Pete Buttigieg Has a Plan to Address ‘Systemic Sexism’—But Will It Be Enough to Win Over Women Voters?

October 25, 2019, 3:46 PM UTC

Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg released an expansive plan to combat gender inequality in the U.S. on Thursday, championing women’s role in society and outlining his strategy for protecting their rights.

“From the Women’s March to Black Lives Matter, to Me Too and historic gains for women candidates in the 2018 elections, women have challenged our country to better live up to its values,” says Buttigieg in a video announcing the plan. “But this hard-earned progress has come despite systemic and persistent sexism. This can’t go on.”

His 27-page plan—titled “Building Power: A Women’s Agenda for the 21st Century”—pledges $10 billion to end workplace harassment and discrimination and $50 billion in capital to grow women-owned businesses.

Buttigieg’s policy and political promises address the wage gap, abortion rights, domestic violence, and promises inclusivity, making the need to protect and ratify the rights of trans women and women of color a priority.

While there are the usual Democratic promises of affordable child care and paid family and medical leave, Buttigieg also guaranteed that both his cabinet and his judicial nominations would be 50% women.

“It’s critical that when those behind-the-scenes meetings are taking place that women are at the table,” Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) director Debbie Walsh told Fortune.

The highest percentage of women in a presidential cabinet was 41%, in Bill Clinton’s second term, according to the center.

Right now, Buttigieg’s campaign staff is composed of at least 50% women. This and Thursday’s policy announcement may be a step in the right direction to attract female voters, who historically turn out in greater numbers than men at the presidential polls.

But which 2020 presidential candidate has the upper hand among women right now?

A Pew Research Center poll from August showed 30% of women were undecided. Outside those who don’t know where their support lies, former Vice President Joe Biden held the plurality, with 24% of women supporting him. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) had 14% support; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) each had 10%; and Buttigieg brought up the rear with 5%.

Regardless of where their loyalty lies, 71% of women overall say they have an excellent or good impression of the Democratic candidates as a group.

“Women voters will play a key role in the outcome of this election,” said Walsh. Women, and particularly women of color, she said, “are the voters that the Democratic party needs to energize and mobilize in order to win.”

Black women especially are an impactful base, Walsh continued. And this is one group of women Buttigieg doesn’t hold much ground among, according to a survey released earlier this fall.

The annual survey of black women voters by the Black Women’s Roundtable and Essence showed these women are in support of Biden first, followed by Harris, Warren, and then Sanders.

“The black womens’ vote is a powerful force. It is probably the most consistent vote for Democratic candidates,” she said. “It’s a vote that should not be taken for granted… Any nominee is going to need that piece of the electorate to turn out in really high numbers in order to win in November of 2020.”

In most overall Democratic primary polls, however, Buttigieg has climbed to fourth place, ranking below Biden, Warren, and Sanders. Warren might pose the most immediate threat to Buttigieg: according to Morning Consult, 24% of his voters list Warren as their second option.

But being a woman herself doesn’t mean Warren automatically will win the female vote.

“It’s not that women vote for women… Women are voting for a set of policies,” said Walsh. “At the end of the day, particularly in this environment right now, what we’re seeing is so many Democratic women voters just want the Democrat to win, and if Pete Buttigieg was the nominee, they would be supportive. The question is would they be enthusiastically supportive?”

The decision to launch “A Women’s Agenda for the 21st Century,” was a smart move for Buttigieg, said Angela Kuefler, senior vice president of research at public relations firm Global Strategy Group. Much of the plan “has broad public support and certainly even higher support among Democratic primary voters.”

But one question might remain among some Democratic women, and it could hurt Buttigieg, Kuefler said: “If he’s serious about ‘securing women’s power and influence,’ why does he feel he is more qualified to be president than any of the women running?”

It’s a question Buttigieg may soon have to face.

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