Beyond Glass Ceilings

As Christine Quinn Fades, Why Aren’t More Women Winning?

Christine Quinn is the latest female candidate to start strong, but fade at the end. By David Freedlander.

On Tuesday, after a press conference in East Harlem where Christine Quinn, the onetime frontrunner in New York City’s mayoral race, slammed the new frontrunner, Bill de Blasio, for taking contributions from slumlords. Then she waded into the small crowd that had gathered on 121st Street to watch the proceedings. One voter confronted Quinn over her record on stop-and-frisk; a few pledged to vote for her; another wanted to speak about an issue with his landlord.

And then there was the older woman with auburn hair and conch shell-size green earrings who grabbed the city council speaker’s hand and said, “I just want to say one thing—let the women have a chance because the men are doing a fucked-up job!”

Quinn hugged the woman and bellowed, “They may have to bleep ya!” while her well-wisher persisted: “Vote for the lady for a change! Give her a chance! Give her a chance!”

If only there were more like her.

With just days left until voters go to the polls, surveys of the race show de Blasio surging ahead of Quinn, past the 40 percent necessary to avoid a run-off, while Quinn has slipped to third place. More worrisome for Quinn, de Blasio is crushing her among women, 44-18 percent.

Among politicos, the conventional wisdom has long been that women have a distinct advantage in electoral politics, especially when they—as they often seem to do—face off against a field that is otherwise all male. Since women vote more often than men, this thinking goes, and are more likely to vote for members of their own sex, they should have a glide path to their party’s nomination (in general elections, the dynamic can shift somewhat, since party affiliation tends to rule the day).

A recent article in The Atlantic detailed how party operatives are desperately searching for people with two X chromosomes to run for office next year. “Voters want change. A woman candidate personifies change just by being on the ballot,” says the chief of staff to the Republican National Committee. Adds a Democratic pollster, “voters believe women are more likely to compromise and find common ground and solutions, and less likely to argue and triangulate for political advantage.”

What explains Quinn’s fade then? Many factors are at play in this election besides her gender—the savvy campaign de Blasio has run; fatigue with Mayor Mike Bloomberg, with whom Quinn is closely aligned; controversial stances she has taken on issues that motivate Democratic voters.

But still, if Quinn finds her political career over next Tuesday, she’ll join an increasingly long list of women who were thought to be the favorite when a race began, only to find themselves struggling to gain traction. In most cases, they were one of the few women, if not the only, in their field. And they were all running not for seats in Congress, the Senate, or state legislatures, but executive positions—mayor, governor, president.

The most paradigmatic example, of course, is Hillary Clinton, who despite a gargantuan lead in early polls, failed to persuade Democrats to support her in the 2008 primaries. In Los Angeles, city controller Wendy Greuel faced a handful of men and one another woman in the race to become mayor this year. She led for most of campaign, but lost in a runoff to Eric Garcetti. In 2012, Kathleen Falk was an early frontrunner in the Democratic primary for the recall election of Scott Walker in Wisconsin, with a number of unions and establishment Democrats backing her candidacy from the start. But Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett won the primary, even though he had previously lost to Walker in 2010. (In the rematch, Walker won again.) In 2010, in the race to replace Andrew Cuomo as “the sheriff of Wall Street” and New York attorney general, Kathleen Rice was in an attractive district on Long Island with a sterling record and a number of Democratic powerbrokers behind her. She led for the entire campaign until the final weeks, and in the end lost to Eric Schneiderman by three percentage points.

What exactly is going on here?

One theory, a Democratic operative told The Daily Beast, is that it is uniquely Democratic problem, as the above examples tend to suggest. By this theory, liberals, especially in outposts like New York and Los Angeles, are used to seeing women break glass ceilings. Thus, doing so in the political realm is less galvanizing.

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When a poll came out showing Quinn in third place, Maurice Carroll, the director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute, which conducted the survey, suggested that she was about to join a long line of female mayoral candidates going back to 1981 who have stumbled at the finish line.

“You just have to wonder if New York isn’t as wildly liberal as we think we are,” Carroll said.

Another is that the early polling is deceptive. Before voters are paying much attention to the race, they tend to pick out the person in a field of candidates who sticks out without examining policy positions and records.

“When the woman is frontrunner, it is often because she was out front first,” said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. “They look like they are the frontrunner in the field because it is easier to establish name recognition. But as you approach Election Day, other candidates start standing out as more information becomes available.”

This year saw the Senate and the House of Representatives welcome a record number of women—111, or 19 percent of the entire body. A healthy percentage, but still paltry considering women make up more than 50 percent of the electorate. But at the executive level, the numbers are even more disturbing. There are only five women serving as governors, and only seven of the nation’s 50 largest cities have a woman in the top job.

That women have been as successful as they have been getting elected to legislative seats could paradoxically make it harder for them be elected to executive positions.

“Take Wendy Greuel—she couldn’t very well say that it would have been a pathbreaking choice to elect her mayor, not when something like half of the California congressional delegation and both of California’s senators are women,” said Lawless.

But, she added, the high-profile flameout of candidates like Greuel and Quinn has a reverberating effect.

“It is not the voters. It is that fewer women are emerging as candidates. And these high-profile losses by prominent women signals that women can’t win.”

For her part, Greuel said that there was extra scrutiny on women when they run for mayor, governor, or president.

“In my own experience in L.A., people wondered how you could still be a mom and an executive-level official,” she said. “Women are less focused on ego, more focused on getting something done, but a lot of the time people don’t want to hear about that. They think you have to knock heads together to get something done.”

She pointed to her own race, where she had support from both labor and business leaders, proof, according to her doubters, that she must either not telling the truth or a pushover.

“People had a hard time with that—how can you be both for business and labor? Well, maybe it is because you listen to both sides and achieve results. You don’t have to pound the table all the time.”

According to Deborah Jordan Brooks, a professor at Dartmouth College and the author of He Runs, She Runs: Why Gender Stereotypes Do Not Harm Women Candidates, women in general face no more difficulty getting elected than men do. But she was aware of what she called the Michelle Bachmann Effect—that is, the phenomenon of female candidates bolting to the front of the pack in primaries, only to fade later on. If anything, she said, political operatives need to disabuse themselves of the notion that women are more likely to vote for women.

“Voters new to the political scene give women a slight advantage—they are seen as more honest, more caring, not part of the political establishment,” she said. But this too, fades.

“The gender affinity effect I have found no evidence of in my data. The fact of the matter is that consultants are often wrong.”

Greuel said that the difference was likely generational. Twenty years ago, women voted for women just because they were women. Now older women still see the importance of supporting their fellow females, but younger women often do not.

“Women 25, 30, 35 years old say, ‘We have achieved parity. Look at all the things that have happened.’ Then they get into their own careers a little bit more, and they look around and see the obstacles and say, ‘Wait a minute, we see something different going on here.”’

But one consultant, John Shallman, who advised Greuel in Los Angeles, said that female candidates just have more to think about. They can’t come off too harshly without fear of being labeled bitchy or shrewish, and they can’t pivot in the other direction for fear of being labeled soft. And he too agreed that women were no more likely to support a fellow female.

“Women often times judge other women more harshly than men do,” he said. “I don’t have an answer for why that is. I think you need a psycho-political analysis who can understand why women make that decision.”

Quinn has at times seemed hamstrung about how to address the issue of gender. When a New York Times article described her hair-trigger temper, her camp protested that a male candidate would never get called out for raising her voice. When she doesn’t want to answer a question, she will often coyly respond, “Now, a girl can’t give away all of her secrets, can she?”

At an campaign rally in June where Quinn received the endorsement of the National Organization for Women and was surrounded by prominent political women of New York, she was asked about the struggles female candidates have in New York, and if women face special challenges.

She deflected.

“What I can tell you is that we are going to have a woman mayor. We are going to have the first woman mayor in the history of New York. And what that is going to show is what we know—that voters vote for the best candidate. Voters support people who can get things done.”