Can a woman beat Donald Trump in 2020? Yes.
Here's a better, more pertinent question: Can anybody but a woman beat Donald Trump in 2020? I doubt it.
The New York Times picked up some flack over the weekend for an article that purported to contemplate the first question — but which mostly revealed that the ghosts of Hillary Clinton's loss to Trump in 2016 still haunt the Democratic Party's leaders.
"On one hand, women are leading the resistance and deserve representation," said Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress. "But on the other side, there's a fear that if misogyny beat Clinton, it can beat other women."
But misogyny didn't beat Clinton. It probably slowed her down considerably, yes, but any analysis of the 2016 election campaign must always center on the fact that Clinton won more popular votes than Trump. Millions more. That Trump now sits in the Oval Office should be mostly seen as a fluke of geography and America's weird, anti-democratic Electoral College. Maybe Clinton should've spent more time in Wisconsin, but that's more a question of strategy than her merits as a candidate, let alone her gender. The fact is that Clinton won more votes than her opponent. In politics, that's usually game, set, and match.
We shouldn't learn the wrong lessons from Clinton's loss. She was probably the only candidate who could have beaten Trump in 2016. She was certainly the only one who came close.
When Trump entered the presidential contest in 2015, he was seen mostly as a joke — Jon Stewart spent a segment of The Daily Show basically celebrating Trump's candidacy as a comedic opportunity instead of a moment of danger to the country, even calling it a "gift from heaven." The GOP field was crowded with 17 candidates, but the establishment money seemed to line up early behind Jeb Bush.
How did Trump win? He beat his GOP opponents mostly through displays of alpha-male dominance. He gave them all nicknames: "Lyin' Ted," "Little Marco," "No Energy Jeb." His shots at fellow candidates sounded like a list of symptoms from a radio commercial for male enhancement products. Marco Rubio at least tried to compete on those grounds, mocking Trump's "tiny fingers" at a campaign rally — but ultimately his heart wasn't in it. Trump mowed down the field.
Clinton didn't play that game. During the campaign debates, she played rope-a-dope with Trump's need to dominate, poking him, then stepping back and smiling calmly while he blustered and flailed. She got Trump to reveal his essential misogynistic nature — he was so mad after the first debate that he launched a series of tweets calling a former Miss Universe "disgusting" — while she plugged away with a wonk's command of facts, figures, and plans. It was the kind of performance familiar to many professional women who have spent their careers getting stuff done competently while letting the dudes around them strut and bloviate.
It worked. Polling showed she won all three debates.
Trump is still a misogynist. Just a few months ago he called Stormy Daniels a "horseface." And he'll still be a misogynist in 2020. That means his problems with female voters are probably going to grow: He won just 41 percent of women's votes in 2016, and polling since then suggests he's lost a substantial portion of that support — and there's probably a real limit to the number of angry white men he can get to replace women in his coalition.
In the meantime, women seem to be driving the energy of the Democratic Party: The new class of the House of Representatives features a record-breaking number of women, thanks almost entirely to Democrats. Will all those activists be as supercharged to support a man like Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)? It seems doubtful. And that raises another question: Can any man beat Trump in 2020? Maybe, but it will be more difficult. A male candidate will need enormous discipline not to participate in Trump's alpha-male posturing — and nobody is going to beat Trump at that kind of game.
Female candidates will always have to overcome the headwinds of sexism; witness the ongoing dissections of Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Mass.) likability. But women also have advantages, especially in the coming presidential race. Women are the president's weakness, and right now Democratic women have political momentum. Democrats shouldn't be worried about a woman candidate. But President Trump should.