The rise of the female White House prospect

One way or another, a woman will be in the mix for the next Democratic nomination -- and for each one after it too

By Steve Kornacki

Published February 5, 2013 12:44PM (EST)

What’s most striking about the news that Janet Napolitano is apparently considering a presidential bid in 2016 is the assumption that comes with it: One way or another, there will be a serious female candidate for the next Democratic nomination.

That would probably be a good bet to make, one that says a lot about the ebbing dominance of white males within the Democrats’ national leadership and how diverse the party’s voting base is becoming. This was a major theme in the reelection of President Obama, which was keyed by disproportionate support from female voters and overwhelming strength among nonwhite voters, who accounted for a bigger share of the electorate – 28 percent – than ever before. Another diversity milestone was also set by the 2012 election, with white men now accounting for less than half of all Democrats in the House for the first time.

When it comes to ’16, speculation about a female candidate on the Democratic side has centered around Hillary Clinton, and for good reason. Not only would the former secretary of state presumably crowd any other women out of the race, she’d have the potential to clear out the entire field, or at least come close to doing so.

But the Napolitano scoop, which was provided by the Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty, is a reminder that there are multiple women positioned to run viable campaigns for the nomination if Clinton takes a pass. Already, there have been rumblings about Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand having interest in the race. Napolitano, the current homeland security secretary and former Arizona governor, is “quietly making it known she is considering the race,” according to Tumulty. Others could wind up in the mix too, so regardless of what Clinton decides, it’s doubtful Democrats will revert to the days of all-male fields in 2016.

In fact, we’re probably entering a new era in which it will be standard for at least one woman to be among those competing for the Democratic nomination. Just consider how profound the difference between the early ’16 jockeying is from previous races. Before Clinton in 2008, Carol Moseley Braun, Pat Schroeder and Shirley Chisholm were the only Democratic women who had run for president. And none of their candidacies really went anywhere; Moseley Braun and Schroeder both withdrew before the first contest and Chisholm’s effort was symbolic.

Few other women even toyed with running. After her 1984 vice-presidential campaign, there was some talk that Geraldine Ferraro might seek the top spot in 1988, but she never seriously pursued it. Dianne Feinstein nearly landed on that ’84 ticket instead of Ferraro, and in the late ‘80s she was mentioned as a future White House prospect. But a loss to Pete Wilson in the 1990 California governor’s race stalled whatever momentum she had, and Feinstein was happy to settle for a Senate seat in 1992, which she’s held ever since.

As far as women seriously pursuing – or even just eyeing – the Democratic presidential nomination, that’s really about it for the pre-’08 era. But now there are at least four women who seem to be at least curious about the ’16 race and in position to wage viable campaigns. That number figures to only grow in future campaigns.

The same probably goes for nonwhite candidates, which were also a rarity (basically: Chisholm and Jesse Jackson) before Obama. Again, because of her field-clearing/reducing potential, Clinton might prevent a nonwhite candidate from running in ’16, but if she stays out Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick looms as a serious prospect. There are more obstacles for nonwhite candidates making it into the presidential pipeline than there are for women, given the difficulty they’ve had in gaining Democratic nominations for statewide office. But the party’s growing reliance on nonwhite voters will only increase the market for nonwhite candidates at the national level.

All of this is a long way of saying that Democratic presidential fields, which have been filled almost exclusively by white males since the party’s founding, will look a lot more like the country (and, more specifically, the party’s base) in the years and decades to come.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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