Recent shifts in the Democratic primary are raising the prospect that a new political glass ceiling may shatter in 2020 – a duel for a presidential ticket between two women.
An escalation in the intensity of campaigning in recent weeks, the fallout from the first Democratic debate and a new CNN poll have revealed a key early pivot point in the campaign.
Harris, building on her biting attacks on Biden’s record opposing federally mandated desegregation busing, surged nine points from May in the CNN/SSRS poll to 17% behind the former vice president, who is down by 10 points to 22%. Warren, who was also strong in her debate, and has been steadily drawing attention with a less abrupt rise than Harris, is at 15%, up a solid eight points from May.
Polls this early in the race only offer a snapshot of the first few months of hostilities but they are useful for establishing trends developing among the major candidates.
And anecdotally, Harris and Warren came across in their first debates last week as among the most assured and crisp candidates on stage – an important distinction as party voters consider who would be the best fit to take on the fearsome challenge of President Donald Trump.
But with first nominating contests still seven months off, this is a long road. And despite a wobbly debate performance, Biden still has strong support among Democrats on the issues that motivate Democratic voters. He also holds a statistically insignificant three-point advantage over Warren and Harris in the CNN poll, 20% to 17%.
A ‘Hillary problem?’
Neither Harris nor Warren have made their gender a centerpiece of their campaigns so far, and it does not appear either candidate is doing well simply because they are women.
Warren has transformed the ideological debate in the Democratic primary with her flurry of plans targeting greater economic equality and by going deep on issues. This came after many pundits wrote her off for her clumsy handling of a controversy over her claims to have native American ancestry.
Harris got her spurt with a vigorous attack on Biden’s past positions on racial issues in a clash with the former vice president on the debate stage last week, which showcased the skills she developed as a former top prosecutor.
She has stumbled, however, on some issues of policy and has sometimes adopted conflicting positions on whether a “Medicare-for-All” program would mean Americans losing private insurance.
But that two women have moved into the top tier of a major party’s presidential nominating fight for the first time may start to answer one of the big unknowns that was festering at the start of the 2020 race.
The anger and disappointment that many Democratic women voters felt at the defeat of Hillary Clinton, so far, does not seem to be prejudicing them against a possible female nominee this time.
Clinton herself has raised the question of whether sexism was among the reasons that she failed in her bid to become the first woman President, after she lost to Trump.
Her defeat led to some assessments that America was not yet ready to elect a female President, though it could be argued that the former first lady’s years of political baggage had as much to do with her defeat as her gender. And though she lost the Electoral College, Clinton won the popular vote by a 3 million strong margin. Some of her defeats in key states could arguably be put down to tactical decisions as much as her gender.
But the pessimism about the possibility of a female president was deeply felt.
A Time/SSRS poll conducted last year found that more than half of women – 56% – believed that it was unlikely a woman could be elected president in 2020. That is a remarkable figure considering the narrowness of Clinton’s defeat.
Yet there are grounds to think that just two-and-half years after that grim night for Democrats, those sentiments could soon change.
In fact, over the last few years, much of the energy in the Democratic Party has been generated by female candidates, especially younger rising stars like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
What critics see as Trump’s misogynist tendencies and the #MeToo movement have also emphasized the growing power of women in political, social and business life – despite the still uneven playing field.
Those forces are reflected in the party’s Democratic field – six women were on stage at the first two primary debates last week, though they were still outnumbered by 14 men.
The early surge by Warren and Harris has not been matched by other female candidates. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand are barely registering in polls.
Biden has already had to weather a campaign crisis over his tactile political style, which some women said made them feel uncomfortable. It was one of a number of episodes that have raised the most fundamental liability of his campaign, the sense that he may be out of touch with modern sensibilities after a political career that has spanned nearly half a century.
But Biden also has a long record in working on issues important to women – including the Violence Against Women Act.
Neither Harris nor Warren seems to have any concern that their gender will thwart their presidential hopes.
Harris broached the idea of doubling down with an all-female ticket in an interview with Sirius XM radio in April.
“Wouldn’t that be fabulous?” she said.
In a CNN town hall earlier this year, Warren was asked by Ellie Taylor, a Harvard University student about the possibility of taking on Trump as a female presidential nominee.
“Some have voiced concerns about you getting Hillary-ed in the election, meaning that you get held to a higher standard than your opponent for potentially arbitrary or may be even sexist reasons,” Taylor said.
Warren responded that she had been told she’d lose her first bid for the Senate in Massachusetts because it had never had a female senator or governor.
She said she would tell little girls “Hi, my name is Elizabeth and I’m running for Senate because that’s what girls do.”
“So the way I see it is, here we are in a presidential (campaign), and it’s the same kind of – you stay after it every day.”
“One might say you persist,” she said, playing off what was widely seen as a sexist comment once made about her by Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Ultimately, the question of who the Democratic Party will select to take on Trump seems likely turn on the question of who its voters feel have the best chance to beat the President.
Currently, Biden is well ahead on this metric – 43% of Democratic voters say he is best positioned to beat Trump, ahead of Sanders on 13% and Warren and Harris who are both tied with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker on 12%.
Given the strong motivation of Democrats to oust Trump after a single term, the way that figure evolves may be the one that tells the ultimate story of the two rising Democratic female candidates.