Marilynn Leggio, 71, brought her teenage granddaughter with her to an Elizabeth Warren rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, last Friday evening.
Leggio says she has “no doubt” the Massachusetts senator would do a “good job” as president, but given Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, she’s not sure whether the country will take a chance on another woman in 2020.
“I think there’s a lot of men out there that would never vote for a woman,” said Leggio. “I hate to say that, but I think that. Especially a woman that’s strong, very opinionated. I think a lot of men think she’s pushy”
Like many Iowans, Leggio says the most important criteria she’s looking for in a presidential candidate is someone who can beat Donald Trump.
“I want somebody to get Trump out of there,” she said. “Big time.”
In more than a dozen interviews with self-described independents and Democrats at Warren events over the weekend, the issue of “electability” emerged as a common theme.
Older voters and younger voters, former Clinton supporters and Sanders fans, all say they’re eager to find a candidate who will unite their party and send Trump back to New York.
Warren is one of roughly two dozen Democrats expected to run for president in 2020. This past weekend, she was the first major declared candidate to visit the early voting state of Iowa, hosting five public events in the western and central part of the state.
The last two years under Donald Trump have created a sense of urgency for Democrats, said Troy Price, the chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. People feel differently about electability than they did on the eve of the 2016 election, when Democrats controlled the White House.
“When there’s someone who’s been as reckless as [Trump] has been … so clearly on display, folks really want to make sure we have the best nominee who’s going to be able to win,” said Price.
But electability means different things to different people. Some voters want a candidate who will bring an inspirational message that unites the country.
Others, such as Geri Frederiksen, a retired high school English teacher, want a politician with “honesty and integrity” who’s not afraid to tangle with Trump.
“Whoever it is has to be able to stand up to him,” said Frederiksen. “I don’t think you have to stoop to his level, but you have to be firm.”
Price, the Democratic Party chair, says he’s noticed three main traits Iowans are referring to when they talk about electability; competence, authenticity and a willingness to fight back against Trump.
Some Democrats want a candidate who has all three of those traits, Price said, but others are looking for someone who fits well into one of those lanes.
“People are really looking for someone who can change Washington and bring some civility back to our politics,” he said.
The Iowa caucuses are still thirteen months away, but as the earliest state to choose a candidate in the primary calendar, the calculations voters make in Iowa often trickle into other states.
One challenge is that Iowa is far less representative demographically of an increasingly diverse Democratic party. The state is over 90 percent white, whereas only 59 percent of Democratic voters are white, according to the Pew Research Center.
In other parts of the country, some Democrats argue that persuading Trump voters to return to the party is a waste of time, and instead, they should focus on boosting turnout for loyal Democratic groups, particularly young people and minorities.
But in Iowa, many Democrats equate electability with a candidate who is willing to visit rural neighborhoods and talk to Trump voters in a credible manner. They point to the structure of the Electoral College and say a candidate needs to do better across the Midwest.
Over the weekend, Warren was asked more than once by voters how she’ll appeal to people in Republican-leaning states.
“I am looking for somebody with broad appeal so we can pull in some of the independents and the Republicans,” said Jean McGinnis, 49, as she waited in line to get a photo taken with Warren after a rally in Sioux City.
Leif Erickson, an attorney in the crowd, agrees he wants a candidate who can navigate red states.
He likes a lot of the issues Warren stands for, but is concerned about whether she can build bipartisan bridges.
“She’s gonna be a tough sell to get the votes in more rural states,” he said. “She stood up to Trump and … maybe that backfired on her a little bit.”
For some Iowans, Warren’s outspokenness – whether against big banks or Donald Trump, signals a degree of authenticity they’ve been craving.
Kyle McGlade, a master’s student who also serves on a local school board, says he too primarily wants a candidate who will win. But he thinks that path to victory is tied to how genuine a candidate seems, regardless of whether that turns off some people.
“I want them to be very unapologetic about what they believe in,” said McGlade, 25. “I don’t know that you need to go as far to the middle as some people in the past have … it’s not the ’90s anymore.”