During her campaign for Georgia governor throughout 2017 and 2018, former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who became the first Black woman to win a major party gubernatorial nomination, could often be heard telling the story of her first visit to the governor’s mansion. It was her senior year of high school, and the family car was out of commission, so after a lengthy bus ride, Abrams—who was class valedictorian—and her parents arrived on foot to the mansion for a ceremony celebrating the state’s brightest minds. A guard at the gate took one look at the family, assumed they were tourists, and told them the mansion was closed for a private ceremony. He persisted in telling them they could not have access, even as the family informed him that the younger Abrams was among the honorees. Her parents—both ministers and civil rights activists—stood their ground, and after a few uncomfortable moments, the guard was forced to adjust his lens and concede that they in fact did belong in that place of power.
The story served as a powerful anecdote throughout Abrams’s campaign, and it illustrated her determination to heed the call to leadership even when others communicated that the doors to power were closed to her simply because she does not meet an arbitrary and exclusionary definition of who is qualified to lead. Her story may have been a personal one, but her experience is hardly unique to Black women in politics. Questions of belonging wrapped in the coded word “electability” invariably surface in interviews, at campaign stops, and in voter polls when women—and particularly women of color—dare to seek elected offices that have been the exclusive purview of male leadership.
The electability question can imprint in an especially challenging way on Black women’s political aspirations as they encounter it much earlier in their journey than their white female counterparts. This happens, in large part, because Black women are more likely to be the first of their kind to run for a particular office, especially on the executive level. But being a trailblazer does not negate qualifications, and, as data show, the electability bucket does not hold water when it comes to assessing Black women’s success in winning races. Although white men continue to dominate the political field, the percentage winning their races over the past five years has dropped, while the percentage of women (both white and of color) winning their races has increased, according to a 2019 report from Reflective Democracy Campaign, an ongoing research and analysis project launched by the Women Donors Network. In particular, women of color have increased their presence in Congress by 40 percent and in state legislatures by 38 percent since 2015.
Data from the Black Women in American Politics report, issued annually by Higher Heights Leadership Fund and the Center for American Women and Politics, shows that Black women are a big driver of women of colors’ increased representation. Although Black women account for just under 14 percent of all women in the United States, they are currently 18.3 percent of women in Congress and nearly 15 percent of women in state legislatures. Black women tripled the number of statewide elected offices they hold between 2015 and 2019, and they more than tripled their numbers as mayors of of the country’s 100 largest cities between 2014 and 2019.
A Judgment Wrapped in a Question
One hobbling factor of “electability” assessment is that while the question is frequently included in polls, the term has never been defined. This creates a quagmire that forces candidates who are confronted with electability questions to guess at how voters define this mystical quality. The fact that white male candidates consistently land at the top of the electable pile in polling, even when stacked up against women with equal or more impressive credentials, provides a view onto the benefit-of-the-doubt privilege that candidates who are white and male are afforded when their qualities are being assessed. But when women “address the elephant in the room,” as Senator Kamala Harris put it during a campaign stop in Iowa, it can cast them in a shadow of defensiveness that undermines their leadership stature with some voters. These conflicting dynamics intensify for Black women candidates, who, despite a documented, successful history of leadership in America, also have to grapple with harmful perceptions that conflate race and leadership ability.
At its base, the electability question is a dog whistle interrogation that serves to keep ears tuned into a narrow range of leadership. Recent races illustrate how this interrogation works to mire the campaigns of Black women candidates who, despite their competitive resumes and qualifications, find themselves being asked to swim through a dense sea of institutional gender and racial bias in order to be heard while their counterparts are allowed to spend their time selling the asserted benefits of their leadership plans and policies.
Given that the electability interrogation is largely focused on women and women of color who aim for offices not previously held by leaders who look like them, it comes as no surprise that this interrogation was a persistent theme dogging both Harris’s recent presidential and Abrams’s 2018 gubernatorial runs.
The rub is, both candidates have baseline credentials that equaled their opponents’, and in some cases their training and experience was even more relevant than their competitors’ preparation for the offices they were seeking. Abrams, for example, is an attorney who graduated from Yale Law School, and she also received a master’s degree from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. She is a successful entrepreneur who founded NOW Account, a company that makes financing available to small Georgia-based businesses that are challenged to secure capital. She also has ten years of legislative experience—eight of which were spent as Georgia House minority leader—and she launched the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan voter-engagement effort that registered over 200,000 eligible Georgians to vote between 2014 and 2018.
Abrams’s gubernatorial opponent, then Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, had 12 years of elected office experience under his belt (four in the State Senate and eight as secretary of state) when he ran for governor. He was also an accomplished entrepreneur who owned and operated a small real estate investment company, among other business ventures, prior to becoming a state legislator. But unlike Abrams, Kemp has neither a law degree nor a master’s in public affairs—knowledge and training that are extremely useful in crafting effective legislation and policy. Nor had he been active in independent voter engagement.
Despite Abrams’s superior qualifications, she was the candidate pushed to answer questions about her electability throughout her primary race, which she won by about 52 percentage points, and the general election against Kemp, who in comparison bested his primary opponent by 39 points. One example occurred when information emerged that Abrams, like many Americans, was in debt due to educational loans, taxes, and credit cards. She incurred the $200,000 debt because of urgent family needs, but she had made repayment arrangements and was honoring those commitments. Still, the fervor and attacks from her opponent on this matter grew so intense that she felt compelled to write a commentary detailing why the financial burden should not disqualify her to be governor. Ironically, Kemp at the same moment was being sued for defaulting on a $500,000 business loan. Nevertheless, this information did not enter the conversation as a potential disqualifier of his gubernatorial run.
Harris faced similar challenges during her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. The field featured more than 20 competitors with a wide variety of backgrounds and experience levels. At the kick-off of her campaign, the former prosecutor had 15 years of elected office experience, including several “firsts” to her credit. In 2003, she became the first woman to be elected San Francisco district attorney, and then in 2010 the first Black woman and first Indian-American woman (her father is Jamaican by birth, and her mother from India) elected attorney general of California. In 2016, she became only the second Black woman, and first Indian-American woman, elected to the U.S. Senate. Before launching her presidential campaign in 2019, the senator, who serves on four Senate committees, had gained national recognition for her insightful and tough questioning of witnesses who came before her and other members of the Senate Judiciary and Senate Intelligence committees. Her legal acumen has prompted Intelligence committee members from both parties to seek her advice during hearings. In her three years in Congress, she has been the primary sponsor of four passed pieces of legislation—a significant accomplishment for a first-term senator—and in 2019 she was the eighth most active bill cosponsor in the Senate.
Still, electability perceptions dinged Harris (as well as other women on the presidential campaign trail) more substantially in voter polls than they did her male competitors who were inexperienced on the national level.
An Antiquated Question That We Must Reframe
Only recently has a polling organization attempted to even clarify what voters mean when they consider electability traits. Not surprisingly, gender appears to be the biggest determinant of whether voters view a candidate as electable. Race also plays a role. Not identified by the poll, however, are the factors that shape and reinforce voters’ belief that women and women-of-color candidates are less electable than men—and in particular white men—regardless of their tangible, earned leadership achievements and qualifications.
Identifying what continues to drive the narrow view of who is electable is critical, because even pollsters who pose the question acknowledge that electability is an impression without form, and that propagation of the question in its current state likely helps to fuel the perception. In addition, it is the 1 percent of people who agree to participate in political polling who are driving the narrative about who is electable.
If progressives truly want to realize a more functional democracy with leaders whose policy priorities lift up everyone, one of our most urgent tasks is dissecting, understanding, and changing the tenor of the conversation about who is electable so that voters’ primary considerations for choosing candidates are their leadership abilities, achievements, and commitment to driving effective policies.
The critical question is: How can allies in progressive democracy use what we know to be true about Black women’s leadership, as well as the kind of leadership that makes for an effective democracy, to redirect the narrative and shift perceptions of electability?
We can begin with the understanding that the electability interrogation loses power every time Black women candidates win or mount unexpectedly competitive races. Creating a narrative that knits their long history of successful leadership into the country’s fabric and exemplifies their governance as an indispensable part of the work that has pushed America forward can offer a sharp and powerful rebuttal to the idea that Black women aren’t electable. There are plenty of recent examples to pull from, starting with the fact that progressive Black women candidates brought home significant wins in 2016 when progressives in general lost seats in Congress and in state legislatures. These included a gain in the number of Black women seated in the House of Representatives, the election of the second Black woman in history to the Senate, and an increase in the number of Black women state legislators.
The past few years have offered additional proof that Black women can win offices previously believed unavailable to them. Four of the five Black women elected to Congress in 2018 (Lucy McBath, GA-6; Jahana Hayes, CT-5; Ilhan Omar, MN-5; and Lauren Underwood, IL-14) won in districts where white voters were the majority, and last year saw Black women smash barriers to elected leadership of major cities when London Breed and Lori Lightfoot became the first Black women to serve as mayors of San Francisco and Chicago, respectively.
These examples are not isolated achievements, but part of the expanding presence of Black and other women of color at all levels of government across the country. During the 2018 election, for example, the win ratio for women of color candidates outpaced their white and/or male counterparts.
Still, in its current state, the electability conversation is succeeding in stifling efforts to expand and diversify the body politic so that the needs, concerns, and voices of all Americans are represented and addressed. It layers on top of actions such as the Supreme Court’s striking down of the Voting Rights Act, which has ushered in an era of rampant voter suppression, raising the hurdles that Black women (as well as other candidates who are not white, male, heterosexual, and gender conforming) must clear to win elections.
Electability interrogation also hinders Black women candidates’ efforts to raise funds and gain endorsements early on. Too often, regardless of their experience and achievements, they are put to a “viability” litmus test that other candidates do not encounter in order to gain support. This is exactly what Lauren Underwood experienced during her Illinois primary bid, which resulted in her beating out five white male competitors to win her party’s nomination and, ultimately, her district’s congressional seat. Despite Underwood’s previous experience as a White House health policy advisor, it wasn’t until after her victory in the primary that donors and political strategists began extending much needed resources.
Black women candidates (as well as Black women voters, who go to polls at a higher rate than other groups) have done an oversized portion of the heavy lifting to advance a progressive agenda and shape a democracy that is responsive to all needs; and they’ve done it on a shoestring budget in comparison to their counterparts. Data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows that despite their overperformance during the 2018 election, Black women who ran for the House of Representatives received fewer and smaller donations than any other group of candidates.
Progressive operatives must push for a fundamental cultural shift that dispenses with coded electability questions, which only serve to disadvantage Black women leaders. We must reframe the conversation to focus on achievement and relevance.
The Black women who are stepping off the sideline and into leadership come with unique experiences that should be at the root of their campaigns and ability to solve problems for the communities they are seeking to represent. The candidate landscape is changing dramatically, and it is time for a dialogue and a strategy that keeps pace with this reality.