The Communications Clinic
The Communications Clinic
August 17, 2020

This time 21 years ago, the world was focused on a potential catastrophe. The brightest minds were warning of the Y2K problem – and potential glitches that could cause nuclear meltdowns on January 1, 2000.

Of course, nothing serious happened. The Millennium Bug has, incorrectly, become a phrase to denote a global overreaction to a non-existent problem. It should be remembered differently. The bug existed; it was just exterminated before it became active. It’s not a cautionary tale, it’s a parable for the benefits of future proofing and planning.

Picking a vice-presidential candidate in the US is a Millennium Bug situation: a process that takes a huge amount of complex work just to maintain the status quo.

Last Tuesday, Joe Biden created the Biden-Harris ticket and all early indications are that the hard work of his team has paid off.

Kamala Harris gave an assured performance alongside Biden at the official announcement on Wednesday. The left flank of the party has rallied strongly to her side – halting some of the worries that her prosecutorial background might cause Democratic division. It has also given Biden short-term momentum as he raised $26 million after the announcement – with 150,000 new donors.

Electorally, they’ve achieved all that’s possible – Harris won’t negatively impact the Democratic vote on election day. The choice is now more significant to life after Donald Trump than it is to this November.

One of the more consequential decisions Biden has made was confirmed before he was even the Democratic nominee. On March 15, during his debate with Bernie Sanders, Biden announced his ultimate choice for vice-president would be a woman. The announcement wasn’t a cynical stunt to accumulate short-term Democratic votes – he didn’t need them as he was already the de facto nominee.

It was likely aimed at uniting the party early, but, intended or not, it had a secondary effect. By announcing his VP’s gender that early, Biden created the first case study of a high-end race without the influence of subtle comparative sexism. And in doing so, it has made the first female president of the United States a more likely prospect in 2024.

The second Biden announced that no man was available for credible press or party speculation, the oxygen was removed from comparative head-to-heads. It’s these discussions that provide the space for the sexist narratives that have infested the analysis of women running for executive office in the US for decades. The discussions that lead to the thought process of, ‘I’m fine with a woman as president – just not that woman.’

Women in politics have long been held to a higher standard than their male counterparts. Research by the Barbara Lee Foundation has shown a woman has to be seen as qualified and likeable to be a viable choice, while a man just has to be seen as qualified. Countless examples exist of the US media being relentlessly focused on a female candidate’s likeability.

The first question asked of New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand when she announced her presidential bid in 2020 was about her likeability. Hillary Clinton spent two full election cycles answering questions as to whether she was likeable. In 2016 we saw constant commentary about how Elizabeth Warren might be a more palatable alternative to Clinton.

Then, come 2019, less than 24 hours after Warren entered the race, we had headlines like: ‘How does Elizabeth Warren avoid a Clinton redux – written off as too unlikeable before her campaign gets off the ground?’

The dominant narrative was the same – are these woman “likeable” enough to be electable? And electability was the Democratic primary voters’ dominant concern. YouGov polling showed 65pc of voters made their choice based on the electability of the candidate, as opposed to policy alignment.

No evidence existed to suggest that Warren, or Harris herself, couldn’t have taken on this uniquely unpopular president and won. In head-to-head polling, both led Trump by significant margins. But Democratic voters didn’t believe it.

A poll last June suggested that 74pc of voters would have no problem with a woman as president. Take out the neutrals and ‘don’t knows’ and only 12pc said they would personally have any worries about a female presidency.

However, the same poll showed that only a third of voters believed their neighbours would be comfortable with a woman in the Oval Office. Voters say they’re fine with electing a woman, they just don’t think everyone else is.

Biden’s decision to confirm a female pick early avoided similar discussions influencing the vice- presidency speculation.

What logical excuse exists to have a discussion on whether Pete Buttigieg was more likeable than Amy Klobuchar, when Pete was never going to be chosen? Why explore the possibility of whether Beto O’Rourke could help Biden take Texas if Beto is not in the race?

And no one could find an excuse for analysis on how a female pick might drive away potential voters when the alternative was ruled out before speculation started.

It meant that a dozen women were seriously discussed and compared, without likeability or electability becoming a dominant talking point. And it means Kamala Harris entered the field without five months of that coverage.

The presidential election will be, and is already, different. Once the focus turned to November, the usual buzzwords started appearing in the coverage of a Harris pick. As that decision came close, reports cited internal Democratic concerns about how she was too ambitious.

Irish-American Senator Chris Dodd – a member of Biden’s vetting committee – was quoted as saying he was stunned that Harris “showed no remorse” for her tackling of Biden’s record.

A political argument against choosing Harris existed; her debate lines against Biden have already been used by the Trump campaign. But Dodd didn’t use that argument, he tried to rule her out because she wasn’t suitably apologetic.

Trump’s immediate response to Biden’s choice also contained his usual dollop of sexism. Harris has been branded as “nasty” – the president’s favourite word for female opponents. Hillary Clinton was a “nasty woman” and Nancy Pelosi a “horrible, nasty person”.

We know sexism is a factor in politics. The exact impact is impossible to empirically prove – but it’s there. It might often be cloaked in talk of electability and likeability rather than outright sexist statements, but it’s still influential.

Harris is going to face the same subtle sexism every female candidate has faced since Geraldine Ferraro, but she may not be defined by it to the same extent because of how the decision was made. And because the unique circumstances of this election mean that the ingrained sexism is unlikely to impact the final vote.

The Economist gives the Biden ticket a 9/10 chance of winning. Campaigns can change, events occur and polling fluctuates. But right now, no woman has ever been closer to the executive level of US politics. And that matters. Because once it’s been done, that ‘electability’ cloak will be torn away.

Kamala Harris is in pole position to be the first female VP of the United States – whether voters think their neighbours would like it or not. That’s a significant step towards the ultimate progress.

Lorcan Nyhan is Head of Training at The Communications Clinic