Hillary Clinton's challenge: Sexism or 'Clinton-ism'?

As Hillary Clinton seeks to become the first woman president, her last name could be a bigger problem than her gender. The e-mail issue is a steady reminder.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes the stage to speak at the New Hampshire Democratic Party State Convention in Manchester last month.

Hillary Clinton takes the stage to cheers and extended applause at Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, N.H., and holds her hand to her chest.

“My heart is just racing!” the Democratic presidential front-runner exclaims, looking out at the sea of smiling faces, bobbing signs – some saying “Women for H” – and inflatable noisemaker sticks. After her 40-minute speech, former Secretary Clinton even does a little jig with supporters.

Yet when Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders comes out to address the 4,000 attendees moments later, he is greeted even more enthusiastically. Along with the usual crowd of young Sanders activists, there is a sizable contingent of older women wearing “Bernie” T-shirts and waving “Bernie” signs.

It is another reminder that no votes are a sure thing for Clinton, even those of Democratic women who have long dreamed of seeing one of their own in the Oval Office. Indeed, a 29 percentage point decline over the summer in Clinton’s national support among Democratic-leaning female primary voters suggests that the historic nature of her candidacy is losing some of its pull.

The decline coincided with growing questions about her exclusive use of a private e-mail server during her time as secretary of State. And most immediately, Clinton’s challenge is to survive her e-mail troubles. But beyond that, her summer decline speaks to a need to knit together the complex points of her persona into something that enough Americans will embrace. 

She is a woman, now emphasizing all the history that includes but still grappling with public expectations of female candidates.

She is a Clinton, dealing with all the benefits and drawbacks that the name presents, and – at the moment – perhaps being harmed by it.

And she is Hillary, the über policy wonk.

Clinton's drop in support among Democratic women – from 71 percent in July to 42 percent in September, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll – attracted special notice by political observers. But the drop cannot be fully attributed to the e-mail investigation, some say. After all, Democrats are less concerned about the e-mails than are Republicans. But the situation could feed into larger concerns.

One is that the issue may make Clinton less electable. And “more deeply, with Democrats it’s just another thing that plays into people not trusting the Clintons,” says Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. “Not just Hillary, but Bill, too.”

Hillary's 'Clinton problem'

Is it possible, then, that Hillary Clinton is already so well known – starting as a first lady deeply immersed in policy, then United States senator, 2008 presidential candidate, and secretary of State – and is so closely tied to her husband, former President Bill Clinton, that her gender loses some of its pop as a factor for voters? In a word, yes.

“People have vehement reactions to her in one direction or another, and have for 20 years,” says Jennifer Lawless, an expert on women and politics at American University in Washington. “So I’ve often said that if people are fundamentally opposed to her, I’m not convinced that it’s sexism; it could be ‘Clinton-ism.’ ”

The “Clinton” aspect of her candidacy has multiple dimensions. There's the positive side – the peace and prosperity that marked her husband's presidency. Then there's the centrist approach to politics that was a hallmark of her husband’s time in office, when “triangulation” was the name of the game – playing off both Republicans and Democrats. To liberals, this is a negative. Then there are the controversies and scandals that ran through the Clinton years, most notably Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky.

Questions about Hillary Clinton’s e-mails – as well as the propriety of foreign donations to the Clinton family foundation while she ran the State Department – feed an existing narrative about the Clintons and secrecy that gives some voters pause, including Democrats. As Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers have declined, so too have her ratings on honesty and trustworthiness.

For Clinton, it has been assumed that her gender would give her a boost among women voters. But the Washington Post-ABC News poll shows her support among men and women as equal.

How women see Hillary

How women voters, in particular, assess women running for office is open to debate. One study shows that women are harder on female candidates than on male candidates.

Another study finds just the opposite, that women have a slight preference for women candidates.

At a Clinton campaign event in Portland, Maine, on Sept. 18, the young mom and community activist, Katie Mae Simpson, who introduced Clinton made clear she’s been excited about the idea of a woman president ever since she watched the 1988 Democratic National Convention with her dad, and wondered why no women were running.

Standing in the back of the auditorium at King Middle School in Portland, Cassandra Gelpi has nothing but high praise for Clinton.

“I’ve idolized her since she was the first lady, trying to fix health care,” Ms. Gelpi says. “She’s a proven leader.”

“First woman president” is just a “bonus feature,” she says.

But when her husband, Robert Gelpi, is asked about Clinton, gender is his first point: “It’s about time we had a woman in the White House.”

The idea of a woman president is now nearly universally acceptable to Americans – 92 percent, according to Gallup.

But Professor Lawless of American University calls Clinton’s initial levels of support among women “unrealistically high and inflated.” Clinton tapped into the enthusiasm for her new candidacy before the Sanders campaign took off and Vice President Joe Biden began openly contemplating a run. Clinton’s numbers now are not especially low, Lawless adds.

Ronna Hamelin, a Sanders supporter attending the New Hampshire Democratic convention, supported Clinton eight years ago, but has been all in for Sanders since he announced.

“I’d love to see a woman president, but I don’t think I’ll live long enough,” she says. “I think [gender] is going to be the last priority on the agenda of who we elect.”

For her, Sanders’ platform is more important.

“I am a pretty far left liberal, so I never thought in my lifetime that I’d see a candidate who so closely aligned with what I believe in,” adds Ms. Hamelin, chair of the Democratic Party in Newmarket, N.H.

Hamelin admires Clinton for going to China in 1995, and declaring that “women’s rights are human rights.” But, she says, Clinton has changed. “I don’t like that she takes money from Wall Street and I think that has to impact the stands she takes,” Hamelin says.

She’s also clear on what hasn’t affected her opinion of Clinton. “It’s not e-mails, it’s not Benghazi, it’s not her personality,” she says, referring to the controversial attack on the United States diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. “I’m a progressive and Bernie is a progressive, and I stand by his ideas.”

Still, if Clinton is the Democratic nominee, Hamelin says she’ll vote for her. All but one of the dozen Sanders supporters interviewed at the convention echoed that view.

The line on Clinton is that, this time, she’s running for president “as a woman” – as if she could run as anything else.

The point is, she’s talking more about women’s issues than she did in her last campaign – equal pay, reproductive rights, child care – and about being a mother, a daughter, and now a grandmother. Earlier this month, her campaign launched a “Women for Hillary” initiative. Last week, Clinton reached out to Millennial women by sitting down for an interview with “Girls” star (and Clinton supporter) Lena Dunham.

When Clinton began her 2008 candidacy heavily favored to win the Democratic nomination, she appeared to take female voters’ support for granted. It was obvious, her approach suggested, that she’d make history as the first woman president. After the Super Tuesday primaries, she began to play up the “woman angle” to her candidacy. But by then, it was too late. Then-Sen. Barack Obama was on the path to his own historic presidency.

Mr. Obama’s charisma and superior campaign strategy beat Clinton’s workaday style. This time, Clinton has hired key members of Team Obama, but she is who she is, analysts say – more head over heart.

Running as herself

At a recent event at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, to unveil her “New College Compact,” a plan to address crushing student debt, Clinton showed encyclopedic knowledge of the details. The vibe was more symposium than pep rally. Two days later, Sanders drew five times as many people to the same university.

Sanders gets points for “authenticity,” as he sticks to the same democratic socialist views he’s had for decades. In the process, he has created his own brand of grumpy-old-white-guy charisma. Clinton has begun to address criticism that she’s too “calculating,” that she shapes her positions to the politics of the day.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, Clinton was asked whether part of Sanders’ appeal was the consistency of his views, such as his opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, to which she just announced her opposition. 

“I can just tell you that I am not someone who stakes out a position and holds it regardless of the evidence or regardless of the way that I perceive what's happening in the world around me,” Clinton said.

In short, Clinton is not trying to be someone she’s not, both in substance and style. During a recent, tense encounter with members of the Black Lives Matter movement, Clinton listened patiently while a young activist spoke, then offered some advice.

"Look, I don't believe you change hearts," Clinton said. "I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.”

Her husband, the master campaigner, might well have handled the scene differently, perhaps defusing the tension by putting his arm around the young man, and conveying that he “feels his pain.” But that’s not Hillary Clinton.

“What Hillary has decided to do in 2016 is run as herself,” says Karrin Vasby Anderson, a professor of communications at Colorado State University. “She’s a pragmatist. She’s a policy wonk. She understands the issues. It’s her strength, and this time she’s playing to her strength.”

She’s also not a hugger like her husband. Some experts say the perceived physical constraints faced by women candidates with national aspirations apply to more than just Hillary Clinton.

“Women presidential candidates can’t be huggers, because then it gets into all the weird mommy stuff,” says Mary Stuckey, a communications professor at Georgia State University. “Hillary wants people to respect her. I don’t believe she campaigns as someone who wants us to love her.”

That’s not to say women candidates can’t be charismatic. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts has charisma, at least to liberals. So does former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) on the right, no doubt part of why Sen. John McCain put her on the GOP ticket in 2008.

The political challenges of being a woman

But there is clearly baggage that comes with being a trailblazer for women in the highest level of politics.

Clinton has faced plenty of gendered, sexist reactions over the years, including all the attention to her hair, her voice, and her clothes. To Rush Limbaugh, her laugh is a “cackle,” her voice like that of a “screeching ex-wife.” Just recently, Donald Trump called her “shrill.”

In 2008, when Clinton persisted in battling Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination to the bitter end, she was likened to Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction.” This year, on the eve of her campaign announcement, “Saturday Night Live” portrayed her pursuit of the presidency as near-maniacal.

“That was a great example of how a woman, unlike a man, can’t look like she wants it too much,” says Professor Anderson of Colorado State, an expert on women in politics.

Longtime political observers see Clinton generally being judged more harshly than a man would be.

“Hillary Clinton has to do A+ work to get a C, … I think because she’s a woman,” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO labor coalition, said at a recent Monitor breakfast for reporters. And Mr. Trumka is no shill for Clinton. He’s unhappy that she has yet to state a position on the proposed Pacific-rim trade agreement

One of the challenges Clinton faces is that there’s no real-life model for what it looks like to be a female American president. Just as Obama has had to avoid the stereotype of the “angry black male,” Clinton “can’t be the hysterical girl,” says Professor Stuckey of Georgia State.

“She can’t really show frustration, she can’t really show emotion,” Stuckey adds. “So I think that what we’re seeing in those awkward moments” – like the interaction with the Black Lives Matter activists – “is that she’s trying to enact a role that she doesn’t quite own, because we don’t know what that role is."

The world stage has many examples of strong, tough female leaders, including the late Margaret Thatcher of Britain (“The Iron Lady”) and Angela Merkel of Germany. Many, including those two, reached the top via the parliamentary system. In the American, presidential system, the election of the top leader is more direct. And Americans typically also want their presidents to be likable.

Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and the only woman in the Republican field, is known for toughness. In her breakout performance in the second GOP debate, she barely smiled. But what mattered was that on a range of topics, she commanded the room. And she stood up to Donald Trump, who had disparaged her appearance. She can (and must) work on likability next, observers say.

Experts warn against comparing the Fiorina and Clinton candidacies too closely. Ms. Fiorina is new to the national stage; Clinton has been globally famous for more than 20 years. But even if neither is the next president, this cycle has already been historic. For the first time, both major parties are fielding strong female candidates.

And “every time a woman runs,” says Professor Bystrom of Iowa State, “it opens the door a little wider for the next woman.”

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