A narrative has formed around the presidential race: Donald Trump is losing because he’s botched the current crisis. Americans are desperate for competence and compassion. He’s offered narcissism and division — and he’s paying the political price.
For progressives, it’s a satisfying story line, in which Americans finally see Mr. Trump for the inept charlatan he truly is. But it’s at best half-true. The administration’s mismanagement of the coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter protests only partially explain why the president is trailing badly in the polls. There’s another, more disquieting, explanation: He is running against a man.
The evidence that Mr. Trump’s electoral woes stem as much from the gender of his opponent as from his own failures begins with his net approval rating: the percent of Americans who view him favorably minus the percent who view him unfavorably. Right now, that figure stands at -15 points. That makes Mr. Trump less popular than he was this spring. But he’s still more popular than he was throughout the 2016 campaign. Yet he won.
What has changed radically over the past four years isn’t Americans’ perception of Mr. Trump. It’s their perception of his opponent. According to Real Clear Politics’s polling average, Joe Biden’s net approval rating is about -1 point. At this point in the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton’s net approval rating was -17 points. For much of the 2016 general election, Mr. Trump faced a Democratic nominee who was also deeply unpopular. Today, he enjoys no such luck.
Why was Mrs. Clinton so much more unpopular than Mr. Biden is now? There’s good reason to believe that gender plays a key role. For starters, Mrs. Clinton wasn’t just far less popular than Mr. Biden. She was far less popular than every male Democratic nominee since at least 1992. Neither Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry nor Barack Obama faced overwhelming public disapproval throughout their general election campaigns. Hillary Clinton did.
A major driver of the public’s extreme dislike of Mrs. Clinton was its perception of her as duplicitous. In a poll taken just days before the 2016 election, Americans deemed her even less truthful than Mr. Trump. By contrast, in a Pew Research Center poll late last month, Americans rated Mr. Biden as more honest than Mr. Trump by 12 points.
According to fact checkers, these public perceptions are wildly incorrect. PolitiFact, a project of the nonprofit Poynter Institute, rates the veracity of politicians’ assertions. According to its calculations, which are based on hundreds of individual statements, Mrs. Clinton isn’t only far more honest than Mr. Trump. She’s also more honest than Mr. Biden.
Why don’t voters see it that way? Research on how gender shapes political perception suggests an answer. For a 2010 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, two Yale researchers, Tyler Okimoto and Victoria Brescoll, asked participants their opinions of two fictional candidates, one male and one female, who were described as possessing “a strong will to power.” Attributing ambition to the male candidate didn’t hurt his appeal. But upon learning that the female candidate was ambitious, many participants responded with “feelings of moral outrage.” This “moral outrage” helps explain why Americans believed Mrs. Clinton was so much more dishonest than she actually was.
Critics might counter that Politifact’s data notwithstanding, what provoked the public’s opprobrium was not Mrs. Clinton’s gender but the scandals that surrounded her long political career. As a former first lady, she was asked to answer for her husband’s indiscretions in a way other female candidates might not have been. She also spent the 2016 campaign on the defensive for having used a private email server for her official business as secretary of state — a controversy that James Comey reignited by revealing new evidence in the F.B.I.’s investigation just days before the election. For all these reasons, observers might claim that Mrs. Clinton is a special case.
But the same “moral outrage” that plagued her four years ago also plagued this year’s most prominent female presidential contender: Elizabeth Warren. If Mrs. Clinton is far less popular than Mr. Biden, her fellow centrist insider, Ms. Warren has proved far less popular than Bernie Sanders, her fellow progressive insurgent. The data is striking. Most polls show that a majority of Americans disapprove of the gentlewoman from Massachusetts. By contrast, most Americans approve of the gentleman from Vermont, usually by double digits.
Voters also consider Mr. Sanders more honest than Ms. Warren, even though, according to PolitiFact, he’s not. Mr. Trump’s decision to assign both Mrs. Clinton (“crooked”) and Ms. Warren (“Pocahontas”) nicknames that connote deceit reflects his own misogyny. But it also reflects his instinctive understanding that when you call female candidates unscrupulous, the slur is more likely to stick. (In recent days, Trump has begun referring to Biden as “corrupt Joe.” For bulk of the campaign, however, he merely dubbed him “sleepy,” while labelling Sanders “crazy.”)
It’s worth remembering that the next time you hear Mr. Biden praised for running a cautious, inoffensive and largely mistake-free campaign. Given Mr. Trump’s epic blunders, inoffensiveness may be enough to propel the former vice president to the White House. But it’s a lot easier to be inoffensive when you’re a man.
Peter Beinart (@PeterBeinart) is a professor of journalism and political science at the Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY and editor at large of Jewish Currents.
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