Donald Trump’s May 24th rally in Albuquerque, New Mexico garnered even more media attention that normal due to the protests outside. The chaos there was symbolic of the passion with which many people react to Trump, whether positively or negatively. But Tuesday’s event was also symbolic of something else: Trump’s gender strategy in 2016. In one evening, he displayed some key – and contradictory – elements of how he’s navigating gender dynamics this year.
It seems that with each presidential contest, the media loves to identify a target women’s constituency as being vital to a campaign’s success. In 1996, pundits claimed that Soccer Moms—largely white, suburban mothers—held the key to Bill Clinton’s re-election. In 2008 and 2012, Democrats worried about Obama’s appeal to WalMart Moms, largely white women with less education who struggle to make ends meet.
Donald Trump is now the presumptive Republican nominee for president. With that reality has come a lot of speculation about what Hillary Clinton’s strategy for running against Trump may be if she is the Democratic nominee. After all, 16 Republicans have already tried a myriad of tactics to beat Trump, and all have failed. Rising above the fray didn’t work for Ben Carson, and hitting Trump back punch for punch didn’t work for Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz.
In the 2016 race, just as coverage has asked about Clinton’s “woman bump,” conversations have already begun about her “man problem.” Much of this coverage raises questions about whether women are any more likely or men less likely to vote for a woman candidate due to her gender. Research proves that candidate gender is not a primary indicator of voting behavior, as party trumps gender in vote choice. Still, some commentators have looked at Clinton’s dearth of support among male voters in recent general election polls to claim a woman nominee might face a higher hurdle with men at the ballot box.
Just ahead of the Pennsylvania primary on April 26th, I watched like a freeway rubbernecker as former President Bill Clinton challenged and debated Black Lives Matter activists about the 1994 crime bill and its impact on black communities. The protesters chanted that “black youth are not super-predators.” This phrase is clearly connected to Hillary Clinton’s statements in support of her husband’s bill, an issue that has dogged her on the campaign. Two months earlier in response to a similar protest before the South Carolina primary, Hillary Clinton attempted to quash critics by saying, “Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today.” Instead of parroting his wife’s earlier mea culpa, Bill Clinton engaged protesters in a fifteen minute debate where he vehemently defended the need for the crime bill and challenged protesters’ perspectives by saying, “You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter.” This interaction was surprising for two reasons. First, Bill Clinton said a year ago that he regretted signing the crime bill because of its role in the mass incarceration of black and brown people. Thus, it seemed he was going back on that statement. More importantly for the 2016 election, he threatened to undo much of the work that his wife has done to shore up support among blacks and secure their votes right before major northeastern primaries.
As the primary contests begin to wind down and it looks more and more like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be the Democratic and Republican nominees for president, each of the candidates has begun to pivot to a general election mindset. Among other things, this means that each is beginning to campaign with the other as an eventual opponent in mind. For Donald Trump, this has meant giving attention to Hillary Clinton’s sex. Just last week, he stated that she lacked the requisite experience to be president and was only successful in her run for the Democratic nomination because she is a woman. While a nation of women looked on in bemusement as a male candidate suggested that being a woman was an advantage to a presidential candidate, Trump accused Clinton of playing the “women’s card.” He then proceeded to claim that “women don’t like her.”
On CNN’s New Day this week, Donald Trump told Chris Cuomo, “Look, women want strength. They want security. They want to have strong military. They want to know that our country is being protected.” In making the case that Hillary Clinton could not provide that protection, Trump played into the masculine protectionism ubiquitous in the Republican campaign to date. In essence, he positioned himself as the protector that women want, despite evidence to the contrary.