Just hours after Elizabeth Warren announced her plans to run for president, a question began surfacing about a possible weakness. It wasn’t derived from opposition research into some facet of her life. It had nothing to do with her policy ideas.
It was the question often asked of female candidates and rarely of men: Is she “likable” enough to be president? Others put it another, potentially more devastating, way: Is she too much like Hillary Clinton to be the nominee?
It’s not just the Democratic female senator from Massachusetts who may feel compelled to come up with an answer. The 2020 presidential campaign is expected to include the largest-ever field of female candidates, all of them campaigning in the wake of the defeat of the first female nominee of a major party.
The reasons for Clinton’s loss are still debated two years after the election. But even as Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was elected House speaker on Wednesday, the women looking at White House campaigns continue to shoulder gendered criticism and demands not placed on their male counterparts: to be strong but not too tough; to be assertive without being pushy, lest voters turn away for reasons that they may not acknowledge are sexist but that researchers say are.
The website McSweeney’s covered the flap over Warren’s likability with a report whose headline, while satirical, made a pungent point: “I Don’t Hate Women Candidates — I Just Hated Hillary and Coincidentally I’m Starting to Hate Elizabeth Warren.”
For Democratic women running for president, it conjured what may be a preliminary contest in 2020: demonstrating they’re not Hillary Clinton — nothing like her! — before they earn the nod to take on President Trump.
That obstacle was also placed before Democratic female candidates in the 2018 midterm elections, as Republicans tried to tie them directly to Clinton. It has also led some Democrats to openly wonder whether the party would be smarter to avoid a female presidential candidate in 2020 — a notion offensive to many in the party.
“It is ridiculous,” said Jess McIntosh, a Democratic strategist who worked on Clinton’s campaign. “We never look at loss by a man and say, ‘I guess we shouldn’t take another gamble on another white man’ or ‘I guess we should not have another veteran.’ ”
There’s a particular oddity to the comparison between Warren and Clinton because the two women, aside from sharing a gender and being similar in age, have different life stories and views on issues.
Warren graduated from the University of Houston, an institution she refers to as “a commuter college,” and Rutgers Law School — not the typical path to the elite. Clinton graduated from Wellesley College before heading to Yale Law School.
Warren called out Clinton by name in her 2003 book, “The Two-Income Trap,” suggesting that the New York senator sided with big financial institutions during a seminal fight over bankruptcy legislation because she was beholden to the financial-services industry. She did not endorse Clinton for president until June 2016, when Clinton was already the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Other women considering presidential campaigns are similarly distinct from Clinton.
Three Democratic senators mulling a run — Kamala D. Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — are in their 50s, putting them a generation behind Clinton and Warren.
Unlike Clinton, raised in Illinois before moving to Arkansas with her husband, Harris made a career in California and projects a distinctly West Coast sensibility. Klobuchar offers a Midwestern vibe.
That has not stopped the comparisons. Gillibrand — who took Clinton’s seat in the Senate when the former first lady was named President Barack Obama’s secretary of state — has been labeled by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro as “a sort of Hillary Clinton mini-me.”
In Warren’s initial days as a presidential candidate, she seemed to go out of her way to push back on the likability question. On the evening of her announcement, she cracked open a bottle of beer in her kitchen, broadcasting the moment live via social media.
On Wednesday, en route to an appearance on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” she openly mocked the concept.
“I hear female candidates are most likable in the quiet car!” she tweeted, with a video of herself and her husband on a train, and then promoted her upcoming appearance.
One change since Clinton’s defeat that may simplify strategies for female candidates is the #MeToo movement, which created a heightened awareness about the shifting standards that women can face. That may have contributed to a growing willingness of 2018 candidates to call out what they see as sexist — and even racist — expectations.
During her congressional campaign in Massachusetts, Rep. Ayanna Pressley openly talked about the biases she faced as a black woman.
“I’ll tell you the truth. As a woman of color who has a platform, I have been asked to not come off as outraged or angry for fear of being labeled an angry black woman,” Pressley said in a speech she delivered amid the battle over the Supreme Court nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh, who was accused of assaulting a woman when they were teenagers in suburban Maryland. “Well, I am angry. And I am outraged. Because this is outrageous.”
The midterm elections also were powered by female voters and activists, many of them animated by similar sentiments. That contributed to the Democratic House takeover that returned Pelosi to the speakership, which is seen by potential presidential candidates as a force in their favor.
“The notion that all women are the same and that women should be judged on anything other than their own merit is just offensive and wrong,” Gillibrand said. “Women proved in 2018 that Democrats could win back the House majority powered by extraordinary female candidates and a women-led grass-roots movement.”
The disparagement of female candidates, and comparisons to Clinton, extended beyond Pressley’s race.
As Gretchen Whitner campaigned for governor of Michigan, a state that Clinton narrowly lost, Whitmer had to battle the idea that the state would reject another female candidate.
“There was some of that 2016 hangover, early on,” said Brandon Dillon, the chairman of Michigan’s Democratic Party. “There were some folks who didn’t think that having a female candidate at the top of ticket was going to be a good thing.”
When Clinton endorsed Whitmer in the final week of the campaign, the Republican National Committee snarked that “nobody knows how to win Michigan better than Hillary Clinton.”
Whitmer won overwhelmingly, defeating Republican Bill Schuette by about 10 percentage points.
In Iowa, Republicans worked to tie a number of female candidates to Clinton and Pelosi, said Sean Bagniewski, the chairman of the Polk County Democratic Party.
That rattled some Democrats, who were deeply aware that their state had never elected a woman from their party to Congress, he said. But the victories of Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer — two women who beat Republican incumbents in House contests in the fall, convinced many activists that any “curse” was broken, Bagniewski said.
Voters have long had higher standards for women seeking executive positions, rather than legislative. Winning one, however, seems to smooth the path for future victories, experts say.
There also might be strength in numbers for the upcoming crop of female presidential candidates. Not all of them can be unlikable, said Jennifer Palmieri, who was Clinton’s communications director in 2016.
“If it continues to happen to the other female candidates, it will be more obvious that there are gender biases at work,” Palmieri said. “You can have legitimate reasons for why you don’t support a Warren candidacy. You have to hope that people look deeper when it’s something intangible, like something like likability.”
Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell is among the Democrats who reject the idea that the party should be shy about nominating a female candidate.
“There will be hell to pay if there is not a woman on the ticket, at least,” Rendell said. He spoke positively about Klobuchar, albeit in terms few would use for a male candidate in the same circumstances.
“She’s tough as anyone, and yet she appears to be the girl next door,” Rendell said. “The person every father would like their son to meet and maybe marry.”
On Wednesday, as Warren greeted lawmakers in Boston on the opening of the commonwealth’s legislative session, there was chatter about her chances.
“The only comment I keep hearing about Elizabeth is: Is she electable? Can she win?” said state Sen. David Linsky (D). “Or does she have some of the same issues that took Hillary Clinton down in terms of likability?”
“Some might say it’s sexist. Some might say it’s ageist,” Linsky said. “The last thing we want is a candidate who could get up to a whisper of Donald Trump and then lose.”