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You've Come A Long Way, Maybe
Sarah, Michelle, Hillary, and the Shaping of the New American Woman
By Leslie Sanchez
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2009 Leslie Sanchez
All rights reserved.
THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTSUITS
SENATOR HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON came into the 2008 presidential campaign as the presumptive Democratic nominee. Indeed, the word most often used to describe her candidacy was "inevitable." It was hers to lose—and she did. The question is, why? And, for the purposes of this book, what can other candidates—especially women—learn from her defeat?
We have much to learn from Clinton, and I'm not the only one who thinks so. As Hilary Rosen, an editor-at-large for the Huffington Post and a frequent CNN political contributor, told me,
I think the evolution of Hillary as a candidate is very instructive and analogous to the evolution of women generally as candidates. When they started the presidential campaign, they thought that Hillary was going to have to establish her credibility as commander in chief—that it would really be her biggest and most consistent hurdle. What they came to understand was that through the course of her normal work Hillary had already established her credentials from a policy perspective. So what people wanted to understand was what the advantages to being a female candidate were—[does she] understand what it feels like for the waitress who is supporting two kids and a mother at home and who has a job that isn't secure with no health care. People were looking to Hillary to be a candidate for women at the outset, when she really wasn't. She was a candidate for women in name only; not in demeanor and policy.
But what does it mean to be a candidate for women in terms of demeanor and policy?
I too learned a great deal from Clinton. I was impressed by her as a savvy political candidate. We can argue over the packaging, but I think she succeeded, as far as the Democrats were concerned, in demonstrating that she was a strong contender who clearly articulated policies about which she was passionate. I didn't agree with most of her positions, and I confess that I was a little chilled by her unemotional delivery.
As I watched her grow as a candidate my appreciation for what she had managed to accomplish increased. In the end, however, it wasn't enough. Despite her advantages real and perceived, the American people rejected her. Her defeat was a stunning collapse. But why? Why was she unable to turn all of her advantages into a nomination for president? Part of the reason was a misguided assumption about how women—women of all ages— would vote.
In June 2007, an ABC News–Washington Post poll had Senator Clinton leading Senator Obama by fifteen points. The poll also showed that her margin was almost entirely attributable to her sizeable lead among women. She was leading by about two-toone among Democratic women. Her base of support was overwhelmingly female and, it now seems, Clinton and her campaign staff took it for granted that almost all women voters would just naturally vote for a woman. According to CNN senior political correspondent Candy Crowley, who covered Clinton's campaign, "it was part of their operating plan. Women were going to vote for Hillary." Could it really have been that cut and dried?
Taking the women's vote for granted was the foundation of Clinton's strategy from the beginning. As reported by Joshua Green of the Atlantic, a March 19, 2007, memo from Clinton's chief strategist Mark Penn said in part: "Our winning strategy builds from a base of women, builds on top of that a lower and middle class constituency, and seeks to minimize [Obama's] advantages with the high class Democrats."
The early data confirmed the apparent wisdom of this strategy. The very poll showing Clinton leading overwhelmingly among women also found that "Clinton is drawing especially strong support from lower-income, lesser-educated women— voters her campaign strategists describe as 'women with needs.' Obama, by contrast, is faring better among highly educated women, who his campaign says are interested in elevating the political discourse."
Still, her lead among likely Democratic primary voters held strong as 2007 went on. A USA Today– Gallup poll conducted in September 2007 put her twenty points ahead of Obama. She led in all regions of the country and was favored by a whopping twenty three points among women (48 percent to Obama's 25 percent).
When you consider all of the factors aligning in Clinton's favor—the pathbreaking nature of her campaign to become the first woman president of the United States, her strong early lead, the data attributing this lead in large measure to support from women voters, and the fact that women make up a majority of Democratic primary voters—her failure to capture the nomination is that much more stunning. And, apparently, it was pretty shocking to her campaign as well.
In Hilary Rosen's analysis, Clinton's campaign "assumed that while Hillary was convincing the men and political elite in this country that she had the commander in chief chops, she could organize a women's camp almost as an adjunct, without having to publicly appeal to women on any level.... But what she wasn't giving them was a spiritual message ... "
And that decision, to run as a potential commander in chief (while it might have seemed intuitive, considering that the country was fighting unpopular wars on two fronts), came back to bite her. Absolutely everything changed on January 3, 2008, when Senator Barack Obama won the Democratic caucuses in Iowa with 38 percent of the vote in what caucus goers in this early state made into a three-way race—former senator John Edwards finmade into a three-way race—former senator John Edwards fin percent finish proved disastrous to her presidential ambitions.
Perhaps most striking is that she lost among women in Iowa. According to CNN entrance polling data, 57 percent of Iowa Democratic caucus goers were women and the majority of them went for Obama. Politico.com's entrance polling found that Clinton won only 30 percent of women to Obama's 33 percent. Clinton lost among other groups as well, of course—men and first-time caucus goers. But most ominous was how her loss among women voters broke down: while she maintained a slight edge among married and older women, Clinton overwhelmingly lost young women. Obama did not just win the youngest voters—though he did so convincingly with 57 percent of their vote—entrance polling had him up among thirty- to forty-four-year-olds as well. Was Obama delivering the "spiritual message" Rosen feels was lacking in Clinton's campaign? Was Obama getting more traction with young voters because, as Dan Gerstein wrote in Forbes magazine in April 2009, it was "a time when young voters in particular are feeling a much more acute sense of insecurity ... 52 percent of respondents reported they were one paycheck away from having to borrow money from their parents or going into credit card debt." Was Obama making his case for his economic plan with more boldness than Clinton at a time when the economy was on everyone's list of top ten worries? And— this is a critical question—if Clinton had recognized and/or acted on what the women in Iowa seemed to be telling her in January, if she had reinvented her campaign at that point, would it have made a difference to the outcome, or was it already too late?
If Clinton had tried to revamp her message, what impact could be expected from the media's response?
It is in the experience of Rachel Sklar, a former political editor at the Huffington Post and a subsequent contributor to The Daily Beast, that the key problem of Clinton's campaign may be revealed. Sklar is a Canadian, and, as she puts it, she came to this country with "no Clinton baggage." But "what veteran reporters tell me is she's pissed a lot of people off.... It wasn't popular to be a fan of Hillary Clinton, especially among the press."
Sklar went on to say, in an interview with National Public Radio's Bob Garfield, concerning the bad blood between the mainstream media and the Clintons: "there's no question that there is history here ... which is basically the default assumption of the media that anytime a Clinton does something, it's usually with ill intent."
It is telling that, in order to counteract negative perceptions of Clinton during her run for the Senate in 2000, she went on a "Listening Tour," ostensibly to hear the concerns of the people in New York. In reality, it was an attempt to soften Clinton's image, to make her "likable."
While this "Listening Tour" apparently made some impact on the citizens—as evidenced by the fact that the people of New York did end up electing her to represent them by a margin of 55 percent to her opponent's 43 percent—the press was not nearly as swayed by the gesture. And this was a phenomenon that continued on into her run for president.
In fact, even the very liberal media, as represented by the talking heads on what we now understand to be the very Obama-friendly MSNBC, were not disposed to like her very much. Keith Olbermann even famously suggested that, to convince Clinton to concede, the Democrats might need to find "somebody who can take her into a room and only he comes out."
Would the press have responded favorably even if Clinton had tried to change her tack in the course of the campaign and started to deliver that softer spiritual message that women were clearly waiting so eagerly to hear? Given the vitriol from Olbermann, I have my doubts.
Even more to the point of this book, I have to ask myself if I remember a male politician who was required to go on any sort of "likability tour" to prove that, in addition to being a tough candidate for commander in chief, he could also be warm and fuzzy. John F. Kerry, who is known for his aloof Ivy League distance, never went on a likability crusade. For better or for worse, the Democrats had selected him as their candidate, and he was allowed to present himself as who he was. Though it did turn out to be for worse—after all, he lost the 2004 election to George Bush—there was never a hint that he should try to change who he was in order to gain the favor of the voters. Even John McCain, whose physical limitations translated to gruffness or crankiness for some voters, was not asked to transform himself into a warm and fuzzy candidate.
As Patti Solis Doyle, Clinton's former campaign manager told me, a number of the male members of Clinton's coterie advised that they "very much ... wanted to see the funny Hillary, the Hillary we know and like.... Their point was, everyone knows she's tough, strong and qualified. Where's the Hillary we all know and like.... We proactively stayed away from branding her the woman candidate. In retrospect, that could have been a mistake." So it's significant to note that it was only the woman candidate whose loss is, at least partially, blamed on the fact that the people just didn't like her enough.
In Iowa, Clinton did not capture the support of young women voters. This age gap, particularly among women, would become a vexing problem for Clinton. In many ways, she had set up her campaign to win a gender war, but she ended up losing a generational one. And it raises questions that are still unanswered: Why did young women feel more of a draw to Obama than to Clinton? Was it purely his message? His issue positions, which were not remarkably different from Clinton's own? Why didn't these young women "take up the fight" that their mothers and grandmothers had started? Why didn't they see themselves as part of it?
As Doyle admits, the Clinton campaign didn't reach out to these younger voters. "Anybody who knows anything about Iowa always says they're going to bring out the young voters. But they are never going to come out, especially during the holidays— school vacations, they're just not going to come out. David Yepson [the chief political correspondent for the Des Moines Register said it. We bought that strategy and focused on the older caucus goer." Part of the reason might be that the managing of Clinton's "likability" backfired with these voters as well. One Democratic strategist lamented: "Hillary became an icon and it hurt her and helped her. Everyone walked around saying, 'She's such a bitch.' They had to soften her image. She should have just been Hillary. The younger generation of voters appreciate the authentic nature of the person who is running."
CNN's Candy Crowley told me that it really struck her on the campaign trail that "younger women felt it was a much bigger deal to vote for a black man" but when it came to the women's movement, they "were unaware that the fight goes on." Certainly Clinton herself tried to remind them that they were women, that they shared the same struggles and, in fact, their progress was a direct result of the battles her generation had fought and won.
Beginning with her own mother, Clinton frequently stumped with much older women by her side, using them as a way to visually underpin the historic nature of her campaign. The accompanying speeches invariably referred to the woman's advanced age—perhaps the Nineteenth Amendment had yet to be passed at the time the particular woman had been born and now, here they all were, less than a hundred years later, at a rally for the first woman candidate with a real possibility of getting the job that, at one time, the woman in question wasn't even enfranchised to vote for. That sort of thing. It was a nice history lesson, but this was a campaign—and campaigns are not a time for history lessons.
Clinton's campaign strategy didn't resonate with younger women. It didn't tap into their collective memory—suffrage had happened long before they were born—and it didn't tap into an emotional reservoir either. It was a bit like asking the average thirty-year-old to make an emotional connection to the moon landing—Neil Armstrong had made a giant leap for mankind, but they'd all read about it in their history books. They hadn't been around to watch the grainy black-and-white live coverage of it on some console TV.
But the sentiment expressed by Crowley—that it was a bigger deal to vote for a black man—was very prevalent, and it was certainly reflected in Obama's vote totals. That the sentiment was unsuccessfully countered seemed like a fundamental failure of both the traditional omen's movement and the Clinton campaign. I can speculate that the reason for these failures went beyond the inability to move young women with a history lesson. Perhaps, like me, they were put off by the brashness and tired agendas of the women's rights advocates. Perhaps they were moving away from the idea of a "fight" and toward the concept of strategic empowerment that is one of the central ideas of this book.
The Clinton campaign had made a conscious decision to base its strategy on the female vote. It wasn't working, but nevertheless they stuck with it. This is a common error in presidential politics, that the strategy for the primary has to be married to the strategy for the general election. The Clinton campaign planned to run against a Republican man and expected to be the beneficiary of the historical gender gap that shows women voting for Democratic candidates in larger numbers.
The campaign had devised a strategy that depended on women as its very foundation but one that ignored, or could not effectively reach, young women. And the young voters—women and men— turned out in droves for Obama.
It seems fair to say that Clinton's people—and even Clinton herself—were totally caught off guard by the one-two punch of Obama's victory and her third-place finish in Iowa.
Clinton's camp tried to downplay the results in Iowa, claiming that she had always intended to focus only on primary states and discounted as unrepresentative of the Iowa Caucus process. But if that's true, it's a ridiculous strategy. Had Clinton put Obama away with an early and convincing win in Iowa, things would have almost certainly gone her way, something liberal reporters eagerly reported. The Atlantic's Joshua Green pointed out,
Even if she was presumed to be the heavy favorite, Clinton needed to win Iowa to maintain the impression of invincibility that she believed was her greatest advantage. And yet Iowa was a vulnerability. Both husband and wife lacked ties there: Bill Clinton had skipped the 1992 caucuses because Iowa's Senator Tom Harkin was running; in 1996, Clinton had run unopposed.
If Clinton didn't care about Iowa, she had a funny way of showing it: by some estimates, Clinton, like Obama, reportedly spent $20 million there.
The loss certainly did a few things. It robbed Clinton of her frontrunner status. Even worse, it hurt her ability to raise funds—already a growing concern. Perhaps most damaging for the long term, it proved that Obama was not just a viable candidate—he was viable in an overwhelmingly white state. People who had thought, "Hey, maybe he can really do this," now were beginning to believe it.
There was a silver lining: the loss in Iowa did allow Clinton to claim "comeback kid" status when she won the New Hampshire primary five days later with 39 percent to Obama's 36 percent. To say New Hampshire was a do-or-die win for Clinton is perhaps an overstatement, but only a slight one. It was a big win—and Clinton's victory in that state had been in doubt even before Obama's Iowa win. As recently as mid-December she had been locked in a dead heat with Obama, each receiving 32 percent of the vote (to Edwards's 18 percent) in a Gallup poll of likely New Hampshire Democratic primary voters.
How much of Clinton's victory in New Hampshire could be attributed to her widely publicized "crying" incident in a Portsmouth coffee shop is debatable. Removed from the sentimental coverage it got in the press, in truth, Clinton never "cried." What she did was get a little misty, welling up with emotion that may or may not have been genuine but sure got a whole lot of airtime. And maybe it did serve to endear her to some people. But to attribute her primary victory to a teary chat with voters is a little too easy—and vastly oversimplified.
Still, another former Democratic White House official perceived it this way:
Excerpted from You've Come A Long Way, Maybe by Leslie Sanchez. Copyright © 2009 Leslie Sanchez. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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