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Being a Woman Doesn’t Guarantee Hillary Clinton the 'Women’s Vote' in 2016

The self-styled “ceiling cracker” announced her long-anticipated presidential bid on Sunday, but her 2008 campaign showed that gender could work both for and against her.
Photo by Danny Johnston/AP

What's the opposite of underdog, long shot, and dark horse? Perhaps Hillary Clinton, who on Sunday became the first woman and Democrat to declare a presidential bid for 2016, can shed light on the pressures and pitfalls of being the front-runner in an election.

Clinton, a self-professed, "Wife, mom, lawyer, women & kids advocate, FLOAR, FLOTUS, US Senator, SecState, author, dog owner, hair icon, pantsuit aficionado, glass ceiling cracker, [and] TBD…" on Twitter, ended months of speculation from pundits and her more than 3 million Twitter followers about what that last tagline on her profile may presage. For now, that seems to be "presidential hopeful," and, if the prognostications of recent favorable polls are right, perhaps even soon-to-be "Democratic Party nominee."


Clinton announced her candidacy Sunday with a video posted on her Facebook page.

Part of the positive buzz surrounding Clinton's campaign at dinner tables and in the media is that she has advantage over her male rivals and, being a woman, will hands-down win the so-called "women's vote."

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That's not necessarily so, according to Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, who told VICE News that it takes more than simply being a woman to woo female voters.

"The power of that vote is really about party, not so much about the gender of the candidate," Walsh said. "We've seen many Republican women who've run for office against Democratic men and there's been a gender gap in that race. The Democratic male is who's benefitting from the woman's vote.

"There are exceptions, and that there's a good chance that [Clinton] will see an additional plus," Walsh added. "But as a democratic candidate we would expect to see a gender vote that would benefit her regardless."

The horses are still at the gate in this nascent presidential race, and Clinton faces many hurdles before any possible return to the White House, which this time would see her husband and former US president, Bill, serving as the first ever First Gentleman. It could be a year of firsts for both politicians and the US, where women comprise only 19 percent of Congress and the country has yet to see its first female major party presidential nominee, let alone first madame head of state.


That means Clinton still has time to work around controversies like her use of private email, questions about foundation donations, and the malingering hangover of Benghazi to win 2016. But, even though Clinton is currently polling ahead of her rivals — among them declared presidential candidates Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and presumptive contender Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is expected to declare his hat-throw into the political ring on Monday — she still faces battles with the media and her public image before she can prevail.

Clinton's 2008 presidential bid forebode a fraction of the intense scrutiny she will face — not only on her policies and political record, but also on her hairdo, sense of style, persona, whether she can cope with being a grandmother, her age (67), and other attributes that male electoral counterparts will never have to face to the same level, Walsh said.

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"For male candidates it's enough to be seen as competent — voters may like you or not like you but if you're competent that's the bar," she said. "But for women, it's a combination of both competence and likability."

The shadow of 2008 — when the then-senator Clinton, an early favorite in the primaries, ultimately lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama — hovers over her upcoming campaign. Back then, even Clinton's well-known surname and extensive political experience was not enough to carry her against Obama's affirmative message.


There were also many times in 2008 that gender was used against her in the form of thinly-veiled or overt sexism from pundits who commented on her "cackle," or said they felt emasculated in her presence.

"There's just something about her that feels castrating, overbearing, and scary," MSNBC commentator Tucker Carlson said of Clinton.

Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh similarly painted her as "the woman with the testicle lockbox."

Meanwhile, hundreds of YouTube videos called Clinton a "bitch," and young men yelled "make me a sandwich" or "Iron my shirt!" as she spoke on the stump.

"From the Hillary Clinton nutcrackers being sold in airports, to the comments on cable TV news, we saw a misogynistic coverage of [Clinton's] campaign," Walsh said. "You expect it from the side that isn't inclined to support her, like Fox News, but you also heard it from MSNBC. It was on both sides. There was no way around it."

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Clinton herself hit at "the sexism that surfaced during the campaign" in her 2014 memoir Hard Choices on her four years as secretary of state.

"I knew that it arose from cultural and psychological attitudes about women's roles in society, but that didn't make it any easier for me and my supporters," she wrote.

Walsh noted that sexism was not only prevalent in Clinton's '08 effort, but also clouded former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's campaign when she ran for vice president that same year, and Michelle Bachmann's presidential run in 2012.

"Some of the stuff with Sarah Palin was very sexualized," she said. "With Michelle Bachmann, it was articles about her eyelashes or shoes," and the cover of Newsweek that dubbed her "the Queen of rage."

The focus on Clinton's likability and on aspects of her womanhood is only likely to intensify in the lead-up to 2016, where her profile and viability as a candidate have only strengthened in the last seven years, Walsh added. But, "she knows going into this what she will in fact face," and may even use it to her advantage in 2016, she said.

"The Clinton campaign has probably learned a lot from that experience," said Walsh. "This time around, they will likely embrace the fact that if elected, she will be the first woman president — to talk about that, and bring to the table in a more direct way the things that she's done in her professional life that have supported women. That's something we didn't see as much in '08, and it's something she paid a bit of a price for."

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields