At the final GOP debate before the Iowa caucus, then-presidential hopeful Jeb Bush was met with applause for his answer to a question about veterans’ affairs. Bush ended his statement remarking that “The first duty of the next president of the United States is to fix the mess at the Department of Veterans Affairs. That’s his first responsibility.” Just last week, at the pre-Super Tuesday GOP debate, Ted Cruz explained in a retort to comments by Marco Rubio, “…we need a president who knows what he believes in, is willing to say it on day one, not at the end of his term…” These relatively minor responses were glossed over in most debate coverage, yet they erased the candidacies of the women vying for the presidency with two words: “he” and “his.”
In his book, Jackson Katz writes, “Presidential politics are the site of an ongoing cultural struggle over the meaning of American manhood.” For over two centuries, presidential candidates have worked to meet masculine credentials of the job, proving they are tough, strong, and “manly men.” More importantly, they have worked to emasculate their opponents, characterizing them as too weak, infantile, or feminine to be Commander-in-Chief. This politics of emasculation is on full display in the current GOP primary, where the top contenders are engaged in fights over who is man enough to be president.
Women are not a monolithic voting bloc. All aspects of a woman’s identity—her political party, race, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation— inform her voting decisions. Women stand at the intersections of diverse identities, holding distinct motivations, priorities, and preferences based on both life experiences and world views. Delving deeper into these complexities provides a more complete understanding of the influence and behavior of women voters in the presidential race. Gender is one among many factors voters might consider in choosing a candidate. Most importantly, candidates on both sides of the aisle must take an issues-based approach to effectively target women voters, focusing on the policy areas that matter most to women.
Presidential Gender Watch is a project born from a desire to ensure that the role gender plays in our elections is not overlooked. We look at the subtle (and not so subtle) ways gender influences candidate strategy, voter engagement and expectations, media coverage, and electoral outcomes in the race for the nation’s highest executive office.
When Mark Penn wrote in 2006 campaign memo that the nation was not ready for a “first mama” president, his concerns seemed to be rooted in Hillary Clinton’s ability to be the “tough single parent” of the nation instead of appearing too feminine or – by proxy – weak. Penn’s outlook was ultimately flawed, as Clinton’s defeat signaled, but his concern about being the “first mama” candidate may be relevant for other reasons. Writing for the Huffington Post, Dr. Prudence Gourguechon explains the concept of “mother transference” and outlines how it affects women in public leadership.
“I believe it is time to have a conversation about the state of women in America, ” wrote candidate Carly Fiorina nearly two months after entering the presidential race. However, she spent little time throughout her nine-month campaign engaged in this conversation. When issues related to women’s equality or well-being arose, she decried the Democratic construct of a “war on women” or accused Hillary Clinton of “playing the gender card.” The gender conversations that Fiorina did have on the campaign trail reflect a dissonance: on the one hand, she derided “identity politics,” but, on the other, she identified herself as a woman candidate and invoked her gender identity as a distinguishing characteristic in a pack of GOP men.
The Iowa caucuses have led the presidential nominating process for over four decades. In that time, just four women candidates have competed for Iowans’ votes. Including Clinton twice (for her 2008 and 2016 bids), women are just 4.8% of all 105 candidates to have ever competed in Iowa’s caucuses. They represent three of 48 (6.25%) Democratic and two of 57 (3.5%) Republican bids for Iowa’s delegates.
The 2016 Iowa presidential caucus results point to growing debates over the importance and influence of identity politics. While Hillary Clinton benefited from at least a nine point gender gap in her success as the first women to win the Iowa caucuses, shared gender identity was far from determinative in caucus results. Similarly, the first Latino candidate to win the Iowa caucuses, Ted Cruz, has not seen much enthusiasm from Latino voters. In fact, few see him as a typical “Latino” candidate at all. So, what does it mean to be the “woman” or “Latino” candidate?