This might seem like a strange argument to make — after all, I recently wrote an article outlining the many challenges that women face when they run for office. But the thing is, men can also be hurt by some of those same stereotypes, and while the bar is higher for women, men also need to convince voters that they’re strong, decisive and assertive enough for the job. What’s more, gender is likely to be a defining issue in the 2020 race even if the Democrats don’t put a woman at the top of the ticket, in part because tough-guy masculinity is so central to how Trump campaigns and how he governs.
So it’s worth probing the idea that a man might be a safer choice than a woman in a contest against Trump — because in some ways, a man running under the Democratic Party’s banner might also be at a disadvantage.
Gender will be an issue even if the Democrats nominate a man
When we talk about how gender and sexism affect elections, usually what we’re really talking about is how women fare. But gender has always been an important factor on the campaign trail, even when both major-party candidates are the same sex. “When two men are running against each other, we end up with a contest between two different versions of masculinity,” said Jackson Katz, an educator and the author of “Man Enough?: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity.”
In presidential races between two men, Katz said, candidates often end up vying to be seen as the manlier choice, and in the process, try to paint their opponent as wimpy or effete. Take the 2004 campaign, for instance. George W. Bush and John Kerry both leaned hard into photo ops that would emphasize their machismo — taking excursions to shooting ranges, posing with veterans and troops, even riding motorcycles. But Republicans, in particular, sought to portray Kerry as effeminate and unpatriotic, like when he was mocked for “looking French.” Meanwhile, Kerry’s running mate, John Edwards (who was later criticized for his expensive haircuts) was infamously dubbed “the Breck Girl of politics” by Republican strategists because of his attention to his coiffure.
So any candidate who runs against Trump will have to grapple with this dynamic — even if the Democrats ultimately nominate a man. We got a preview of what this might look like during the 2016 Republican primary, when Trump wielded his tough-guy masculinity as a cudgel against his opponents, who were almost all men. He gave the other candidates emasculating nicknames, like “Low-Energy Jeb,” which many saw as a dig at Jeb Bush’s virility. He accused Rick Perry of lacking the “toughness” to be president. (Perry, in response, challenged him to a pull-up contest.) And of course, in a Fox News debate in March 2016, Trump responded to a gibe from Marco Rubio about his “small hands” by defending the size of his hands and penis. “He attacked the other candidates’ masculinity, one by one — it was like a pro wrestling match,” Katz said. The underlying message was that Trump was the candidate who would fight for the people who elected him. “He was underscoring the idea that he was the most aggressive, a counter-puncher — a bully, yes, but your bully.”
Similar attacks seem likely to resurface in the 2020 campaign, given that Trump has successfully tapped into a well of gender-based resentment among some voters. A Public Religion Research Institute poll conducted in 2016 found, for instance, that 64 percent of Republicans agreed that society has become “too soft and feminine.” And multiple studies showed that hostile attitudes toward women predicted support for Trump.
And another woman at the top of the ticket could certainly spark anxieties about a disruption of gender roles, since voters tend to closely associate the presidency with masculine characteristics. In a 2016 study, political scientist Dan Cassino found that Clinton’s candidacy — maybe because she was a woman, or maybe because of her long career in the public spotlight — sparked anxieties among men about their masculinity and waning male power.
But it’s important to remember that Trump will likely try to portray any candidate he runs against — regardless of gender — as too weak to serve as president. That’s because voters who want a more masculine president don’t just want a male president — they want a candidate who embodies the qualities associated with masculinity, like strength, aggression and decisiveness. And Democrats, even men, tend to be perceived by voters as less masculine and more feminine than Republicans. “Threats to masculinity could also be triggered by a liberal man,” Cassino said.
Trump’s tough-guy masculinity will be a challenge for any Democrat
In fact, some of the Democratic primary candidates are already starting to respond to Trump’s machismo by emphasizing their own. In a TV appearance a few weeks ago, for instance, Cory Booker said, “My testosterone sometimes makes me want to feel like punching” Trump. Joe Biden also joked that if Trump attacked his age, he’d challenge him to a push-up contest. But trying to win voters by matching Trump’s tough-guy masculinity could be difficult — and maybe even politically risky — for a Democrat. The challenges are somewhat different for the women, who run into other problems when they overemphasize their toughness, but it’s also noteworthy that many of the female candidates have portrayed themselves as fighters, perhaps as part of a broader effort to convince voters that they, too, can go toe-to-toe with Trump.
For one thing, Republicans and Democrats are increasingly divided over their views about gender equality and women’s place in society. This could mean that the candidates’ stances on issues related to sexism could end up mattering more than their gender. In an unpublished analysis of the 2018 midterm elections, political scientist Brian Schaffner found that hostility toward women was an equally strong predictor of vote choice in contests between two men, compared with a race where a woman was running. “Voters didn’t seem to be reacting to a candidate’s gender,” Schaffner said. “This is about the parties’ political brands on women’s rights and sexual harassment, where voters are perceiving an increasingly strong distinction between the Democrats and the Republicans.”
And as these attitudes become more and more intertwined with partisanship, it may be harder for a Democratic candidate to win back voters who were attracted to Trump’s hyper-masculine persona without frustrating their own supporters, according to Kelly Dittmar, a political science professor at Rutgers University. “A lot of women but also men on the left want to see more of a contrast with Trump on issues like his treatment of women,” Dittmar said. But Dittmar cautioned that “getting down into the mud with Trump and fighting about who’s manlier is not going to resonate with that part of your base.”
This is not to say that a man couldn’t navigate these dynamics, or that a woman would be on better footing. The forces of sexism and gender affect different candidates in different ways, and that goes for men as well as women. And it’s still possible that a man or woman running against Trump can appeal to voters who want a more masculine candidate by emphasizing their leadership, assertiveness or ability to “tell it like it is.” But the success of that appeal may not have as much to do with the candidate’s actual gender as many voters seem to assume.
Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight. @ameliatd