Editor’s Note: This post is the first part in a series examining failed 2020 candidacies. See our other campaign postmortem posts: Julián Castro, Michael Bennet, Jay Inslee, Deval Patrick, Cory Booker
by Rachel Clark and Kiley Lenahan
After only five months on the campaign trail, Kirsten Gillibrand has dropped out of the race to become the Democratic nominee for president. When it became clear that she would not qualify for the September debate in Houston, her team decided that it would be best to quit while they were ahead. Gillibrand’s lack of success came as a surprise to many New Yorkers, but there are a few critical aspects of her campaign that may explain why this was just not her time.
The Theory of Gillibrand’s Case
When Senator Kirsten Gillibrand announced to the audience at “The Late Show with Steven Colbert” and the rest of America that she was running for president, she made it clear who she was running for, she was positioning herself as the candidate for women. Centering her case to the public around being a young mother, Gillibrand’s platform appeal consisted of healthcare as a right not a privilege, better public schools for our nation’s children, and pursuing the dismantlement of systemic injustices based on race, but more importantly, gender.
With high approval ratings as a Senator from women as well as the Black and Latinx communities, Gillibrand was projected to be a top-tier contender for the nomination. With 60% of women making up the Democratic voter base, Gillibrand is focusing her stump speeches on “the lesson of 2018 is that the future of the Democratic Party is with women,” and she is the woman for the job. White college-educated women have been mobilized in numbers not seen before in recent years, so Gillibrand is taking advantage of this to align herself with them by emphasizing the “working mom” card. This appeal could have benefitted her, if this newly politically active demographic weren’t bombarded with the most female candidates to run at once ever.
As for her strategy, she started right off the bat trying to differentiate herself from the rest of the pack. Self-aware that her name recognition wouldn’t take her far outside of New York and those who closely follow politics, we believe she chose an unconventional venue, a late-night talk show, to make a splash and get big national airplay. FiveThirtyEight’s politics podcast hosts agreed, noting that she needed this high-profile coverage in the beginning, to give her momentum a kickstart. It’s also worth mentioning how she spoke about herself and her policies, she’s running as a mother, she’s doing this for the children. Playing the mother comes so naturally to her and she’s leaning into it hard in her 2020 campaign. The podcast also discussed at length that being the gentle mother focused on women’s issues may not be only where she finds support, but it may be how she chose to differentiate herself, assuming the antithesis role to Elizabeth Warren’s “scorned woman out for blood” or Amy Klobuchar’s “midwestern moderate charm”. Gillibrand ran a campaign based on positive femininity and equity.
Challenges Gillibrand Faced:
The biggest set back that Gillibrand faced of the 2020 campaign trail is positioning herself as the advocate for women’s issues. She became the Senator from the State of #MeToo which had adverse effects on both her electability and fundraising. Once the news had broken that Former Senator Al Franken was facing accusations of sexual assault from several women, Gillibrand immediately stood her ground on gender-based crimes against women, even if the accused was a Congressional ally. “There were new allegations today, and enough is enough,” Gillibrand said at a news conference in December 2017, “we need to draw a line in the sand and say none of it is okay, none of it is acceptable.” Being the first Democratic Senator to denounce fellow Democrat, in the wake of sexual assault allegations, alienated the party establishment who were sympathetic to Franken’s defense later hurt her campaign for president. “Many traditional large-dollar donors in the party reacted adversely to Gillibrand’s Franken comments, and in an April campaign memo, her team acknowledged that her fundraising “was adversely impacted by certain establishment donors — and many online — who continue to punish Kirsten for standing up for her values and for women.”
Gillibrand as a candidate faced backlash in response to her “evolving voting record” where she transformed from aligning with moderate Democrats in the beginning to securing her place as a liberal in recent years. According to the reporters for the Washington Post, this is the largest liability for Gillibrand’s 2020 campaign, “what Gillibrand believes shifts significantly depending on what office Gillibrand is pursuing at the moment”. They paint her as unreliable, that her morals are malleable and that unfortunately dissuaded voters from supporting her. However, this critique might not have been what took her down, especially because she had such high approval ratings in a state where once you go upstate or out west it gets very conservative which could’ve boded well for her on a national stage if she could have outlasted a majority of the candidates.
Why Did Her Campaign Fail?
There are a few key reasons why Gillibrand’s campaign didn’t work out. Firstly, the field of Democratic candidates was extremely crowded, which made it difficult for the media to successfully complete the cycle of discovery, scrutiny, and decline for each and every candidate. Gillibrand was never able to get her moment that gave her greater name recognition among voters on a national scale, which caused her to never poll higher than 2%. Running against big-name senators and an ex-vice president presented a bit of a “David and Goliath” scenario for Gillibrand, of which her slingshot failed her.
Secondly, the timing seemed to be an issue for Gillibrand. From the moment she announced her campaign, there seemed to be a reason for the general public to place their attention elsewhere. The same night that Gillibrand made an appearance on Colbert’s show to announce her dash for the presidency, Attorney General William Barr released his summary of the Muller report, which completely overshadowed her announcement. Roughly a week before the debate in Detroit, Gillibrand tweeted about candidates who have unfavorable opinions of women in the workplace. She didn’t name any names, but a week later at the debate, Biden was prepared to refute this point. This prevented Gillibrand from having her moment in the sun, and if she had refrained from giving away this attack, it may have worked.
The nail in Gillibrand’s coffin was the way that she alienated the establishment. Gillibrand was one of the most vocal democrats in calling for Al Franken, a Minnesota senator, to resign due to allegations of sexual misconduct. Many large democratic donors sympathized with Franken and gained a distaste for Gillibrand, feeling that she went after one of her own. This left Gillibrand without a lot of support from the democratic establishment, which caused her to throw in the towel rather than use this to strengthen her campaign. She could have used the disapproval of the establishment towards her as a platform to run off of, similarly to Sanders, which would have attracted a much different group of voters. Additionally, Gillibrand made women’s issues the crux of her campaign. She was a vocal supporter of the #MeToo movement and ran as the candidate for women. This caused her to appear as a sort of one trick pony that wasn’t interesting enough to get behind. It also alienated a lot of voters who were interested in hearing her ideas beyond what is relevant for women. Altogether, her timing and strategy was just off enough to leave Gillibrand without a real shot this time around.
Gillibrand was not cut out to be the democratic nominee for 2020, but that doesn’t mean that the buck stops here. There were many forces standing against her, from big name politicians to a lack of an all encompassing campaign strategy, Gillibrand was not prepared enough to be a viable candidate this election cycle. If she corrects these errors and runs again in four years, she would have a much stronger chance and could even secure the presidency.