Ahead of the North Carolina primary, Mellicent Blythe was torn between two candidates: Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator, and Amy Klobuchar, her Minnesota colleague.
Yet when she came to cast her ballot on Tuesday, Ms Blythe, a social worker in Durham, North Carolina, found herself voting for the former vice-president Joe Biden: “I feel hypocritical because I did what I get frustrated with other people doing. I didn’t vote for Warren, because I was petrified she was going to lose out to [Bernie] Sanders and then Sanders would lose out to [President Donald] Trump.”
The 2020 Democratic primary began with a record number of women vying for the chance to run for the US presidency. Of the 29 main Democratic candidates six were women, including four senators — Ms Warren, Ms Klobuchar, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand — along with Tulsi Gabbard, the Hawaii congresswoman, and Marianne Williamson, a motivational speaker.
Now, just two of them, Ms Warren and Ms Gabbard, remain in the race with little chance of winning the nomination, an especially painful blow for Ms Warren, who at one point was a frontrunner in national polls.
On Super Tuesday, the Massachusetts senator won just a handful of delegates, finishing third in her home state and fourth in Oklahoma, the state where she was born and grew up, raising speculation that she could soon pull out.
In North Carolina, Ms Blythe said she had found Ms Klobuchar and Ms Warren more impressive than the moderate Mr Biden or the progressive Mr Sanders, but that there was an implicit bias in society, that she herself seemed to have fallen victim to: “We just don’t seem to like accomplished, capable women. As my sister-in-law said, we have to vote for the mediocre man to get the despicable man out of office.”
Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, an organisation that encourages young people to run for office, and a veteran of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, said she was “really sad” that Ms Warren had not done better, but that her own mother, a voter in Virginia, had been among those who ultimately decided to back Mr Biden.
“People want their vote to matter. They want to feel like they are on the winning team, and momentum and narrative makes a difference,” said Ms Litman.
“A very small part of me is almost relieved. Because if say Elizabeth Warren had gone all the way and lost, I’m not sure they — [whoever] they are — would have let a woman run again.”
She may not be wrong, according to Lara Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University. The last time Democrats selected a woman as the vice-presidential nominee was when Geraldine Ferraro ran as Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984, and they lost 49 of the 50 states to Ronald Reagan.
On the Republican side, the last female vice-presidential candidate was Sarah Palin, whose presence on the ticket was believed to have hurt John McCain’s campaign.
“Some of the [gender dynamics] is more like once-bitten, twice-shy and unfortunately that dynamic tends to impact women far too often in politics,” said Ms Brown.
“I think for the Democratic Party and for voters more broadly there is a moment of self-reflection that has to be done after this race about some of the gender biases around electability,” said Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. “There is a disconnect between women’s performance and the perception that women are somehow unelectable at the presidential level.”
Neither Ms Warren nor any of the other female senators in the contest had lost an election before the 2020 primary — a contrast to Mr Sanders, who has lost six House, Senate and gubernatorial races, and Mr Biden who is now in his third attempt at the White House.
When Ms Harris announced her 2020 run, she drew a crowd of 20,000 in Oakland and “skyrocketed” in one of the early debates, as one US publication put it, after directly taking on Mr Biden.
Ms Klobuchar’s surprise third-place finish in New Hampshire was dubbed “Klobmentum”, while Ms Warren has been credited with in effect destroying Mike Bloomberg’s presidential ambitions in an eviscerating debate performance that prompted Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic strategist, to tweet: “Hello 911 I want to report a murder.”
In an interview, Ms Marsh said that she believed Ms Warren had also made some strategic mistakes as a candidate, specifically her decision not to go after Mr Sanders, her main challenger for the progressive vote. However, she said she believed there were other factors at play.
“I do think a lot of voters and women did [think]: if Hillary Clinton can’t beat Donald Trump, what woman can?” she posited, adding quickly: “I think it’s a flawed analysis. But I think it’s a prevalent thought that a lot of women had.”
That disconnect is all the more striking given the success of female Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterms, when female voters played a critical role in electing a record-breaking number of women to Congress.
Of the 277 women who ran for the US House of Representatives, Senate or governor that year, 125 won their races. In all, 117 women were elected or appointed to Congress that year, or almost a third more than were sent to Congress in 2016.
Some women said they still saw some room for optimism. In North Carolina, Ms Blythe said both she and her 18 year-old daughter, another Warren fan who had voted for Mr Biden, were hopeful that the former vice-president would pick a woman as his running mate if he won the Democratic nomination.
Meanwhile, Ms Marsh, the Boston strategist, noted that in some ways it was fair to credit women, along with African-American voters, with the resuscitation of Mr Biden’s campaign, despite criticism from the Sanders camp that it had been the Democratic establishment that revived it. “I look forward to the day when women and voters of colour are ‘the establishment’,” said Ms Marsh.
Instead, she said, many women voters — particularly black women and middle-aged or older women — had come to the conclusion that Mr Biden was best positioned to take out Mr Trump in November, and had made a practical decision to support him.
“Normally Democrats are very emotional about who they support. The old line: Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line,” she said. In 2020, that calculus had been upended. “In this race, it’s all about who can win.”