January Debate: What We Saw

Amanda Hunter | Jan 15, 2020


The first Democratic primary debate of 2020 – and the last debate before voting begins in the Iowa presidential caucuses – was also the smallest debate so far. Only six candidates qualified to participate, but two out of the three women still running for president were on stage: Senators Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren. This was also the third debate in a row where the majority (if not all) of the moderators are women, and the fourth with at least one woman of color moderator. The Barbara Lee Family Foundation has studied the obstacles and opportunities women face when running for office for the past 20 years, with a focus on executive office, and here’s what we noticed:

Addressing the “electability” question

The day before the debate, a story broke that Senator Bernie Sanders told Warren he did not believe a woman could be elected president. Warren confronted the issue head on, saying, “Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women, Amy and me.”  Klobuchar added, “So true.” Electability has been a code word for sexism throughout 2020 (and 8 in 10 voters reject the idea that America isn’t ready for a woman president), so it will be interesting to see how voters react to Warren and Klobuchar’s blunt assessment.

Proving national security qualifications

Previous primary debates this cycle did not spend a significant amount of time on national security issues, but recent events with Iran have pushed this issue front and center. Traditionally, national security is a difficult issue for women candidates, particularly Democratic women candidates, to prove themselves on. However, research shows that women can best showcase their credentials on this issue when they focus on safety, preparedness and keeping voters informed. That’s what Warren did with her time, starting her answer with: “I believe the principal job of the commander-in-chief is to keep America safe.”

A pointed question about a key “women’s issue”

Just 5.6% of questions in the first six Democratic primary debates were on so-called “women’s issues.” While last night’s debate didn’t ask about a wide breadth of these issues (as Warren made clear in her closing statement when she listed the subjects that hadn’t been discussed), it did dive deeper into a key issue that hasn’t gotten much attention: the cost of childcare. Not only that – the first question on the issue went to Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the only candidate on stage who wasn’t a parent, highlighting the fact that addressing the rising costs of childcare is an issue all should be concerned about.

Specific stories from the campaign trail

Research shows that having a deep understanding of the challenges Americans face is the single biggest indicator of electability to voters, and one way for candidates to showcase that is through telling stories about people they meet on the campaign trail. Klobuchar especially used this frame often this last night, tying what people told her to the impact of a specific policy. A side note: showcasing listening skills is also a way for women to highlight their likeability, a nonnegotiable for women candidates.

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