There is no mistaking that Hillary Clinton is on a mission to become the first woman president of the United States. The Democratic front-runner is putting her experience and gender into focus on the 2016 campaign trail.
“This time around Hillary is honestly being more of herself. She is willing to talk about her experiences as a woman living in what is still largely looked at as a man’s world and that experience might be a benefit and a credential to her leadership,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women.
Dittmar says during the 2008 election, instead of discussing her background in women’s equal rights Clinton tried to prove that she is tough enough and ready to lead on day one of the presidency.
“It was not at all about being a woman in fact the reflection of her campaign staff was that it would be a negative to focus on that,” said Dittmar. “I think now she is walking that fine line all the time.”
Striking a balance between qualifications and likeability is a challenge for female candidates compared to their male counterparts according to new research by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. The study released in November found voters expect women to prove they are qualified for the job but assume men are already qualified just because they are in the race. Another finding shows voters will support a qualified male candidate they do not like but will not vote for a qualified female candidate that is not likeable. That could mean an uphill battle for the former Secretary of State who has kept a safe distance from the public.
“There have always been critiques of Hillary not being personable enough. It’s hard for someone who has had secret service surrounding her for over two decades to seem relatable to any of us. How do you do that when you have been living a life that is so different from the rest of us?” said Dittmar.
Relating to Hillary on a personal level is not the only obstacle; the other is gaining support from voters who question her past.
“Every single American and every single voter already has an impression of Hillary, people’s ideas are not necessarily rooted in sexism but what I call ‘Clintonism’,” said Jennifer Lawless, director of American University’s Women & Politics Institute.
“Hillary Clinton is being perceived by a large percentage of the electorate as unlikeable. There are people who love her and people who hate her, she is quite polarizing. It’s not because she is a woman it is because she is Hillary Clinton.”
Lawless says the Clinton's have always had an air of secrecy about them since President Bill Clinton served as commander-in-chief and their honesty has also been put into question. In the last several months, Clinton has been dealing with an email scandal extending from her days as Secretary of State but that hasn’t had much impact in her poll numbers. According to a Fox News poll in early November, 47% of men and 62% of women Democratic primary voters support Hillary Clinton for the nomination. An 8 percentage point increase with men and 13 percentage point jump with women from the October poll.
As Clinton rises in the primary polls, Dittmar says she doesn’t have the Democratic women’s vote all locked up just yet. She says Hillary must make an effort to energize and engage all women in her outreach efforts, especially African American females who voted at the highest rate in 2008 with 9.4 million and 10.4 million in 2012 according to research by Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.
“Black women are the most reliable voters and the most reliable Democratic voters. Hillary needs those voters to come out and support her on Election Day,” said Dittmar. “She needs to make sure she is doing outreach to women broadly and representing their issues.”
Dittmar says there is no doubt that Clinton will attempt to win Democratic women over but says there will be a ceiling with her support base.
"She can always do better with women but Republican women are not going to vote for Hillary Clinton just because she is a woman.”
Clinton has been accused of “playing the gender card” by some of her Republican opponents, Dittmar says gender is a campaign strategy for both sexes.
“Everybody in this race and everybody in every race is playing the gender card, men have been playing the gender card forever to prove they're masculine enough to do the job,” said Dittmar.
“Nearly every male candidate announces his run for office surrounded by his wife and children, showing he is the patriarch of the family. It is not an image that most people would be comfortable with if a woman was the lead and her family was in the background.”