Published on TheHill.com on May 24, 2016
In the past few days, Hillary Clinton has fallen behind Donald Trump in a number of major national polls. But there’s worse news for Clinton: Her losses are almost entirely among female voters. Women are emerging as the moving piece in this year’s presidential election.
In April, Fox News showed Clinton beating Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee, 48 percent to 41 percent; women backed the former secretary of State by a 22-point margin. But in the network’s May survey, Trump led Clinton 45 percent to 42 percent, largely because her margin among women dropped to only 12 points.
If women are the swing voters in this election, Clinton is in deep trouble. She needs an overwhelming victory among female voters to power her way to an electoral majority. She cannot afford 10- to 15-point swings among her base.
The last time Hillary Clinton fell so dramatically among women was Christmas 2015, when she dropped from a 26-point lead over Trump in December of 2015 to only 12 points ahead in January 2016.
Both these periods prominently featured allegations against her husband, Bill Clinton, in the mainstream news. These past few weeks have been highlighted by Trump reminding voters that the former president has been accused of rape by Juanita Broaddrick.
These allegations sting so deeply because so many of these voters were not around to witness them when they first surfaced, in the 1990s — they are news to younger female voters.
Part of the reason for the searing impact of this issue on Hillary Clinton’s electability stems, of course, from the centrality of women’s concerns to her campaign. Her speeches against sexual abuse, mistreatment of women and sexual harassment ring less true when the predator is her husband.
Why does she react so viscerally to these charges? You would think the sting would have worn off by now. But they strike at the very basis of Clinton’s legitimacy to be president. If her marriage has not been a real marriage, her entire resume is suspect.
Every stage of Clinton’s advancement has been based on her marriage. Her very presence in our national spotlight began when she became first lady — a post conferred by marriage. If the marriage is a sham, so is the prestige that flows from her exhausted resume. Indeed, these accusations lead many women to question whether Clinton has spent her lifetime enabling her husband so as to achieve more political power for herself.
After all, she got a job at the Rose Law Firm when Bill Clinton became Arkansas attorney general. She made partner when he became governor. After she stood up for her husband against Gennifer Flowers, she got control of healthcare policy. And when she did so again, this time against Monica Lewinsky, she got a smooth path to the Democratic nomination for Senate in New York without a primary.
Attacks on her marriage are attacks on her very legitimacy, and they particularly impact women, who have to decide how much Hillary Clinton is a feminist role model or a woman who looks the other way to achieve political power.
These attacks also make it very difficult for the Democratic front-runner to paint Trump as misogynistic — her husband has done far worse. In taking away the woman’s issue from Clinton’s arsenal against Trump, the allegations against the former president severely impede her chances at winning.
Clinton may be losing the war for women.