Kamala Harris is the first female vice presidential nominee not to stand teetering on the so-called ‘glass cliff,’ facing an impossible mission.
In 1984, Walter Mondale trailed incumbent president Ronald Reagan 16 points in the polls when he decided to “shake things up,” as he later put it, by picking three-term New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate. Ferraro—the first female VP nominee of a major party—gave Mondale an initial boost, but the pair crashed to defeat after a bruising campaign with just 13 electoral votes in November.
In 2008, Senator John McCain had been consistently trailing newbie Senator Barack Obama when he chose little-known Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his No. 2. It was a gambit, a “Hail Mary” pass, recalls Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics—one that thudded to the ground on Election Day.
No VP nominee, male or female, has ever made or broken a presidential election, but that doesn’t stop party brass from assuming the worst. The 1984 Mondale-Ferraro debacle put a “bad taste in the mouth” of the white, male decision-makers, said Alyssa Mastromonaco, who was Obama’s deputy chief of staff from 2011 to 2014, on a recent episode of Pod Save America. “What so many people just remember is that they lost. He picked a woman, and they lost. Even though he was probably always going to lose.”
Psychologists like to call this phenomenon the “glass cliff”—the idea that women are more likely to be elevated to executive leadership roles in periods of crisis, when they’re more likely to fail.
But this time is different. Unlike Mondale and McCain, Joe Biden is leading President Donald Trump in the polls and has a decent chance of winning in November. His choice of Harris is not a desperate ploy to save a flailing campaign. And this time, no one is hoping for her to pull off an impossible salvage job.
In fact, as historic as Harris is—she’s the first woman of color on a major party presidential ticket—Biden’s reasoning in picking her was fairly conventional: The choice is a nod to (and an attempt to energize) very important segments of the Democratic base, a signal about the future of the party, a recognition of what he lacks and a statement of his own values. Those are fairly standard VP checkboxes; for once, a female running mate has been approved by the same criteria that have boosted white males for centuries.
“In those other two races it felt like a novelty,” Walsh says. “And this time around it felt like, ‘Of course this is what he needs to do.’”
The pick is both a bold confirmation of the power women, Black women especially, hold within the Democratic Party and a signal that the country might finally be overcoming its tacit aversion to placing women at the top of presidential tickets—an allergy driven by a myth that women can’t win the top electoral offices. (Not because you wouldn’t vote for a woman, of course—because you don’t think other people would.)
“The context of the times is different” today than in 1984 and 2008, says Susan Carroll, a professor of political science and women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University. “We’ve had Hillary Clinton run for president. We’ve had all of the women who ran this time, so some of the worst kinds of barriers have broken down.” Having a woman on the ticket, she says, has “become more normalized now.”
“The wind is at the back of the idea and the concept of women running for office,” Walsh says.
But just because she’s not standing at the edge of a cliff doesn’t mean she’s safe. Hours after the selection was announced, Trump called Harris “nasty”—one of his favorite epithets for powerful women—and “a mad woman.” Fox presenter Tucker Carlson mangled her name and, after he was corrected, demanded to know why he should bother to get it right. A now deleted Tweet liked by Eric Trump called Harris a “whorendous pick.”
America in general might be more comfortable with female leadership than it was decades ago. A woman has run for president—and won the popular vote. But the man who beat her did so with a campaign that stoked gender and racial division in ways not seen in years. He and certain of his supporters level demeaning insults at women openly and often, and in 2016, sexism was a greater predictor of support for Trump than anxiety about the economy.
How this campaign unfolds could tell us just how much has really changed since 1984.
“The first woman to be nominated for vice president—size 6” was how newscaster Tom Brokaw introduced Ferraro during the Democratic National Convention in 1984, in a reference to her dress size.
Mondale was running against a popular incumbent backed by a strong economy and a “morning in America” message, and his chances were grim. According to a 100-page campaign strategy drawn up by Mondale’s team, Ellen Malcolm writes in When Women Win, “it was essential to consider ‘dramatic and perhaps high-risk strategies.’” Meaning, a woman on the ticket.
Mondale hoped to exploit a burgeoning gender gap with his choice, energizing women and attracting them to the Democratic side. (The civil rights campaigner in him also liked making history.) On the night Ferraro made her speech, the convention floor was electric, the enthusiasm palpable—and by the end of the festivities, one poll put Mondale even with Reagan.
Donna Zaccaro, Ferraro’s daughter, remembers that night as the kickoff to a thrilling campaign. Ferraro had all “the best aspects of a rock star,” Madeleine Albright, who advised Ferraro on foreign policy, recalled in “Geraldine Ferraro: Paving the Way,” the documentary Zaccaro made about her mother’s life. “People had never seen crowds like that for a vice presidential candidate.”
But Zaccaro also remembers the relentless misogynistic scrutiny.
A Mississippi pol asked Ferraro whether she could bake blueberry muffins (“Sure can, can you?” she shot back, with a smile). On “Meet the Press,” Marvin Kalb asked her whether she had what it took to “push the nuclear button.” “Do you think in any way that the Soviets might be tempted to try to take advantage of you simply because you are a woman?” one moderator asked her during her vice presidential debate with George Bush.
Even women seemed to doubt whether she could do the job. “We [women] look at ourselves and think, ‘I couldn’t handle it, so I don’t know if she could, either,’” one Tennessean told New York Times reporter Maureen Dowd. “Maybe that’s the wrong thing to do. Men don’t do that.”
American political sexism has become less brazen since 1984, but Harris will recognize some of what Ferraro saw. The media is still more likely to cover a female politician’s appearance than a male politician’s. And according to research from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, women running for executive office have to prove to voters that they are qualified, while for men, qualifications are assumed. But if a woman comes across as “too tough,” her “likability” may suffer. Voters will vote for a man they don’t like, but not a woman they don’t like.
“I always thought about Bernie Sanders as this perfect example” of some of these double standards, Walsh says. “If you had a woman candidate who presented the way Bernie Sanders did, they would get nowhere. Hair a mess, wagging your fingers. … People would not take it from a woman.”
There’s also the issue of the spouse. In 1984, Ferraro’s campaign was plagued by questions about the finances of her husband, real estate developer John Zaccaro. The controversy first was that Zaccaro, who filed tax returns separately from Ferraro, refused to release them. Once he did, the media spent weeks investigating the family’s finances, even insinuating the couple had ties to organized crime. At one point, the Philadelphia Inquirer apparently had at least 25 reporters on the Ferraro-Zaccaro money beat. A Reagan campaign aide later told the Daily Beast that many of the stories were provided directly by the Reagan campaign (which included a young Roger Stone) and that he knew that Ferraro didn’t have Mafia connections.
“This was the first time that a spouse was used to bring down a woman, and that has become a very tried and true strategy now—investigate the spouse,” said pollster and Democratic strategist Celinda Lake in “Paving the Way.” The implication—more pointed in Ferraro’s day—was that the wife would be taking cues from her husband.
“What [Ferraro] went through was probably the toughest scrutiny anybody’s ever—presidential or vice presidential candidate—[gone through] in history,” said Ed Rollins, Reagan’s 1984 campaign manager, in the film.
In the end, the ticket faltered—it was widely agreed that Mondale was always going to lose—and women broke for Reagan, too.
But Ferraro’s run did mark a new era. New organizations popped up, including EMILY’s List, whose goal is to help elect Democratic female candidates to public office. “There was so little idea of what to do with a woman candidate by the establishment” in 1984, says the organization’s president, Stephanie Shriock, that a group of women said, “we need to change this dynamic.” The number of women elected to Congress began to creep up after 1984, jumping dramatically in 1992.
Still, it wasn’t until 16 years later that a major party tried again with a female VP.
In 2008, John McCain’s trailing campaign needed a shot in the arm. When he selected a little-known, conservative first-term governor, Sarah Palin, to be his running mate, he hoped the surprise pick could pull disgruntled Hillary Clinton voters away from Barack Obama. “It was a fundamental misunderstanding of what the gender gap is,” Walsh says. “It’s not about the gender of the candidate”—it’s about a set of policies that appeal to women. Meaning, while a female candidate like Harris might boost enthusiasm among women within her party, her gender alone is not likely to cause Republican women to switch their vote.
Palin’s apparent unpreparedness and lack of policy chops—on vivid display in a series of widely publicized gaffes—reflected the desperate nature of the choice. Her vetting had been “hasty and haphazard,” the vetting document thrown together in less than 40 hours, according to Game Change, one account of the campaign. “Say what you will about her politics or her knowledge level or whatever,” says pollster and Democratic strategist Anna Greenberg, but Palin “really wasn’t vetted. … They ran out of ideas so they just picked her.”
That did not happen this time with Harris, she says. That could not happen this time—“because of the Palin experience” and “because of this narrative that the right has pushed” about Biden’s alleged cognitive decline. “There’s no way a Joe Biden could do what John McCain did.”
In the end, the 2008 GOP ticket lost, and one study found that Palin cost McCain votes—but not enough to change the election outcome.
Like Ferraro, Palin—whose recent surprising advice to Harris included “trust no one new” and “don’t get muzzled”—saw her fair share of sexism. In the mainstream media, she was called “sexy,” “Barbie,” “the young, trophy running mate.” An MSNBC panel discussed her sex appeal. Tracy Morgan called her a “MILF” on TNT. One company sold a blow-up Sarah Palin doll “complete with bursting cleavage and sexy business suit.”
The Palin run also showcased the double standard that still exists around family. Commentators questioned whether Palin, who has a son with Down syndrome, would be abandoning him for the campaign trail, or whether the time needed to care for him would affect the campaign. Others criticizedher for running for VP while her 17-year-old daughter was pregnant—thrusting her daughter into the spotlight made her a bad mom, they said.
“For men, families tend to be [seen as] a support system and men can trot them out as a sign that they’re an average American—a normal American,” says Carroll. “For women, the family [is seen] more as an additional set of responsibilities, rather than a support team.”
In some ways, Harris will have an easier time than her predecessors because she’s standing on their shoulders. In 1984, there were 24 women in Congress. Today, there are 127, thanks to huge gains made in 2018, and a record number of women will be running again in 2020. In 1984, only 6 women had ever served as governor of a state; today, that’s up to 44. Hillary Clinton ran for president—and won the popular vote.
“Broadly … attitudes about woman in leadership have changed,” says Greenberg. “We still live in a sexist society, but … people seeing women in executive positions—governors, senators, mayors” has helped to shift opinions.
Women, too, are now prepared for the double standards that await them. “Our candidates for all levels of office still get gender-type questions that they just have to manage, and they do,” says Schriock. “The good news is that we’ve proven you can work through it, ‘OK, you’re gonna ask me about kids.’”
But what’s really changed is that America is in a new era of women’s activism and political power. There was the #MeToo movement and the women’s march, which was the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, and the huge electoral gains of 2018. Women have voted at higher rates than men since 1980, but today they are more than ever putting that power behind a single party—the Democrats.
The gender gap in 2016 was larger than in any previous presidential election, with women preferring Clinton by a 12-point margin, and men preferring Trump by the same. Women of color gave the primary to Biden and women could hand the election to him. Brookings called the gender realignment of American politics “the biggest change in party affiliation since the movement by loyal Democratic voters to the GOP in the ‘solid South,’ which realigned regional political coalitions into the partisan dynamics we are familiar with today.”
No doubt that environment—the undisputed power of women in the Democratic Party—is partly why Biden chose Harris as his running mate. Unlike Mondale and McCain, he doesn’t need a woman to change any votes—that doesn’t really happen, after all. But he does need a woman to show his most powerful voters that he is taking their perspectives seriously, so that they’re excited about him and volunteer for him and turn out for him.
“This is a recognition of priority and importance,” Walsh says. “He wanted to have a ticket that was not the same old white male perspective and voice.”
That Harris wasn’t some last-minute giddy gambit to woo women away from another party—in other words, the fact that she’s not standing on the glass cliff—should be freeing for her. She doesn’t have to make a big deal of her gender—and on Wednesday night, in her first speech since Biden selected her, she didn’t. She also doesn’t have to run as a celebrity as Ferraro did. The weight of the campaign isn’t on her shoulders.
Still, if the attacks already underway demonstrate anything, it’s that Harris could have it just as bad—or worse—than Ferraro and Palin in other ways.
“America is moving past [all out gender nastiness], but Donald Trump sure hasn’t,” Schriock warns.
That isn’t just a retrograde quirk—it’s a campaign tool. Sexism drives support for the president. Unlike in Ferraro’s or Palin’s era, a negative attitude about women (what researchers call “hostile sexism”) was a strong predictor of the vote in 2016 and 2018—more so than a host of other issues, including economic anxiety. “I worry along with many other people that the minute he picks someone they’ll be eviscerated in sexist and possibly racist ways,” Greenberg said in an interview before Harris was announced as the choice. “Trump taps into gender resentment and hostile sexism very, very well.”
As if on cue, the president is ramping up his offensive against a variety of female political rivals in addition to Harris. In a frenzy on Thursday, he called “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski a “ditzy airhead wife,” called Nancy Pelosi “stone-cold crazy” and said of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “she goes out and she—she yaps.” Trump then perpetuated a racist conspiracy theory that Harris might not be eligible to appear on a presidential ticket because her parents were immigrants—a variant of the attack he leveled at the only other person of color to be a major party nominee, Barack Obama.
But the attacks could also indicate that, unlike 1984 and 2008, the desperate ticket isn’t the one with the woman on it. Trump isn’t confident about a win. He’s cornered by crises—a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and rising unemployment. Sexism may ignite his base, but it’s not going to win back the women who are now deserting the GOP in droves; it’s part of what drove them away. If Biden and Harris stay the course, and don’t mess up, they’ll have a better chance of winning than by taking wild risks.
And that’s really the big difference between 1984 and 2008, on the one hand, and 2020, on the other: Choosing a woman isn’t now considered a risk; it’s considered necessary.
Walsh thinks this fact marks the beginning of a new era for the Democratic Party.
“I think it will be very hard for a Democratic Presidential candidate who is a white male to ever run without a woman or a person of color in the future,” Walsh says. “I just feel that moment has passed, and in a way that’s what feels different about this.”
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