and it’s clear when Bernie Sanders was asked, he had nothing to say. I really hope some of these women will push those issues, because they are a great way for these women to show they are prepared on substantive issues.
Do women risk talking too much about so-called women’s issues if they do that?
No, these aren’t women’s issues, they’re family issues.
Okay, so that’s policy. What advice would you give these women on style?
The two challenges for all the candidates onstage are: number one, who can best embrace the mantle of change? Because I really think the 2020 election cycle is about change. And: Who can stand up to Trump?
If I was coaching any of the six women, I would be thinking strategically about how these women can assert themselves very proactively, but forcefully. I think that’s going to be key, how to draw attention to yourself in a crowded field of 10, but really 20, candidates and be assertive.
That can be more difficult for women, because traditionally they are penalized for that, so whoever can best finesse that I think will have a really good night.
How do you be forceful and assertive but not too assertive?
The moderators probably won’t allow any direct interchange between the candidates. So it may boil down to being willing to interrupt someone while they’re talking. And that can be done in a heavy-handed way. But it’s a plus if it’s done well. And how do we define if it’s done well? That’s a squishy thing.
What are some small things the viewer might not think about that make a difference in how these women are perceived?
We don't know what the format is yet, but one of the problems with this debate is you have 10 people onstage for two hours, which isn't enough time to get into depth on any issue.
The staging will be really important, too. Recall from the Republican debates in 2016, [President] Trump was almost always center stage, and the people who are hanging out on the end — they are not in camera shot. It's a real disadvantage to be on either wing.
Any advantages these women have that the men don’t?
The four women senators are all lawyers, and we've seen what Kamala Harris can do when she's questioning someone. All the women have the potential to do well, but the lawyer background serves these candidates particularly well. They have a great deal of experience and comfort in challenging people and also in being very precise on language.
The way I think women will prepare for this will not be different than any other event they do, because women always go in fully prepared, because they have to, right?
What about the female candidates who don’t have any experience? Should Marianne Williamson be more nervous than, say, a man with similar experience, like Andrew Yang?
No, I don’t think this year, because people are really looking for substance. And some of the candidates who are not up on policy are getting dinged for it, man or women. In the past, men would get away with it. Now, not as much, because even Joe Biden is being criticized for not having policy issues down. Woe be the candidate, female or male, who’s not ready to answer a policy question.
Do these women need to contrast themselves with Hillary Clinton?
We’re hearing that refrain of: Hillary lost, thus America is not ready for a women candidate.
One of the outcomes I hope is that if people are having doubts about whether women can win the presidency, these debates will change their mind if they see women onstage doing well. Because I expect Elizabeth Warren will do very well, and Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand also have the potential to do really well.
What lessons could these women learn from Clinton?
Hillary wrote in her book about some of the regrets she had on the debate stage about not being as forceful as she wanted to. She kind of beat up on herself for not being able to break through on the stranglehold of the double bind that kept her from saying more than she wanted to in the moment.
What do you mean when you say Clinton was in a “double bind” debating Trump?
I just found it so gripping when she wrote about how she could feel Donald Trump hovering behind her, and she was digging her fingernails into her fist and holding back. In 2017 and 2018, women didn’t hold back. They showed their full selves — the good, the bad and the ugly — and voters responded very positively.
Any advice for the men to avoid getting tripped up by so many women onstage?
I think the best thing for them to keep in mind is they have to be respectful. Can you interrupt a woman candidate? Absolutely. But how you do it matters. Because they easily can come across as patronizing. So, it’s fair game to interrupt one’s opponent if the debate rules allow for it, but again, tone makes all the difference in the world.
I don’t think any of the men will go into this with kid gloves on, particularly with Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris being in relatively strong positions.