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The Trailer: Warren and Klobuchar get more frank about electability

The Washington Post: The Trailer: Warren and Klobuchar get more frank about electability

By David Weigel

On the final stop of her weekend swing through Iowa, one of the last visits that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) would get to make before the Feb. 3 caucuses, she got the question again: Could she really win? 

“Let's be clear: This is not 2016,” Warren said. “When Donald Trump got inaugurated, the world changed. The very next day, it changed again, with the largest protest in American history. And guess what: Women have been outperforming men in competitive elections ever since.”

In the not-so-distant past, Warren would respond to electability questions another way, talking about the popularity of her wealth tax, or about the grass-roots coalition she wanted to build. 

Just days before Democrats begin winnowing down their field, Warren has been more explicit about women and “electability.” So has Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, her partner in this month's tag-team debate in Iowa, in which the two women still contesting this state attacked the idea that female candidates would face disadvantages in a general election. (Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii has stopped campaigning in Iowa to focus on the New Hampshire primary.)

“I'm looking only at women for president,” said Nancy Abram, a 60-year-old marketing professor at the University of Iowa who came to see Warren on Sunday. “I like Klobuchar, because she's more of a moderate, but I like Warren, too. I'm with the New York Times, which makes no sense, but I'm right there.”

Four years after nominating the first female candidate for president, and two years after flipping two of Iowa's congressional districts with female candidates, Iowa Democrats are still nervous about sending a woman into the presidential election. Women made up 57 percent of Iowa Democratic caucusgoers in 2016, according to that year's entrance poll, and are likely to make up a majority again this year. 

Yet less than a week before the caucuses, the female candidates are still being asked whether they can win a general election. The question has become unstuck from polling, which has found Warren and Klobuchar to be about as competitive as Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont or former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg. Both candidates get asked whether they would accept the vice presidency, a question rarely posed to male candidates.

Both of the Democratic women elected to the House from Iowa in 2018, Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer, have endorsed Joe Biden. And even the supporters of 2020s female candidates, who had woken up on Election Day 2016 ready to elect a female president, have girded themselves for disappointment.

“Kamala was first, and Elizabeth is second,” said Sheila Burrage, 72, after seeing Warren in Davenport on Sunday. “But that's my gender side. On my other side is Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Look, society has positioned women at certain levels, saying we can do certain things. I know what we're up against.”

Women do not vote in blocs, as Hillary Clinton discovered in 2016. But at the start of this cycle, when women briefly made up most of the Democrats' declared candidates, there was some giddy optimism about female front-runners, or all-female tickets. Emily's List, a PAC that supports pro-abortion-rights female candidates in Democratic primaries, had endorsed Clinton early in 2016 but held its powder in this race, as multiple women seemed to be pushing to the front.

“We've got six women, five of which Emily's List has supported in the past,” the group's president, Stephanie Schriock, told The Post in July. Speaking after Harris and Warren had jumped in the polls, Schriock said that she did not “want to be in the position of having to choose between one of those two extraordinary women.” 

There has been no Emily's List endorsement, but Harris has disappeared, and Warren's rivals have gotten more confident about pushing her into third or fourth place in Iowa — most likely behind Sanders, a democratic socialist who most Democrats did not consider “electable” four years ago. The Iowa entrance poll then found that voters who prioritized a candidate who can “win in November” backed Hillary Clinton by 60 points. No female candidate for president has led on the “electability” question since then.

Christina Reynolds, the communications director at Emily's List, said that the conversation about “electability” had become overly selective. Voters remained particularly nervous about a female candidate, even as polling found candidates who were over 70 years old, who identified as “democratic socialists,” or who were openly gay faced stiffer resistance from voters.

That hung over Warren and Klobuchar even before their current setback, the impeachment trial that has kept them (and Sanders) in Washington as Biden, Buttigieg and some candidates with less support roam around Iowa. Klobuchar, looking for a breakout with moderate voters, will zip into the state tonight for an event, and Warren will hold a tele-town hall, but neither is making the sustained case, on the ground, that they had planned for.

Their last in-person appearances here showed the strain, and highlighted their differences. Klobuchar has talked relentlessly about electability, reminding audiences that she carried every one of Minnesota's congressional districts in her three Senate races, “even Michele Bachmann's district.” (The Iowa-born Bachmann left Congress six years ago after a presidential bid fell flat.) 

Klobuchar's remarks tend to run longer than Warren's, sometimes up to 35 minutes. While the senator from Massachusetts has cracked her stump speech in half, with a shorter introduction and closing remarks bracketing 30-odd minutes of questions, Klobuchar walks through as many of her policies as possible, peppered with jokes. Warren goes for applause; Klobuchar goes for comfortable laughter. Sometimes she gets there by describing her success passing bills and her ability to stand up next to men, like she did on a trip she took to Ukraine with Republican senators.

“The Ukrainian president handed John McCain a live machine gun,” Klobuchar recalled at a Saturday event in Muscatine, where voters packed a bar and turned down the football game to listen. “Then, he handed Lindsey Graham a live pistol. So I thought, 'What am I going to get?' They gave me two daggers. I thought that was a little bit sexist.”

Warren, the highest-polling female candidate in Iowa and elsewhere, had not talked as much about gender in the context of electability. And there is no evidence, from public or campaign polling, that Warren benefited from this month's messy argument over whether Sanders doubted that a woman could win in 2020. Warren thrilled her Sunday crowd with two words — “women win” — while saying it was voters who really needed to hear it.

“If they ask about it, I'm glad to talk about it,” Warren said after the Cedar Rapids rally, when reporters asked about gender.

Even in a crowd that had come to see Warren, parking and trudging through snow, opinions on electability were mixed. Tom Pardonek, 68, a retired middle school principal, had come to rally with a wife and daughter who supported Warren. But he intended to support Buttigieg. When he thought about Warren as a nominee, he said, he imagined her onstage, “as slightly built as she is, compared to a 245-pound Donald Trump,” and wondered how it would go.

“Intellectually, she'll be able to handle him,” Pardonek said. “But Pete would do a good job, too.” Sexism and racism, he said, were simply factors that any nominee would have to deal with. “Unless we get a series of women presidents, that might change.” 

But Misha Matchette, 19, said that it was extraordinary that people still doubted that women could win.

“You would think that by now there'd be greater gender diversity, greater racial diversity,” Matchette said. “If we're not accurately represented in politics, than we're not really being represented.”