Fickle female voters jeopardize Clinton, Fiorina bids
When Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton was facing questions in her campaign late in the summer, her female supporters abandoned her.
She slid from 71 percent support among women in July to 42 percent support in September, according to ABC/Washington Post polling. Now that she appears to have righted her campaign, women have come back — albeit still at a lower percentage than before.
Over on the GOP side, businesswoman Carly Fiorina has seen the same phenomenon: She soared in polling in August, driven in part by women voters, but has since lost almost all of that support as she’s tumbled to the low single digits.
It begs the question: Are women ready to elect the first woman president?
“Women are very hard on other women — they hold each other to a much higher standard,” said Phyllis Chesler, author of “Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman.” “There’s only been men in the White House, and now there’s a chance for a woman. Women think, ‘Why her and not me? Will she shame us? What if there’s something really bad about her?’ at the first sign of a downturn. A man can commit grand larceny, and other men don’t think it’s indicative of them personally, whereas women think if another woman does something crazy, then the world will look upon them suspiciously.”
According to Ms. Chesler’s research, which traces the psychology back to evolution, women have been trained to compete with other women and not men, and they don’t look to other women as their authority figure. They also mistrust each other and are afraid of abandonment despite the deep bonds they can form with one another.
“Women are comfortable with women at their own level, not women poised far above them,” Ms. Chesler said.
When it comes to voting, women do put more emphasis on gender when selecting a candidate. But it cuts both ways, according to an Associated Press study of data from the 2006 American National Election Study Pilot Test: Some women are eager to vote for a candidate because she is female, but others are also more likely to dismiss a candidate for the very same reason.
Unlike men who run for office, women have to demonstrate a so-called “electoral elasticity,” meaning they need to show they’re comfortable baking cookies at home while being willing to annihilate a foreign adversary abroad, according to Nichola Gutgold, author of “Gender and the American Presidency: Nine Presidential Women and the Barriers They Faced.”
“In order to be successful, they need to consistently switch back and forth from a very warm and feminine style to a toughas-nails administrator, and they have to convince audience members that both styles are sincere,” said Ms. Gutgold, a professor of communication at Penn State. “Men don’t have to do that because when we think of the archetype of power in the U.S., we think of a male.”
Women can be especially hard on women candidates with the life choices they made on whether to have children and then to stay at home with them or pursue a career. Although not a candidate at the time, Mrs. Clinton received much criticism among other women for defending her career in the early ’90s.
“I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life,” she said.
Yet by the same token, women voters also expect their female candidates to be prepared to take that proverbial 3 a.m. call and make tough choices.
While Americans, both male and female, have become dramatically more willing to elect a female president over the last quarter-century, the traditional 1950s view of a woman’s role still creeps into the post-feminist subconscious, researchers say.
According to a Vanderbilt University survey released this month, which polled 407 men and women in Florida, the average person found it easier to pair words like “president” and “executive” with male names and pictures, and words like “assistant” and “aide” with female names.
“The more difficulty a person had in classifying a woman as a leader, the less likely the person was to vote for a woman,” wrote Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, assistant professor and author of the study. “Even when I consider only those who explicitly say that they would support a female candidate, I found that if they have difficulty associating women with leadership attributes, they are less likely to vote for a woman in a noticeable way.”
The study didn’t break the results down by gender.
Perhaps because of this bias, women who run for office tend to have stellar resumes, complete with advanced degrees from the best colleges and universities, have climbed to the highest rung in their respective careers and have received accolades, said Ms. Gutgold. Their qualifications as a leader and as an experienced executive cannot be questioned, she said.
But even then, women voters don’t automatically follow.
In the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, despite being the more established and politically accomplished candidate, Mrs. Clinton lost to then-Sen. Barack Obama, and barely won 50 percent of women voters. She also saw some high-profile female colleagues in the Senate, where she’d served since 2001, endorse Mr. Obama.
Mrs. Fiorina and Mrs. Clinton approach their gender and the campaign differently. The Democrat leaves no doubt she’s running in part to make history, with an explicit appeal to women to help her get there.
Mrs. Fiorina, meanwhile, argues her sex is mostly incidental — though she says it makes her the best foil for the GOP to use against Mrs. Clinton.
According to a YouGov poll taken in March, nine in 10 Democrats are rooting for a female president to be elected in their lifetimes, whereas only a third of Republicans feel that way. In addition, Republican women have a particularly difficult time achieving gender parity in their representation at the primary stage, according to a study of Congress by Political Parity released in January. Female Republican candidates have a harder time raising money, the study showed, noting there’s no Republican counterpart to the Democrat’s Emily’s List to recruit and support potential women candidates.
Still, no matter what their political affiliation, both Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Fiorina have faced some of the same hurdles as female candidates.
This month the conservative online website the Drudge Report ran a banner with a picture of Mrs. Clinton entitled: “Wigged Out: Hillary Gives up Hair Battle.” Mrs. Fiorina has been called out for her “demented” face by the ladies of ABC’s “The View,” and during a press conference was confronted by a reporter for wearing pink nail polish.
A 2010 study showed that any conversation of a woman candidate’s appearance, whether it be positive, negative or neutral, had a detrimental effect on voters’ perceptions that they were in touch, likable, confident, effective and qualified. The same wasn’t true for males: Even if attention was focused on their looks, they didn’t pay any price for it in voter evaluation or choice.
“Women candidates do have higher barriers, more barriers, and voters do judge them differently and sometimes less fairly,” said Adrienne Kimmell, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. “Women are judged on their likability, very much so on their appearance, and those things are discussed and have already been discussed on the 2016 campaign trail.”
Editor's note: Political reporter Kelly Riddell’s husband, Frank Sadler, is the campaign manager for Republican presidential contender Carly Fiorina.
“Women are very hard on other women — they hold each other to a much higher standard.”
— Phyllis Chesler, author of “Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman”