March Debate: What We Saw

Amanda Hunter | Mar 16, 2020


In some ways, last night’s Democratic presidential primary debate is one for the history books. With the coronavirus safety measures being instituted across the country in mind, this debate had no audience, the podiums were six feet apart, and the candidates didn’t shake hands – they bumped elbows. In other ways, the debate stage looked very similar to the majority of presidential debates in the past: the Democratic presidential field has essentially narrowed to two older white men, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Just because this was the first primary debate of this cycle without women candidates on the stage doesn’t mean that there weren’t gender dynamics at play. Here’s what we noticed:

The changed dynamics of the “veepstakes.”

Last night, Biden committed to choosing a woman as his running mate. If he wins the Democratic nomination and follows through on his promise, it will be only the fourth time that a woman has been on a major party presidential ticket (Hillary Clinton as the presidential nominee in 2016, Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008 as the vice-presidential nominees). There has been speculation that Biden will choose a woman of color, which would be an important first, especially in this year that started off with the most diverse presidential field in history.

Moderator Dana Bash followed up with Sanders, asking if he would make the same commitment. Sanders hedged, saying “In all likelihood, I will. For me, it’s not just nominating a woman. It is making sure that we have a progressive women and there are progressive women out there, so my very strong tendency is to move in that direction.”

Women’s issues stand out moment

Whether so-called “women’s issues” are addressed has been touch and go in these primary debates, and it’s so important that all candidates – not just women – are asked about them.

Arizona’s presidential primary is on Tuesday (and the debate was originally supposed to be held in Phoenix), so CNN solicited questions from undecided Democratic voters there. This included a video question from an Arizona law professor who asked: “How will your Cabinet ensure the best advice on issues that affect women’s physical and financial health?” This led to the candidates mentioning the cost of child care, equal pay, and having a discussion around support for reproductive justice. This question also led to a commitment by both Sanders and Biden to have gender diverse Cabinets.

A reminder that contrasting is different for women

Throughout these debates, we’ve been reminded that the expectations for women when contrasting with opponents are different: voters expect women to rise above the fray and be better than the average politician. Men get to be “passionate,” but women who act the same way are “angry.” Throughout last night’s debate, both candidates on stage yelled at and interrupted each other often. It’s difficult to imagine that a woman candidate would be able to act in the same way.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Sign up for our newsletter to keep track of all things gender and politics.

Join the Conversation