Want more women to run for president? You have to ask first.

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It is now mathematically impossible for Ted Cruz to win enough delegates to receive the Republican nomination. But that hasn’t stopped him from staying in the primary and telling national audiences that he will be president.

The Texas Republican’s dogged persistence feels particularly notable when you consider that, in addition to lacking the delegates necessary to win, he is a first-term senator without any significant legislative accomplishments to speak of—except for that one time he shut down the government—who also trails considerably in the popular vote, is currently losing against both Democrats in general election polling, and is widely disliked within his own party.

To use a “New York term,” the man has chutzpah.

And while I find the trope of “can you imagine if a woman did this?” to be kind of boring, I still find myself wondering, with increasing frequency: Can you imagine if a woman tried this shit?


I kind of can’t, and it turns out there might be a reason for that.

“Women are substantially less likely than men to self-assess as qualified to run for office, and they are more likely than men to rely on those self-doubts,” Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women and Politics Institute and a professor of government at American University, told me. “So even men who didn’t think they were particularly qualified to run still had about a 50% chance of giving it serious thought, whereas women who self-assessed as not qualified never gave it a second thought.”

Lawless, whose research focuses on political ambition and gender in electoral politics, found this to be true in 2001 and again in 2011 when she repeated the study.

In addition to men’s tendency to self-assess as qualified—and some men’s apparent ambivalence about qualifications in general—women were also a third less likely to have been told that they should run.


That support means more than just the “you go girl” platitudes we so often mistake for empowerment. Being recruited or encouraged to run, particularly by a party head or an elected official, can also mean access to institutional and funding networks. And you generally need both to make a successful bid for office.

"That kind of suggestion from a formal political gatekeeper can convey the sense that you’ll have help building an operation," Lawless explained. "Now that doesn’t always translate—sometimes they encourage you to run and they leave you by the wayside. But women aren’t even getting to that stage, because they’re not being tapped to run in the first place."


The bias that locks women out of some of these networks may not be explicit, but the net result is the same: fewer women running for any elected office. That disparity has meant that women's representation in the Senate (just 20%) and governorships (only 12%) remains low. And since those are the two places that are currently considered the clearest launchpads to the presidency—though now we can add reality television and steak purveyor to that list, apparently—there aren't a whole lot of women in the pipeline.

Which is where organizations that focus on helping to cultivate and elect women candidates enter the picture. There are state-level groups (Annie's List in Texas, Ruth's List in Florida) and Republican groups (National Federation of Republican Women), but perhaps the best known organization doing this work is EMILY's List, which has spent the last 30 years getting pro-choice Democratic women to run for office.


And Jess McIntosh, the vice president of communications for EMILY's List, told me she has seen a lot of progress in building out that pipeline and breaking down access barriers. "Those networks are opening up," she explained. "And I say this a lot: after we elect the fourth or fifth woman president, it will be easier. There’s a reason why every woman senator signed a letter urging Hillary Clinton to run. She has done so well in her career—people do not question whether or not she could take this on." (EMILY's List endorsed Clinton in April of last year, on the same day she announced her candidacy.)

But Clinton's resume—regardless of what you think about her politics, she has done a lot of stuff in her career—can obscure the Wild West nature of women running for the highest office in the country, McIntosh added: "It sometimes falls by the wayside just how difficult this is. We’ve never done it. There is no playbook for how to elect a woman president, or what goes wrong when a woman runs for president because it just hasn’t happened."


Lawless agreed that the data is difficult to apply to women and the presidency because there's very little to study. But she also said that this is a strange election cycle to try to analyze in general, and particularly in terms of women and political ambition.

This has long been seen as Hillary Clinton's race, which may sound nefarious, but is actually pretty strategic. Clinton's credentials are incomparable: she has moved through politics as First Lady, as a senator, as a presidential candidate, and as Secretary of State. The viability of her candidacy is unprecedented, which makes her both the chosen one and a guinea pig.


This is not the same thing as inevitability, but it does create a distinct dynamic. Marco Rubio, say, had no qualms about running against Jeb Bush—a fellow Floridian, his one-time mentor, and, at least in terms of early reputation, the presumptive nominee among many in the party. And like Cruz, Rubio is a first time senator, but he still made a go for it.

But it's hard to imagine a similar scenario among Democratic women this election cycle. It'd be unlikely to see, say, Dianne Feinstein, a well-respected and accomplished senator who has been in office since 1992, staging a challenge against Clinton. The same could be said of other formidable Democrats in the Senate, like Elizabeth Warren (who has been unequivocal about her disinterest in the presidency), Patty Murray, or Kirsten Gillibrand, who trump the Rubios and Cruzs in terms of time served and experience. It's solidarity, sure. But for Democratic women who want to run, it's also strategy.


"Men don’t necessarily feel constrained by those other electoral dynamics, which does narrow the field of political opportunity for women in a way that it may not for men," Lawless said when I asked her about it. "I do think that part of it was that if women were going to make history, that having two women in the race would dilute the likelihood that either of them would get the nomination."

So will things change after the country elects the first woman president? Will women in the Senate and female governors across the country begin to publicly angle for the White House in the same way men do? Will we see more of the naked self-regard that propels men like Cruz to keep running even as the fabric of political reality frays beneath their feet?


Maybe. But we won’t know until we get there.

Or as McIntosh told me matter of factly: “The biggest barrier we see to women running for president is that no woman has been elected president yet.”

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