In the hours surrounding Joe Biden’s convincing Michigan win Tuesday night, adding to his Mississippi and Missouri shutouts of Sen. Bernie Sanders, analysts and pundits, as we are wont to do, deluged the airwaves and social media with assessments and predictions about the state of the 2020 race.
Sometimes these are based on good data, solid reporting, exit polls or even firsthand knowledge. Other times they’re purely speculative hunches, offered with little evidence other than sneaking suspicion and a string of well-couched probablys.
Which is how to describe almost all analysis about supposed sexism in elections.
To wit, Joe Biden’s success in 2020 means Hillary Clinton’s failures in 2016 are proof of sexism in electoral politics.
“Given that Biden and Clinton are functionally interchangeable on policy and Bernie hasn’t shifted either…it probably also says something about sexism in presidential elections,” wrote Maggie Koerth, a reporter at FiveThirtyEight.
Or this one, by Vox editor Ezra Klein: “Following the Clinton-Sanders race with the Biden-Sanders race is almost like a natural experiment in — to put it gently — the role gender plays in voter preferences and judgments about electability.”
And this, by New York Times columnist Charles Blow: “I can’t help thinking about this: Biden isn’t that much different from Hillary Clinton on the issues. Big difference: she was a woman and he isn’t.”
Good hunches, guys. But that’s not how any of this works.
Dismantling a specious argument many people likely just take for fact begins with stating the painfully obvious, which is that Hillary Clinton very handily beat Bernie Sanders (and three other male candidates) in 2016.
Despite losing the electoral college to Donald Trump in the general election, her supporters are also keen on pointing out she won the popular vote. You’d think this alone would be cause for some hesitation when advancing the theory that Democratic primary voters in particular are hung up on gender.
Then there are, you know, polls. Seventy-one percent of voters say they’re comfortable with a woman president, according to a USA Today/IPSOS poll this year. In another poll by NBC News/Wall Street Journal, just 5% said they would be very uncomfortable and 9% said they’d have some reservations.
If voters are biased against women candidates, they sure have a funny way of showing it. In 2018, women won seats in Congress in record numbers. The latest research shows that women win elections at the same rate as men when they’re actually on the ballot.
Michigan, where Biden just did better against Sanders than Hillary Clinton did four years ago, happens to have a female governor.
But it’s easy to discount all this when you really, really want something to be true, in this case, that Hillary Clinton lost because she was a woman and not because she was a terrible candidate with the highest unfavorables of any presidential candidate in 30 years, along with her opponent, Donald Trump.
Clinton came with considerable baggage, including a problematic trust deficit that put her behind even Trump among voters. In a Gallup word cloud from 2016, the two words most associated with Clinton were “email” and “lie.”
But even if you believe her bad reputation was the result of sexist smears against her, there are other plausible explanations for Clinton’s general election loss and Biden’s recent wins.
In Michigan, for starters, Biden was likely helped by the fact that he bothered to campaign there; Clinton largely did not.
Biden has benefited, like Trump did in the 2016 Republican primary, from an overly crowded field where Clinton basically ran a two-person race against Sanders.
Biden is running after four tumultuous years of Trump, with higher stakes and different priorities for Democratic voters. In 2016, Clinton was running to carry on Obama’s legacy.
Even when he has struggled, Biden’s favorability has remained high. He’s seen, for all his many foibles and flaws, as authentic and kind-hearted, in favorable contrast to Trump.
Biden, for all the lazy declarations that he and Clinton are basically the same minus their body parts, had significant policy differences with Clinton, especially when it came to foreign policy. Where she was hawkish, supporting the Afghanistan surge, military intervention in Libya and aiding Syrian rebels, Biden opposed all three. In terms of his domestic agenda, it’s far more progressive than hers was on issues like health care and climate.
But mostly, the argument against the Biden/Clinton comparison is real simple: Each election year is different, and each candidate is different, with intangibles that are hard to measure.
We can’t totally know why Clinton lost and Biden is winning. (And let’s not forget — Biden may still lose to Trump in the general!) But rather than invent a sexist bogeyman that hasn’t been evidenced to justify why Biden — a well-liked former vice president whom voters have known for decades — is currently ahead, maybe let’s just accept that Hillary Clinton was a very bad candidate, and not because she was a woman.