The 2020 Glossy Primary Is Underway

There has been a flurry of Democratic bylines in women’s magazines.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, accompanied by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand, at a news conference in September
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Hanna Trudo
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Hanna Trudo
Nov. 6, 2017, 8 p.m.

If they lose Cosmo, they’ll lose the country.

That’s the spirit Democrats have channeled through their off-year messaging push to women, a must-win demographic to defeat President Trump.

Less than 10 months into the new administration and a year out from the midterms, Democrats thought to be eyeing national bids have sounded off in outlets like Cosmopolitan with striking frequency, drawing attention to steps being taken to target women voters outraged by the country’s top leadership.

With the Iowa caucuses just over two years away, the stakes for publishing now are low. Democrats can test-run messaging on core issues like health care, jobs, and education against topics like birth control and equal pay. And as Trump’s favorability with women continues to sink in polls, they can tap into readers’ general anger without getting too specific on policies or making big campaign promises.

“It’s the women’s equivalent of what Trump does in terms of tweeting,” said Celinda Lake, a longtime Democratic pollster who focuses on framing issues to female voters. “It’s a way to have a direct communication with your base.”

So far, the stack of national bylines in women’s magazines reads like a 2020 watch list. Former Vice President Joe Biden, along with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Cory Booker of New Jersey have written for a mix of Cosmopolitan, Essence, Glamour, Marie Claire, Refinery29, and Teen Vogue, among others.

One issue likely to matter to any potential female base voter is sexual assault, which Biden and Gillibrand wrote about individually in Cosmopolitan months before a wave of misconduct allegations brought the issue into the national media’s consciousness.

“I felt like a lone voice as a man speaking out about violence against women,” Biden wrote in April about the Violence Against Women Act he introduced over 20 years ago. “Today, thousands of people have signed the pledge to stop sexual assault, and young women and men are leading the way,” Biden added about a program he launched with President Obama to inspire citizens to speak up.

Gillibrand took to the magazine to condemn Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for rolling back assault protections on campuses. “The Department of Education should never turn its back on sexual assault survivors—and I’m ready to fight to make sure they don’t,” she wrote.

Trump’s supporters did not turn against him during the campaign after accusations of the president’s own misconduct against women. But as his approval rating fell to 38 percent in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, his approval among white women without a college degree nosedived to 40 percent, down 10 points from the previous month.

Despite capturing 12 percentage points more women voters nationally, Hillary Clinton failed to win over white women without college degrees, losing to Trump by a 27-point margin. Trump’s decline in support from that segment of the electorate likely served as an affirmation to Democrats that it’s smart to target women more broadly now.

“A lot of these candidates are probably thinking, ‘How can I shore up that support early on?’” said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University.

Meanwhile, the sheer number of women potentially running for president—Warren, Harris, and Gillibrand, along with Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota—pops for magazine editors who want more political content.

“There’s a huge benefit to just saying you’re going there for a makeup tip and seeing Kirsten Gillibrand’s face,” said Amanda Carpenter, a Republican strategist who ran Sen. Ted Cruz’s communications effort ahead of his presidential bid. “It’s almost like a free ad.”

A spokesperson for Hearst magazines said editors at Elle, Marie Claire, and Cosmopolitan have “definitely” seen more interest in political coverage from readers after the election. And a recent Pew Research poll suggests more women than men have paid increased attention to politics since 2016.

But critical to future campaign success, multiple strategists agree, is to target women as early as possible—even as a man.

Biden, Booker, and Cuomo—generally high on lists of possible presidential contenders—have collaborated with Marie Claire, Refinery29, and Teen Vogue about reform for women in prisons and equal pay, among other issues.

And it was during an interview with a trendy fashion magazine that Biden sounded more like a candidate than in prior mainstream sit-downs.

“I think this moment in American history sort of fits into my wheelhouse and the strengths I have,” he told InStyle magazine last month. “I am, I think most people would say, fairly knowledgeable about American foreign policy. I’m pretty good at diplomacy internationally and bringing people together, cutting through and settling things. And I think what people are looking for most, and I hope I have it, is authenticity.”

The same day the profile ran online, Vanity Fair published its own piece featuring Biden saying, “I’m not going to decide not to run.”

Lake said it’s no coincidence that men are popping up in pages alongside their female counterparts. “Because there will be a number of women candidates who will run, the men smartly understand they need to develop a long-term relationship with women voters as well,” she said.

Notably, Sen. Bernie Sanders has been largely absent from the women’s messaging circuit. He was scheduled to address the Women’s Convention last month in Detroit, though his invitation to do so sparked outrage. The independent senator from Vermont, who generally underperformed among women against Clinton in the Democratic primaries, later opted out of the event.

Carpenter says op-ed placement is part of any possible candidate’s “testing ground” phase, regardless of gender. “If I’m Elizabeth Warren or Cory Booker, I want to see if I can go to this audience and see what kind of reaction I can get,” she said.

On top of targeting women breaking away from Trump, Democrats are also likely looking to maintain and benefit from the support that Clinton enjoyed last year among young women, whom she won by over 30 points.

“Appealing to Democratic women in one sense is important because there will be a hotly contested primary,” Lawless said. “That’s like the ‘who do you love the most?’ category.”

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