AFTER HILLARY: CAN A WOMAN WIN?
Yes. Certainly. Absolutely. Undoubtedly. She can. In fact, Hillary, even in defeat, demonstrated the viability of a female candidate for president.
Hillary lost because she is Hillary and because she was outsmarted by Obama. She lost despite being a woman, not because of it.
In the early going, before Obama began seriously to challenge her, Hillary was winning easily in all the national polls. There was, indeed, a sense of inevitability to her impending triumph. This consensus was not illusory; it was based on solid polling data and very real advantages she had at the time in funding, name recognition, field organization, and political momentum. Hillary lost because of a myriad of factors, none of which had to do with being female:
1. She unwisely predicated her campaign her experience credentials. In a Democratic primary, particularly with its aversion to the dynastic interchange of Bushes and Clintons, change, not experience was the sine qua non. By stressing experience to an electorate that wanted change, Hillary badly misjudged the mood of the electorate.
2. Obama shrewdly realized that, since he might lose some of the contests in big states like New York and California, he needed to raise his money from sources that would not implode as his chances of victory seemed to ebb. So the Illinois Senator exploited his star power and charisma to raise money online from individual donors contributing small amounts. By the end of the primary season, he had amassed more than one million separate donors. Because of the financial independence this afforded him, Hillary could not score a first round knockout after she won the big Super Tuesday states. Obama survived to win eleven straight caucuses and primaries in mid size states.
3. Hillary focused too much on television advertising to develop a mass voter base in the primaries and not enough on the field organization she needed to get the warm bodies essential to carrying caucuses. By cultivating university students, in particular, Obama was able to beat Hillary in caucus after caucus, eroding the lead her primary victories had given her.
4. Faced with the need to substantiate her claims to experience, Hillary blundered and committed a series of gaffes in which she demonstrably overstated her role in events that ranged from th3e Irish peace process to the economic recovery to the resolution of the Bosnian civil war. Already beset by doubts about her integrity, spawned by two decades of scandal, Hillary’s credibility was shredded by these mistakes.
But, despite these shortcomings, Hillary showed that a woman could draw the votes of downscale, often sexist, white men. In the her late primary victories in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indian, West Virginia, and Kentucky, Hillary won, not only by securing the votes of women of all ages, but by getting the backing of high school educated white men, formerly the toughest nut for a woman candidate to crack. Of course, she was helped along by the racism of many of these voters, catalyzed by the ravings of Reverend Wright. But the fact remains that she won these votes over a male opponent, something women candidates were not supposed to be able to do.
And, in the process, Hillary shattered a number of other myths that pundits had once cited to show that women couldn’t win. She raised a prodigious amount of money, a sharp contrast to the enforced parsimony which had afflicted so many female candidates in the past. She was never seriously challenged for not knowing her substance on key issues. Her demonstrably high intelligence and familiarity with the facts made it clear that she was substantively qualified to be president, a far cry from the “airhead” label that had frequently been affixed to women running for office. And she allayed fears that a woman could not be an effective commander-in-chief. Almost all the polls showed that more voters trusted her than Obama on issues of defense, national security, and terrorism.
Of course her campaign demonstrated pitfalls for future female candidates to avoid. Voters were quicker to draw negative conclusions about Hillary’s personality than they likely would have been had she been male. Concerns that she was “cold” or “unemotional” or “robotic” surfaced early in the polling, while candidates like Mitt Romney, who, arguabley, could have been subject to similar criticism, were not.
But most important, Hillary demonstrated the power of women voters to elect a female candidate. Her top heavy margins among upscale women and her strong performance among their downscale sisters, showed that women can get the female vote and use it as a platform from which to win.
After all, if we discount the February primaries and caucuses in which Hillary was caught flat-footed and out of money (because she assumed Obama would be knocked out on Super Tuesday), the New York Senator clearly outdrew Obama and would have captured the nomination easily.
The lesson is clear: Being a woman is not a handicap in running for president. It is, rather, a priceless asset. It is not, however, enough by itself to assure victory.