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New book 'Electable' explores why a woman still hasn't won the presidency... yet

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Women do OK in American politics. The country now has its first woman sitting in the vice president's office, Kamala Harris.

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VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: But while I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last...

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HARRIS: ...Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.

SUMMERS: Before she became the vice presidential nominee, Harris was one of many women to run for president in 2020. And those women came on the heels of Hillary Clinton, who in 2016 was the first woman to be nominated by a major political party.

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HILLARY CLINTON: Standing here as my mother's daughter and my daughter's mother, I'm so happy this day has come. I'm happy for grandmothers and little girls and everyone in between. I'm happy for boys and men because when any barrier falls in America, it clears the way for everyone.

SUMMERS: But as we know, she lost.

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CLINTON: I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling, but someday someone will and hopefully sooner than we might think right now.

SUMMERS: And while the country now has its first female vice president, that highest office, that glass ceiling that Clinton talked about over and over and over through two presidential campaigns - that is still intact. And that's something NBC News Capitol Hill correspondent Ali Vitali explores in her new book. It's called "Electable: Why America Hasn't Put a Woman in the White House... Yet." And Ali Vitali joins me now. Ali, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ALI VITALI: Hi, my friend. I'm so happy to be here.

SUMMERS: All right. So I want to start by asking you about something that happened on the campaign trail because it's something that you and I went through together back in 2019 when we were covering then-presidential candidate Kamala Harris. This was in Columbia, S.C. And she was on the type of trip we've been on a million times, going to small businesses. And at one Black woman-owned business, she tries on what becomes this infamous sparkly jacket, and things went a little sideways. I'm going to let you jump in here to talk about what happened inside the store. But I've got to start by asking you, were you surprised at all by how much this moment exploded?

VITALI: Kind of, yeah, because how many retail politics stops have we gone on with presidential candidates? The difference was we were a predominantly female press corps following around a female candidate who was visiting female businesses and shopping at them. She got eventually cajoled into trying on this sparkly jacket, which was a statement, you and I will both allow. And we tweeted about it. And there were some conservative men in media and online who really did not like that. They thought that we were unserious. They sort of thought that she was unserious. And to me, it just was completely hypocritical because other candidates had shopped before. They had just done it while male. And not only that, but they had done unconventional stops like this before. Lindsey Graham went skeet shooting with reporters, and none of those reporters got criticized for going and covering that.

SUMMERS: Now, I want to talk about another woman who ran in 2020 because when I think back and about the intersection of women and politics that year, it's really hard to do that without talking about what New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand did. Unlike so many of the women in the field, she centered her campaign on her womanhood and on her motherhood as a key qualification as to why voters should pick her. I can still hear in my head that line from her stump speech.

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KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: I will fight for your family as hard as I would fight for my own.

SUMMERS: She believed in that message. But she also told you later that no woman could have won in 2020. What do you make of that contradiction?

VITALI: It's a striking statement from Senator Gillibrand. When she said that to me, I remember asking that question a few different ways. And what I read as baked into her answer - because she said to me a few different times that she didn't think that any woman could have won in 2020 - I think she was speaking to a few different things because all of the women who talked to me for this book who ran in 2020 talked about how skittish the electorate was, in part because they had seen Hillary Clinton lose an election that everyone thought she was going to win but then also the way that Trump was looming over this field. I mean, you and I were talking to voters all the time, and everyone was trying to figure out this magical formula, if you were a Democrat, for how you could beat Trump.

And look. This answer is unknowable. But for the women, it stuck with them in such a hard and fast way that they could never ultimately answer the electability question because really, the only way that a candidate can answer the electability question in a full and satisfactory way is to win. And for women, when they couldn't answer that question, voters then went in circles. And there have been studies done that showed that that little bit of doubt of having never seen a woman win in that way before made them actually switch their vote sometimes. So it wasn't just a question of, do I like this woman? Do I think that she could win? Do I hope she could win? When you couldn't answer those questions in a satisfactory way, voters were actually changing the electoral bottom line.

SUMMERS: Being months - years, really - removed from the race now, I'm curious. Do you think that Gillibrand - by leaning into being a woman, by leaning into being a mom, do you think she was leaning into a losing strategy?

VITALI: I wish the answer were no, but I think what 2020 showed us is that it needs to be a strategy. If there - if she were a woman candidate - and frankly, all the women candidates face this. But Gillibrand specifically - she told me time and again, these are my issues. They're good issues. She would run on these issues again. But the problem that non-white, non-male candidates face is that if they lean into the issues facing their community, they can get caught in a feedback loop sometimes much more quickly than white male candidates do. And the problem when you're running for an executive position like the president of the United States is voters want to see you speak to the issues that impact your community. Certainly, Julian Castro faced this around the issue of immigration, which he prioritized in his campaign. But then there's the question of, OK, but aren't you the president for everybody?

And it seems like voters are just much more quick to allow white men to touch all different topic areas, whereas non-white, non-male candidates get stuck in that feedback loop more quickly. And quite frankly, that's something that didn't just touch the women candidates in the race but something that touched the other non-white candidates in the race as well in my conversations with top operatives that worked for them.

SUMMERS: Now, while the majority of your book is talking about the historic women who ran in 2020, because we are coming off of a political month in which we have seen Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney lose her seat in Wyoming, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski up for reelection, a comeback potentially by former Governor Sarah Palin in Alaska, what did you learn about Republican women in the course of writing this?

VITALI: There is a completely different permission structure on the Republican side of this spectrum because Republican candidates and voters alike really eschew the idea of running on gender or putting identity first. But nevertheless, what the Liz Cheney moment, I think, teaches us and is going to allow us to talk about in real time is the fact that it's likely that we will see her run for president in 2024, challenging former President Trump in some way, whether it's within the Republican Party or as an independent candidate.

But what it does tell us is that you'll probably never have another election cycle where women are not involved. That's a massive sign of progress, especially because most of the women that you and I could think of for 2024 on the Republican and Democratic side are viable, qualified female candidates who have lengthy resumes and lengthy policy successes that they're going to be able to campaign on. I think that is a huge win. And it's only bolstered by the fact that when you look at the 2022 vice presidential veepstakes, Biden knew that it would be an asset to have a woman on the ticket. So I don't think we're ever going to be able to do presidential politics with just two white guys ever again.

SUMMERS: Ali Vitali is the author of "Electable: Why America Hasn't Put A Woman In The White House... Yet." Ali, thank you so much for your time.

VITALI: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSE GONZALEZ'S "INSTRUMENTAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.