One in a series of periodic stories this month looking at the upcoming Iowa caucuses.
WATERLOO | Iowans have shattered two glass ceilings in as many years. Feb. 1 presents an opportunity to go for a third in selecting the first female caucus winner.
Regardless of whether they’re standing in Hillary Clinton’s corner as a Democrat or writing Carly Fiorina’s name on a slip of paper as a Republican, for the first time both political parties can give a win to a female presidential candidate in the same year.
This historic moment follows others in Iowa’s recent past.
The state sent its first woman to Congress, admittedly after most states had done so, in voting Joni Ernst into the Senate in 2014. Last year, House Republicans named the first female speaker, Linda Upmeyer, to lead their body when they gaveled into the 2016 session.
All of this means it’s been an exciting time for Mary Ellen Miller to be executive director of 50-50 in 2020, a group aimed at getting equal representation for women in elected offices by the 100-year anniversary of women getting the right to vote.
“The exciting thing about this cycle is … it really brings the issue to the forefront. No matter who wins, it’s been healthy for efforts to get more women engaged because it has provoked the conversation about why there aren’t enough,” Miller said.
But as both Clinton and Fiorina have met their own individual challenges in the run-up to the caucuses, it has also provoked a conversation about whether Iowans are actually ready to break that presidential glass ceiling.
With two weeks until the Iowa caucuses, Fiorina flounders in low-single digits in Iowa polls, and Clinton has seen her lead shrink to near deadlock in the state.
Despite these challenges, Iowa State University’s Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics director Dianne Bystrom said there’s little to compare between the two.
“What you’re seeing in this race, I think, is the different challenges between Republican women and Democratic women running for their party’s nomination,” Bystrom said.
A tougher environment
Bystrom added, “Over 90 percent (of people) say they’d vote for a woman, but when you ask if their neighbor would, or if another member of their family would, those percentages go down on both the Democratic and Republican side, but they go down significantly so on the Republican side, and so I think it’s a tougher environment for Carly Fiorina among voters in the Republican party.”
Miller -- a 50-year Republican -- put it more bluntly: “I think clearly the Republicans have an image problem with women. I don’t care what you say.”
Kim Reem, the immediate past president of the Iowa Federation of Republican Women, however, said she sees Fiorina’s struggles as less a product of Republicans being hesitant to support a woman and more the result of an overwhelmingly large field of candidates.
“I don’t know why Carly hasn’t caught on. That is a big question. I can’t help but wonder if she’s just ahead of her time as far as Republicans go,” Reem said. “As a Republican woman, I think Carly Fiorina is one of the best weapons in our arsenal when it comes to women running in November.”
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She said most Republicans she talks to across the state “hold a very high opinion” of Fiorina. She also noted most Republicans have yet to make up their mind as to who they’ll support Feb. 1, adding it’s unfortunate front-runner Donald Trump has sucked so much air time from other Republican candidates.
But Bystrom points to another challenge for Fiorina in digging into the turnout for Republican caucusgoers in the past two cycles. Republican caucusgoers are skewed toward men, but female Republicans in Iowa have been more likely to back the perceived evangelical candidate, particularly giving the edge to 2008 winner Mike Huckabee.
“Carly Fiorina is not the evangelical candidate. She’s not trying to be. She’s in the lane with the other traditional candidates that no one has really coalesced around,” Bystrom said.
Democrats' gender gap
Meanwhile, Bystrom said that Clinton’s race was always likely to tighten on the Democratic side.
But by digging into the turnout for Democratic caucusgoers in the past two cycles, Bystrom sees better news for Clinton’s prospects Feb. 1.
“On the flip side of this … these (caucus data) numbers are pretty good for Hillary Clinton, because what recent polls have shown is that she has a big gender gap going on. Most of her supporters are women, and they tend to be older women,” Bystrom said.
That’s good news for Clinton, because, according to Bystrom, 60 percent of the Democratic caucusgoers in 2008 -- albeit when Clinton finished third -- were 45 and older. At the same time, 57 percent of the Democratic caucusgoers were women.
She said aside from gender, other political factors could help Clinton, like her closest competitor Bernie Sanders facing increased media scrutiny and the fact she’s typically seen polling boosts after debates.
Miller, meanwhile, has noticed some younger women she’s talked with have tended to support Sanders over Clinton. But she added the reasons they give have nothing to do with Clinton’s gender but rather that she’s seen as “too much in the good old boys’ game already.”
A silver lining
Still, Miller sees a silver lining in the conversation about the female presidential candidates’ challenges.
“That’s what I like about this cycle is without these two women in these high-level campaigns, we would not even be having this conversation,” Miller said.
And in her role at 50-50 in 2020, those conversations matter, because the more women see other women in the spotlight in politics, the more likely they are to get involved and potentially run for office. That helps increase that percentage of elected officials closer to the 50 percent goal.
She said the high-profile women -- Clinton, Fiorina, Ernst and Upmeyer -- are already having an impact, as Miller attributes their presence on the national and state stages to the increased registration for a 50-50 in 2020 event last weekend aimed at women considering running for political office.
“One of the common challenges when we try to recruit women to run is that they don’t really know women who are running or who are involved politically … so just having two women run at that high of a level raises the bar for everyone, in a positive way,” Miller said. “I think it’s just very encouraging to all women.”