Are white women abandoning Hillary Clinton?

In June, white women were more likely to view Hillary Clinton favorably than unfavorably. By July, only 34 percent of white women saw her in a positive light, while 53 percent had a negative impression of her.

Andrew Harnik/AP/File
Ready for Hillary apparel and accessories are packed up at the Ready for Hillary super PAC store in Arlington, Va., April 3.

White women are the one demographic Hillary Rodham Clinton may have thought she had locked in for her 2016 Democratic primary race.

But a new poll shows the once-presumed Democratic front-runner is losing support across the board, most noticeably among this group.

In June, 44 percent of white women had a favorable view of Mrs. Clinton, edging out the 43 percent who didn’t. By July, those numbers shifted: Only 34 percent of white women saw her in a positive light, compared to 53 percent who had a negative impression of her, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

"There is no way you can say she’s in the same position this month compared to last month," said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster who co-directs the WSJ/NBC News survey. "She’s been dented and she’s in a weaker position."

To be sure, Clinton's support has faltered among other key groups, including independents, African Americans, and people ages 18-34 – all groups Democrats are counting on for 2016.

But her eroding support among women is catching the eye of political analysts. Clinton is counting on women to propel her into the White House as President Obama counted on black voters to do the same in 2008 and 2012.

And polls suggest Americans are ready for a woman president.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans said they expect to see a female president in their lifetime, according to a January 2015 Pew report.

A June 2015 Gallup poll found that 92 percent of respondents say they would be happy to vote for a female candidate in the 2016 presidential election.

Clinton has capitalized on that trend, making traditional "women's issues" – including pay equality, reproductive rights, and access to health care – a central part of her campaign.

Why, then, are white women turning away from her?

"The root of the problem for Clinton is the perceived lack of honesty and trustworthiness," says David McLennan, a visiting professor of political science at Meredith College in Raleigh, NC. "Women more than men really judge trustworthiness as a trait of the candidates." 

During Clinton's 2008 campaign, Gallup found that over half of Americans believed "honest" and "trustworthy" were not words that applied to her, Mr. McLennan noted.

If women voters judge women politicians particularly based on character, recent reports about Clinton's alleged misdeeds – such as revelations about her private email account, high speaking fees, and questionable foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation – may further tarnish her reputation among women.

"I think the email situation, which doesn’t seem to be going away, is causing the seemingly rapid drop," McLennan says, adding that her campaign approach has been "guarded."

"Unless Clinton can somehow answer the questions surrounding the email controversy specifically, this is likely to continue," he says.

A May article in the National Journal points out another surprise – young women, and particularly young feminists, are not backing Clinton as enthusiastically as previously thought.

Author Molly Mirhashem interviewed 47 young feminists about their thoughts on Clinton's candidacy. Their feelings toward the candidate, she said, were "lukewarm."

As 17-year-old Sam Viqueira told Ms. Mirhashem, "I think it’s problematic to assume that just because she’s a woman, she’s the best spokesperson for all women."

If that's the case, Clinton may be behind the curve. Today's young feminists are more focused on combating institutionalized sexism and racism in government and business, and less focused on the symbolic success of a woman president.

"Hillary Clinton came to look like the symbol of an older generation of women more concerned with female empowerment – in particular, with white, middle-class, American female empowerment – than with broader issues of social and economic justice," writes the National Journal's Mirhashem.

Clinton, for her part, appears to be aware of the shift. She's tried to make social justice a key point in her campaign.

To win back white women, McLennan says Clinton needs to appear more open and approachable.

"[S]he needs to be more open in her campaign style. Talk to the media more and talk to women more at campaign events," he says. "It sounds like she’s got something to hide and she needs to exhibit a more personal campaign, and she needs to do it sooner rather than later."

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