Complex History

04.19.14

Can Hillary Clinton Count on Women This Time?

They famously supported her in 2008—until they helped Obama win Iowa. So will the grandmother-to-be inspire female voters next cycle, or will they judge her on a harsher scale?

The event where Chelsea Clinton announced her pregnancy this week was billed as “Girls: A No Ceilings Conversation.” But many saw it as much more than a “conversation” about the future of girls and women around the world. Instead, it looked like the first unofficial campaign event of a 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential run. After all, women have been considered the key to any Clinton victory. The question now, however, seems to be: Will they be?

Clinton has a notoriously complex history with women. In some circles, she has been a feminist icon forever. In others, she’s seen as the woman who stayed with Bill Clinton when plenty were rooting for her to leave him, and the woman who pointedly did not stay home and bake cookies, and who seemed to question the choices of women who did.

While a new Fox News poll finds the 2016 presidential race is Clinton’s to lose—she leaves Vice President Joe Biden in the dust in a primary matchup and beats all other Republican contenders, albeit by a smaller margin—women voters are really a wild card. Many forget that Barack Obama’s presidential hopes went from long shot to real shot after an Iowa victory over Clinton that was due not only to young voters but also to women.

Of course women voters are not required to support a female candidate, but in Clinton’s case, if they don’t support her, and in strong numbers, she has a tougher path to victory. Risa Heller, a communications consultant who has worked with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), among other politicians, said Clinton winning the White House would be a “watershed moment for women.” Calling the “Girls” conversation “brilliant,” Heller said: “She as a female candidate for president should be able to captivate women. I think the idea behind what they are doing right now is allowing her to talk to all kinds of women. Theoretically, they should be her base.”

But asked whether women voters are harder on other women and that’s why certain female candidates, including failed New York City mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn, are unable to captivate women voters, Heller said women are held to different standards—by both men and women. “I think women facing female voters or male voters feel in a lot of ways they have more to prove,” she said. “I think that’s just the way the world works.”

“She can bring to the table people who want to make history with her.”

But Marcia Dyson, who served as a surrogate for the Clinton campaign during the 2008 primary—while her husband, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, served as a high-profile supporter of the Obama campaign—says women are much harder on other women, and Clinton’s last campaign fell victim to that. “It amazed me when I heard some of the things I did from other women about the secretary of state,” Dyson said. Men may compete in venues such as sports, she said, but women can be competitive in much less overt ways: “We judge based on our own narrow biases and lack of self-esteem.” Women “portray our own inadequacies on her: ‘[Hillary] couldn’t do it because I couldn’t even think to do it’ [run for president].’”

David Paleologos, a leading national pollster, said that despite women being the majority voters in primaries and general elections, in polling and focus groups he has found women are extremely tough on female candidates. But he also said he believes Clinton is one of the women who can transcend that—because he’s seen her do it before. Paleologos, in his role as director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, was one of the only pollsters in the country who didn’t have egg on his face after Clinton engineered her primary comeback in New Hampshire in 2008. While most polls had Obama handily winning the state, Paleologos, citing two of his polls of so-called bellwether towns, predicted the race was at least a dead heat. One of the reasons for Clinton’s success, he told me in a phone interview, was that her campaign found women who had not voted in as many as four election cycles and convinced them to vote for her.

“Voting is an emotional act,” he said. “As a pollster, I look at intensity. I look at not only ‘Are they likely voters?’ but ‘What’s the real motivation?’” He continued, “The key is: ‘Who can a candidate bring to the table who are the un-polled?’” The key to Obama’s victories, Paleologos explained, has been finding people who are not traditional voters but who like him, and then convincing them he is worth registering and turning out for. Clinton now has that quality among more people than she used to, the pollster said: “She can bring to the table people who want to make history with her.”

Furthermore, he said that contrary to highlighting her age in a way that may work against her, becoming a grandmother only expands the circle of voters who are more likely to find her relatable. Describing political constituencies as a venn diagram, he said, “She has enough intersections in the circles to drive the intensity of women voters.” To women who once thought she was driven only by her career, she’s now a relatable soon-to-be grandmother. To women who once found her cold, she is the woman who endured marital troubles but bounced back. To women who feel they’ve been passed over for a promotion for a younger, less experienced male, she has handled losing the presidency with dignity and ultimately became secretary of state.

“Those who hated on her when she was running probably rethought it when they saw what a stellar secretary of state she was,” said Dyson.

Paleologos predicted that making “history will likely supersede all of the splinters that may exist among these different women voters.” He concluded: “Ultimately voters have to ask themselves, ‘Does Hillary Clinton deserve to be a part of history? When you’re down in Washington and you go to the wax museum’s Hall of Presidents, do you believe she belongs there?’ And that ultimately may be the deciding question, not whether you agree with her on Benghazi.”

“I think a lot of women will buy into that,” he said.