Published on TheHill.com on May 9, 2007.
This week brought good news for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) – post-debate polls all suggest that she scored a significant victory in the first meeting of the Democratic candidates. For the moment, at least, she seems to have arrested Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) momentum and re-established a lead.
But the defeat of Segolene Royal in France at the hands of Nicolas Sarkozy may be a bad omen for the long-term health of her candidacy. Royal’s defeat was not primarily due to ideological issues. French President Jacques Chirac has long since worn out his welcome and Royal’s Socialist Party would, all other things being equal, have been in a position to exploit his unpopularity. But instead Sarkozy, like Chirac from the RPR Party, won the election. While Sarkozy has long been at loggerheads with his president, his victory cannot be attributed to party or ideology. Nor is it a latent manifestation of heretofore dormant love of the United States in the heart of the average Frenchman.
No, Royal lost because she was a woman.
And, as always, a woman does not lose an election because of overt sexism. In fact, when she commenced her run, Royal surged to a lead on the wings of a national rush of excitement at the prospect of a woman president. Just as with Hillary, her vote share among women was very high in the early going.
But it is an axiom of politics that women accumulate highly personal negatives at a faster rate -negatives that prove more long-lasting than those regarding male candidates. As I read Walter Isaacson’s magnificent biography of Albert Einstein, I find myself wondering if he could reduce this phenomenon to a mathematical formula.
For Royal, the moment when her negatives began to build was a trip to the Middle East in which she was seen to slight Israel and pour unmerited praise on the Palestinian government. But rather than being looked upon as a move to the left, explicable in the case of a Socialist, they were seen, unfairly, as a faux pas, indicative of a volatile, emotional, impulsive, ill-informed and unseasoned female candidate.
In Hillary’s case, the highly personal negatives she has accumulated are not related to a perceived lack of ability or insufficient gravitas to serve as president. Indeed, her debate performance showed how well-prepared and -equipped she is to fend for herself at this level. But the most recent Gallup Poll unearthed a bitter harvest of negative phrases voters used in open-ended questions to say why they disliked her.
To be sure, a great many voters gave favorable responses, praising her strength, stamina, determination, tenacity, outspokenness, willingness to stand up for her beliefs, intelligence, and level of knowledge.
But it is the lot of a female candidate to be judged, harshly or enthusiastically, on her personality, and to an extent quite unlike that visited upon men.
Royal also illustrates how important a female candidate’s marriage is to her campaign if her husband is high in profile. Although they are not legally married, Royal’s long-term live-in partner and the father of her children is Francois Hollande, the head of the Socialist Party. Her candidacy was not helped by the perception that he had given her the nomination in lieu of a wedding present and that he would seek to control her and pull the strings were she elected.
Royal’s defeat illustrates the vulnerability of women who run on the national stage accompanied by high-profile husbands. While Hillary’s uniqueness as the first viable female candidate for president has its uses, it also brings with it detriments.
Hillary stood out among the six candidates debating in South Carolina. As the only woman, she had no difficulty distinguishing herself and winning points for a good performance.
But the trajectory of Royal is not comforting to Hillary. Negatives adhere quickly to women running for office and, in the opening months of her candidacy, she appears to have attracted more than her share.