Nearly all voters say they are open to a woman president and two-thirds say America is ready for a woman president, but most voters tell pollsters that gender will not play a significant role in how they cast their vote. Of course a candidate’s gender will play a role on some level, whether voters are aware of it or not. However, party is far more important than gender as a vote determinant. Even within their party, women voters do not necessarily line up behind the female candidate.
In the 2008 Democratic primary contest, women were not monolithic supporters of Hillary Clinton. Women over 45 were strong supporters, but younger women were not. Clinton lost women to Barack Obama in their first match-up in Iowa. But what happened in New Hampshire may demonstrate how gender did, in fact, play an important role in Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
In her 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton chose to emphasize that she was the tough and experienced candidate, putting gender in her back pocket. But after losing Iowa, she had that iconic moment in a coffee shop in New Hampshire where her veneer cracked and her softer and more vulnerable side came out. That early January day in New Hampshire, a female voter asked Clinton how she managed to get out the door every day and get it all done when most women struggled. It was then Hillary Clinton got emotional, teared up, and admitted that it was indeed hard, but that the campaign was personal to her and it was too important not to get up every day and try. She continued, “So as tired as I am and as difficult as it is to keep up what I try to do on the road, like occasionally exercise, trying to eat right—it’s tough when the easiest thing is pizza.”
Every woman in the room could relate to her and the news coverage was extensive enough to make sure every woman not in the room probably saw the video clip. Suddenly, Hillary Clinton was a sympathetic figure, and she won the New Hampshire Democratic primary the next day. Women, particularly those over 45, turned out in droves to support her.
But the moment was fleeting. She won women in the next state, Nevada, but a week later in South Carolina, she lost women to Barack Obama. In the end, the candidates split the vote among women, who divided themselves along generational lines.
Looking ahead to 2016, two-thirds of female swing voters we surveyed in battleground states said that the idea of electing the first woman president would have no impact on their vote. However, what happened in New Hampshire in 2008 is something that could happen again. While not viewing their vote primarily through a gender prism, women we talk to in focus groups express an appreciation for how tough it is to be a woman in politics, operating largely in a man’s world. They think women are held to a higher and, in some cases, impossible standard. Some women even believe Hillary Clinton received criticism as Secretary of State that wouldn’t have been directed at a man. In this campaign, if women perceive that she is being unfairly treated or targeted, it could very well activate a sympathetic solidarity that is latent, but powerful when provoked.
This is where Republicans will need to tread carefully in 2016. First, a case can be made against Hillary Clinton’s record that does not look like a personal attack. In debates, Republican candidates should not call her “Hillary,” but address her as Secretary Clinton. In the 2014 U.S. Senate election in North Carolina, Republican candidate Thom Tillis called Senator Kay Hagan “Kay” and was called out for being disrespectful or sexist. The same recommendation applies to Republican candidate Carly Fiorina’s male primary opponents, who should tread carefully and demonstrate respect.
One of the tightropes women candidates have to walk is between being seen as tough enough, yet also warm and likeable. Because Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State, she doesn’t necessarily have to prove that she is tough enough. So this time around, Grandmother Clinton is on display, with Clinton even going so far as to tweet #grandmotherknowsbest. She is also reaching back to tell stories of her early years as a working mom at the Rose Law Firm in an attempt to woo women voters.
However, Hillary Clinton has been in the public eye for over 20 years and there are few who don’t already have a strong idea of who they think she is. It is doubtful that Hillary Clinton will be seen as a working mom with the same struggles as average women.
Women candidates, who are still less common than their male counterparts, are generally seen as less political and more honest, but not Hillary Clinton. In the survey and focus group work we have done with women, she is actually seen as more politically motivated than most politicians. In fact, many of the women we talk with believe she will say or do anything to advance politically. Voters’ views of a candidate being politically motivated is negatively correlated with their trust toward that candidate. And while women candidates tend to score higher than men on issues related to trust and honesty, recent national and battleground state polls show trust is a weak area for Hillary Clinton. Because she is known and has been in the public eye for so long, she is not benefitting from attributes that voters might normally associate with a woman candidate.
As we look ahead to 2016, we know that gender will play a role. But with Hillary Clinton as a candidate, some of the traditional ways gender has played out for women candidates may be less relevant than what voters already know about her or have observed over the past 20 years.
Christine Matthews is a partner at Burning Glass Consulting, a Republican firm run by three veteran female political consultants focused on women voters. Their firm was recently featured by Elle magazine . Christine is also President of Bellwether Research & Consulting, a public opinion research firm. In 2014, she was named a top 50 campaign influencer by Campaigns & Elections magazine.